Speaking at a conference held by two of China’s top research institutes, President Xi Jinping advocated for a new era of Chinese innovation. “We cannot always dress up our tomorrow in other peoples’ yesterdays,” Xi told 1,300 researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering. “We cannot always rely on others’ science and technology to raise our own technological level.” The full Chinese-language speech was the featured headline on Xinhua’s website Monday.
Making sure that there would be no misunderstanding, Xi emphasized that the future of China’s science and technology industries should be “innovation, innovation, and innovation.” To nurture innovation, Xi called for a national system to encourage creativity, including more resources for science and technology development and the removal of systemic obstacles. The impetus for the push was apparent in Xi’s call for Chinese scientists to “take key technologies into our own hands.”
Early in his speech, Xi made it clear that China must become a “technologically strong country” in order to complete the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He compared the current period to China’s historical period of suffering — a time when China’s lack of technological prowess caused great anguish for the Chinese people. Based on that experience, Xi declared that “science is the foundation for a country’s prosperity.” Science, he said, will determine the fate of all countries and all peoples.
In part, Xi’s call for more innovation is strategic. China firmly believes that it cannot guarantee cyber security as long as it is dependent on foreign technology. Thus, in the wake of revelations about extensive cyber espionage by the NSA, China has made a concerted push for domestically created technology to replace Western products.
Also, Xi sees greater innovation as one part of China’s economic rebalancing. China cannot continue on its old, investment-heavy economic path, and instead needs to create a new model where China is the source of global technological innovations. Xi also argued that innovation is crucial to China’s future ability to sustain its large population given a finite amount of natural resources.
Yet from Xi’s speech it’s also apparent that he places great symbolic value on China becoming a leading innovator. Xi references China’s “four great inventions” (paper, gunpowder, printing, and the compass) and laments the fact that China lost its status as the world’s great inventor when later dynasties chose to shut out the outside world. For Xi, a return to Chinese innovation is just not a strategic necessity, but an important part of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” New technology, Xi says, achieves three goals at once: providing a lasting basis for economic growth, making “historic contributions” to China’s national security, and helping China to become a globally influential country.