The use of science and technology to boost China’s self-reliance has taken centre stage in China’s economic plans – a message reinforced at the country’s key legislative meetings earlier this month – as growth and consumption slow and China’s trade is hampered by United States restrictions on trade, particularly exports of semiconductor chips and other equipment vital for China’s high technology ambitions.
“Scientific and technological policies should aim at building up our country’s strength and self-reliance in science and technology,” Premier Li Keqiang said, delivering his final government work report at the start of the of the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and its advisory body the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) held from 4-11 March in Beijing.
Li, who retired during the NPC session after serving two five-year terms as premier, said: “We should better leverage the role of the government in pooling resources to make key technological breakthroughs.”
He was referring to greater government oversight of research funding decisions unveiled at the ‘two sessions’ – a term commonly used to refer to the legislative meetings.
Li’s report said China would also increase support for basic sciences, strengthen the role of private enterprise “as the primary innovator in science and technology” and facilitate reforms to better train and use scientific talents.
China’s science and technology spending is being increased despite the fact that overall spending has been tightened, reflecting the importance of the sector to the economy.
The leadership is also changing the way big R&D projects are managed.
A revamp of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) is a major plank of the restructuring plan and involves hiving off some of the ministry’s key research-related roles while at the same time centralising party control over big research projects, particularly in areas such as AI and semiconductors to counter US decoupling and export restrictions relating to technologies on which China has relied for its own technology-driven growth.
State Councillor Xiao Jie said the party would establish a new permanent body called the Central Science and Technology Commission that will delegate tasks to the existing MoST.
Though few details have emerged on the new body, its formation will put science and technology at the heart of the government’s economic planning and ensure consistent policies across all government agencies, analysts said.
However, it also effectively puts the Communist Party in charge of research and technology, elevating it to a key national priority, with some suggesting the new commission could be chaired by China’s President Xi Jinping himself.