Innovation in China: From an Achilles Heel to its Economic Pegasus!

Hussein Askary, Vice-Chairman of the Belt and Road Institute in Sweden

A shorter version of this article was published in China Daily!

In a speech delivered to the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee on October 29, 2015, President Xi Jinping said: “Innovative development focuses on the drivers of growth. Our ability to innovate is inadequate. Our science and technology are not fully developed and are unable to create momentum to support economic and social development. This is the Achilles heel for such a big economy as China.”

Several years later, with hard work and massive investments in education and research and development by the government and corporations (private and state-owned), China has become a world leader in innovation and patent registrations.

Already in 2021, China became the absolute world leader in the filing of new patents. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), China’s intellectual property office received 1.59 million patent applications (out of the total 3.4 million filed worldwide in 2021), which meant that China filed more than the combined total of the next 12 offices of other nations ranked from second to 13th. China was followed by the offices of the U.S., Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the European Patent Office. China kept its lead in both 2022 and 2023.

In terms of innovation China ranked 12th in the upper income nations Global Innovation Index 2023, being the only middle-income country to compete in this category. China ranked as number one among the middle-income nations. In 2023, for the first time, China topped the list of countries with the highest number of science and technology clusters among the top 100, having 24 in total. The United States followed with 21 clusters, then Germany with nine.

China is now a leader in many cutting-edge technologies such as big data, AI, fintech, fifth generation of telecommunications (5G), electric and autonomous vehicles, robots, and drones. It is also one of the world’s largest investors in and users of these digital technologies. With a strong venture capital industry focusing on fostering advanced digital technologies and innovations, China is home to one third of the world’s unicorns (defined as a start-up company with a value of over USD $1 billion).

So, heeding the words of President Xi, innovation became the Pegasus that carried China towards modernisation rather than becoming its Achilles heel.

How does that help the world?

China’s unique economic and strategic philosophy of win-win cooperation, which is the opposite of the dominant Western zero-sum game where “the winner takes it all”, is based on sharing the fruits of its modernisation and innovation. Through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has been involved in technology transfer to now more than 150 nations that have joined the BRI. China is the world leader in innovation in railway construction, ports, bridges, tunnelling, and other heavy construction technologies. This has enabled it to build some of the best infrastructure in the developing sector, such as the first Indonesian high-speed railway, the China-Laos high speed railway, the Lekki deep seaport in Nigeria, and the magnificent Pelješac Bridge in Croatia just to mention a few of the latest examples of advancing connectivity in the world.

Through its development of clean technologies, China’s companies are helping many nations with the green transition through clean technologies, including non-BRI nations in the European Union. Electric vehicles, windmills, solar panels, and critical minerals used in clean technology and digital industries in the U.S. and the EU are imported from China which has become the absolute world leader in this field.

The Modernization of Africa

China, which has become a leader in space exploration, is helping many nations place earth-observing and telecommunications satellites in orbit and has invited all nations to benefit from its space program for research. Interestingly, a report by the United States Institute of Peace published in September 2023, stated that Beijing has made support for the development of African nations’ space programs a key incentive for the continent to form closer ties with China. “By contrast”, it added “although US federal agencies and universities are actively involved in research partnerships with some African countries, space technology has not been a focus of US foreign policy in Africa.”

Speaking at the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue on Aug. 24, 2023 in Johannesburg, President Xi made the following commitments for advancing modernization in Africa:

  • Launched the Initiative on Supporting Africa’s Industrialization for growing its manufacturing sector and realizing industrialization and economic diversification.
  • Launch the Plan for China Supporting Africa’s Agricultural Modernization, expanding grain plantation, encouraging Chinese companies to increase agricultural investment in Africa, and enhance cooperation with Africa on seed and other areas of agriculture technology to support Africa in transforming and upgrading its agricultural sector and achieve self-sufficiency.
  • Launching the Plan for China-Africa Cooperation on Talent Development, to train 500 principals and high-calibre teachers of vocational colleges every year, and 10,000 technical personnel with both Chinese language and vocational skills for Africa. Launching the China-Africa Universities 100 Cooperation Plan and 10 pilot exchange programs of China-Africa partner institutes.”

All these cooperation plans are not charities or aid programs, but true win-win strategies of mutual and equitable growth and development. It is time for the world to embrace such a philosophy for the benefit of all and for the advancement of human civilization with innovation as its guiding principle.

Related Items:

Why is China Ahead? Look at the Economic Thought, Not Only the Numbers!