February 9, 2006

Space Power China Seeks Further Scientific Prowess

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING -- China, one of only three countries to put a man in space, announced a strategy to raise its scientific prowess on Thursday as top leaders, nearly all engineers, attempt to push it to the forefront of technology.

The "National Medium and Long-Term Science and Technology Development Plan Outline" was issued by the State Council, or cabinet, demanding that by 2020, spending on research and development reach 2.5 percent of gross domestic product.

The plan calls for additional spending in 16 key areas, including software and semiconductors, telecommunications, nuclear power, genetically modified crops and space exploration.

"By 2020, the general goal for our country's science and technology development is to dramatically strengthen homegrown innovation capacity," the plan said, according to Xinhua news agency.

"The overall strength of basic science and cutting-edge research will dramatically rise, achieving a clutch of successes that have major worldwide impact."

In 2005, China devoted about 1.23 percent of economic activity to R&D, but developed countries spent much more, said Zhou Jizhong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Science who has advised the government on policy.

"China scored some successes in applied research, but basic science research is far from international levels in many fields," Zhou said.

"But the key is going to be whether China can improve commercial applications of R&D. If we can't, then we may be trapped in low-return manufacturing and never escape."


President Hu Jintao, a hydro-engineer trained at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University, has identified science as a focus of the next five-year development plan.

China must pour more resources into scientific breakthroughs or risk being left a weakling in global technological upheavals, he said at a national conference in early January.

"Only by truly making science and technology a strategic development priority, really pushing ourselves to catch up, can we grasp the first opportunity and win the initiative in development," he said, according to Xinhua.

An Asian diplomat familiar with China's plans said the leadership was especially anxious for China to claim its first Nobel Prize.

Chinese universities and colleges graduated 817,000 science and engineering students in 2003, according to the Ministry of Science and Technology -- about eight times the U.S. number -- and a drumbeat of claims about China's technological savvy has stirred anxiety in Washington.

In his State of the Union address, U.S. President George Bush promised to improve education and technological skills.

But Zhou, the science expert, said China's impressive numbers hid long-standing weaknesses in teaching methods and applying discoveries. He said the most important factor would be how China's businesses, which spend relatively little on R&D, responded to the national call.

"The government will be issuing more detail plans for commercial R&D incentives, but the question will be how businesses respond," he said.

China last year completed its second manned space mission and plans to put three men into space within the next two years as it looks ahead to an orbiting space station and a mission to the moon.