China Power

China’s Innovation Dream: Mission Impossible?

Chinese innovation will be stifled by political limits and censorship, unless the Party is willing to make a change.

China’s Innovation Dream: Mission Impossible?
Credit: Flickr/ Friends of Europe

The term “innovation” has been a hot word these days in Chinese politics. It was one of the five high-frequency terms used by General Secretary Xi Jinping in his deliberations at this year’s National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (the others were reform, people’s livelihood, ecology, and work style), and Xi went as far as to call China’s dearth of innovation the nation’s “Achilles’ heel.” Such attention reflects the fact that innovation has been deemed the core driver needed to propel the nation’s economy and actualize the “China Dream.”

Indeed, the Chinese leadership has announced big plans and demands related to innovation since the opening of this year’s “two sessions.” While addressing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegates at the NPC, Xi stated that the military’s future hinged on reform and innovation, and urged the military to focus on theoretical innovation in addition to technological innovation. During his May 30 speech at the National Science and Technology Innovation Conference, Xi set the target for the country to become “one of the most innovative countries” by 2020, a leading innovator by 2030, and a global S&T power by 2049.

Premier Li Keqiang has also made clear a different but equally ambitious set of government priorities dependent on innovation. One such plan was announced in Li’s March 5 government work report at the NPC, termed “Internet Plus Government Services.” This framework calls for the utilization of the Internet to upgrade the nature of government services, in order to break through the government’s stifling department-based mentality and boost its efficiency. Of particular note, Li also publicly recognized the relationship between greater autonomy and improved innovation. Following his April 15 visits to Peking University and Tsinghua University, Li spoke at a conference on education reform and innovation. It was there that he advocated for greater autonomy for universities, going so far as to support the repeal of regulations that limit school development and hamper self-governance.

More recently at the May 24 China Big Data Industry and China E-Commerce Innovation and Development Summits in Guiyang City, Li emphasized the role that key frontline technologies such as cloud computing, big data, and the Internet of Things will play in promoting and upgrading traditional industries, which is a core goal of the “Made in China 2025” plan.

To back up the above-mentioned leadership statements, Beijing has evidently put its money where its mouth is. At the current rate of growth of the state R&D budget, Chinese R&D investment may overtake that of the United States around 2022, when projected spending may reach more than $600 billion per year.

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Even so, for China to become a true innovation powerhouse, Western scholars have argued that the country’s education system and global information access will have to open up more and censor less. Critical thinking skills, the ability to challenge conventional wisdom, and greater access to foreign search engines are all important drivers for bottom-up and outside-in based innovation; without such drivers, only a top-down approach can hope to produce results. As stated by Beijing Institute of Technology economics professor Hu Xingdou, “How is it possible for our nation to have prosperous culture and science? If we can’t access Google or other resources on the Internet, it is impossible for us to have a good vision and an open mind, let alone innovation. That’s why China has few great minds.”

Beijing’s consistent attention to and investment in fostering innovation, along with its nascent understanding that autonomy and innovation go hand-in-hand, seem promising. Nevertheless, China’s true innovative potential is unlikely to be fully realized until political limits and censorship are loosened, which seems unlikely for the foreseeable future.

David Gitter is the editor and Great Helmsman of PARTY WATCH, the premier weekly intelligence report on the activities of the Chinese Communist Party.