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Chinese president Xi seeks innovation independence

‘Self-innovation is the only way for us to climb the world's technological peaks’

Chinese president Xi Jinping has given a major speech on the country’s science and technology agenda, and signalled that China will innovate for itself rather than source technology from the rest of the world.

Xi’s speech to the 19th Academician Meeting of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the 14th Academician Meeting of the Chinese Academy of Engineering saw the president say “To achieve the great goal of building a socialist modernized nation and realize the Chinese dream of a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must have strong scientific and technological strength and innovation capabilities.”

But not many paragraphs later he criticised the current state of Chinese innovation, saying “enterprises do not pay enough attention to basic research, major original results are lacking, the underlying basic technology, basic process capability is insufficient” and naming “high-end chips, basic hardware and software, development platform, basic algorithms” as areas in which China lacks local capacity.

He also criticised links between research and industry, and links between innovation policy and economic policy.

Xi went on to say that “If China is to flourish and rejuvenate, it must vigorously develop science and technology and strive to become the world's major scientific center and innovative highland.”

“Self-reliance is the basis for the struggle of the Chinese nation to stand on its own footing in the world,” he added.

Xi’s keen on China improving its own technology because he believes “The world is entering a period of economic development led by the information industry. We must grasp the opportunities for the development of digital, networked, and intelligent integration and use information and intelligence as levers to cultivate new momentum.”

He then articulated some of the goals of China’s Internet Plus policy, that aims to “promote the deep integration of the Internet, big data, and artificial intelligence with the real economy to make the digital economy bigger and stronger.”

Doing so, Xi said, will evolve and protect China’s manufacturing industries even as the nation’s economy moves more towards services.

Xi’s speech has already been published as a book, a sign that the president-for-life’s utterances should be considered policy and guiding principle, rather than just stirring words at a big event. The president’s calls “to strengthen the national strategic scientific and technological forces and enhance the overall effectiveness of the national innovation system” will therefore be taken very seriously. Xi also called for more science to flow from China’s military to civilians.

He also signalled private enterprise must have a role in those changes, quoting Engels and calling for businesses to do more research and expressing a desire for China to foster “a group of innovative leading companies with outstanding core technological capabilities and integrated innovation capabilities.”

Xi’s remarks are fascinating because in recent years China has only permitted western technology companies access to its markets through local partners, while fostering giant local concerns like Huawei, Tencent and Alibaba. Chinese firms have also become some of the biggest contributors to open source projects: The Register has heard OpenStack referred to half-jokingly as ChinaStack. Whether building on tech derived from foreign innovation is true to Xi’s plans is not clear. It is, however, utterly apparent that China wants to grow more of its own tech and to reap the rewards of that with a stronger economy and society. ®

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