China stands as the new global technology and science powerhouse


The People’s Republic of China began its process of liberalization and reforms in 1983 after the death of the Leader Mao Zedong. From 1979 with the “Open Door Policy” of Den Xiaoping, China started a process of liberalization in order to decentralize the control of the Communist Party of China (CCP) and to open trade relations with the rest of the world. This liberal and democratic growth was accompanied by a massive expansion in higher education, especially in science and technology. A Chinese government document released in 1982 declared that “economic development should rely on science and technology and they should be oriented to serving economic development”. Science and technology, after all, constitute the knowledge base for an economic advanced and military global power such as China.

In 1998 the CCP decided to expand China’s higher education system regardless of one’s social origin. In 1993, China’s number of degrees was only 10% that for the United States, but by 2010 China exceeded the United States by 18%. Also doctoral degree showed a positive trend in this period. The economist Freeman, in 2009 predicted that over time the “quality of Chinese education will undoubtedly improve”. In fact, the 13th Five Year-Plan (2016-2020) aims to modernize education in China and China’s National Medium-and Long-term Program for Science and Development has the purpose to make China both a global leader in innovation and science by 2050 and a major centre of innovation by 2020.

China is adopting a particular strategy called indigenous innovation. It consists in the capitalization of home-grown Chinese scientific talent that have been sent out to the best institutes in the world. Two programs were designed to encourage them to return to China. The Changjiang Scholars Program, which began in 1998, first offered to scientists short-term incentives for visiting. Then, in 2008, the government launched the The Recruitment Program of Global Experts with the explicit goal of raiding foreign research institutions for senior-level scientists. They offer high salary, research funds and other benefits in return. The program attracted numerous overseas Chinese scientists back to China and by April 2012, it had brought back 2,263 scientists to work in China. However, the data show not high return rates for China scientific knowledge at least in the short term after students’ PhD graduation.

It is beyond any doubt that China is emerging as a massive science and technology (S&T) powerhouse; a clear indicator of this phenomenon is Chinese spending on research and development (R&D) that is far above the ones either of the United States or the European Union. China’s spending on R&D grew by an average of 18% per year between 2010 and 2015-more than four times faster than US spending.

Some of the most important trends of China’s development in R&D are:

First, for the first time China produces more scientific papers than US and EU according to a statistics fulfilled by the US National Defense Foundation (NSF) in 2016. The study shows that the average annual growth rate in scientific papers from the decade 2003-13 is slightly less than 19% for China, while US and EU had minor contributions. They respectively contribute for the 7% and the 4.9% of world research output. Of course, the quality of research is another matter. The share of Chinese scientific papers measured by number of citations is still below 1 percent in Elsevier’s Scopus database. Nevertheless, the report suggests that US remains a scientific powerhouse, pumping out high-profile research, attracting international students and translating science into valuable intellectual property.

Secondly, China has growing R&D labor force at relative high earnings. Its average growth rate of R&D workforce was 11 percent between 2009 and 2013, compared to 2 percent in the EU (NFS, 2016). The proportion of women among scientists and engineers constituted a higher proportion among engineers in China (25%) than in the United States (13%).

Third, the R&D workforce is a positive sign of the increase in the number of bachelor, master and PhD degrees in sciences and engineering in higher Chinese education. China’s top universities were ranked by the Academic Ranking of World Universities in the first 100 spots in 2016.

However, despite of this positive trends, China’s science also faces potential difficulties due to political interference and scientific fraud. The big question is whether the shift in power to China will dry up the flows of scientific talent from east to west, and challenging scientific collaboration with the west.

The prominent rise of China in scientific and technological sectors is highly likely to influence Western global leaders. Both US and EU fear to lose global leadership in important industries such as computing, robots or biotechnology. On the one hand, US engineering and science workforce consists in large part on migrants, especially from Asia. On the other hand, EU has to face the challenge to keep the best scientific brain inside the Common Area, and at the same time to build an integrated European Research Area (ERA) for removing intra-EU barriers.

US universities import much of their scientific talent from abroad, particularly from China. Chinese students account for 30 percent of foreign students in the US and the trend keep rising. Among PhD students, Chinese students represent by far the largest group of foreign PhD doctor in the US, taking the 29 percent of all PhDs awarded to foreign students in 2013 by US universities. On the contrary, the presence of foreign Phd students in the EU, including Chinese students, is less recorded. In 2007 the EU introduced a new program to support the search of scientists, the European Research Council (ERC) grants. There have been granted 7,000 grants. From this amount, only 8 percent of ERC grants have been awarded to non-EU citizens, only 4 percent to Chinese nationals.

Even if  it is true scientists engaged in international collaboration tend to produce higher quality research, the global patterns of collaboration do not change fast. The US has been the greatest collaborator with China, while this increase is not present for the EU.

The implications for EU are challenging. Over the last decades EU and China have closely collaborate in the field of education and training. Since 2012 the EU-China High Level People-to-People Dialogue (HPPD) became the third pillar of EU-China relations, complementing the other two pillars – the High Level Economic and Trade Dialogue and the High Level Strategic Dialogue. In the fields of research and innovation, following the outcome of the 3rd China-EU High Level Innovation Cooperation Dialogue held on 2 June 2017, both parties agreed to boost researchers’ mobility through Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. They promote intra-mobility of students, researchers and professors. In this context, it is relevant the cooperation under Erasmus + for promoting intra-mobility. Several programs, such as International Credit Mobility (ICM), Erasmus Mundus Joint Degrees (EMJD), Capacity Building for higher education (CB) and Jean Monnet actions (JM), offer both to European and Chinese students a golden opportunity to study abroad.

The European Higher Education strategy was launched in 2013 and it aims to promote mobility and cooperation between universities, EU member states and no-EU countries. Education is at the hearth of the Europe 2020 Strategy since it plays a crucial role in individual and community advancement and in the provision of high skilled human capital for growth and prosperity. Europe remains an attractive destination for international students, nevertheless with the increasing competition from Asia and US it must act strategically for increase its attractiveness, the international mobility of students and staff, the internationalization and improvement of curricula and digital learning and strategic cooperation or partnerships.

Even if Chinese higher education sector is growing rapidly, it encounters difficulties to assure a high quality education in accordance with international minimum standards.

CCP still plays a major role in scientific research. The Ministry of Science and Technology and 985 universities decide what research projects are funded. This leads to misallocation of research funds based on political patronage.

Moreover, scientific corruption and fraud has risen especially related to scientific fabrication, plagiarism and scholarly corruption.

There is a huge gap between top universities and local-regional ones in the quality of education which focus mainly on knowledge acquisition rather than skills and competences development. UC Santa Barbara research found that “the Chinese educational system stifles creativity and the critical thinking necessary to achieve innovative breakthroughs, too often hamstrings researchers with bureaucratic requirements, and rewards quantity over quality”.

International cooperation is a key element for Chinese modernization and it will enable China to build good basis for trust and confidence, which are key factors for overcoming obstacles to mobility and the development of tools for mutual recognition. Nowadays, Science and Technology are important actors in research and China has a long way to go in order to transform itself in a science and technology powerhouse.

By: Giada Bozzelli