Top Chinese Uni fears Middle Kingdom way behind on tech – and US sanctions make catching up hard

Opinion so controversial the Party may have had it pulled


A report from a major Chinese research university has asserted that China currently trails the US's technological prowess, and that progress towards matching its rival will be slowed by the current "decoupling" of the two nations. That opinion appears to have proven so controversial that the research paper expressing it has been taken down by the the institution that published the document, possibly after pressure from on high.

The report came from the Peking University Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS) and was curated by Wang Jisi, a dean and professor at IISS with the help of doctoral students and research assistants. It focuses on three fields: information technology, artificial intelligence and aerospace.

The Register was able to find an archive of the document and it pulls few punches. It notes China's enormous scientific and technological progress in recent years, but asserts the US will remain the world's leading power in both fields.

The report states that current tensions between the two nations – which have seen the US cut off access to some tech – hurt both the US and China. But the authors assert China suffers more as it loses access to technologies it either does not possess, or does not execute well.

One example offered is China's dependence on imported chips for radio frequency applications – an obvious bottleneck given China's plan for pervasive 5G to create vast industrial networks that improve industry efficiency.

Other areas cited where the US exceled within IT were OS kernels and most industrial software.

The document also observes that China's enormous funding of key research has narrowed the competition between the two countries, and that China competes as an equal in some fields and leads in a "very small number."

It reports that China has reduced the gap with the US in terms of the numbers of scientific publications, financial investment in research and development and setting international technical standards. It also finds that China leads in number of R&D personnel and patent applications.

But in the US, quality was held to be higher.

In their consideration of the US's sanctions on China, the authors did not shy from noting their effectiveness – as demonstrated by Huawei's difficulties. But the document also suggests the US's actions are not all motivated by national security concerns.

"The United States has used network and data security as an excuse to suppress Chinese companies such as Huawei and to exaggerate the Chinese threat on a global scale, making it more difficult for relevant international cooperation, and created a trend of politicization," Wang and crew write.

As for AI, China is reportedly lagging in terms of computing power and algorithms, however China leads at big data. Ultimately, "the US has a clear advantage in original, groundbreaking research," according to the authors.

And in aerospace, the report indicates the US is "absolutely leading" in space transport, human spaceflight, satellite navigation, space comms, and deep space exploration. China is considered a second-tier player in space.

As for civil aviation, "which relies on market players and obeys business logic," the reports finds that "China's disadvantages are extremely obvious."

Steven Okun, senior advisor at McLarty Associates, told The Register "China has many advantages when it comes to key 21st century technologies such as AI – 1.4 billion users and immense engineering talent. But US leadership on foundational technology such as semiconductors provides an edge even in these sectors."

Okun said the potential for a reverse Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) – a brewing potential US government review process for outbound US investment and offshoring to China and other places – would "further maintain that imbalance, albeit with other costs to be borne elsewhere."

But while Okun feels positively about China's tech talent pipeline, the report doesn't paint a rosy picture of it; not at making integrated circuits, operating systems and industrial software, nor AI.

The report reveals that of the Chinese students who study AI in the US, almost 90 per cent stay there and just ten per cent return to China.

The report concludes that China should encourage academic exchanges and international cooperation, continue to invest in R&D, and build a talent pipeline as to avoid further widening competitive gaps – and be poised for a dominant position in emerging fields.

However, China appears to be growing more insular. Its borders remain shut, and it seeks technological autonomy while pursuing a zero-COVID strategy – a strategy that research firm Forrester said initially benefitted the Middle Kingdom but will eventually slow growth in new phases of the pandemic.

As for the article's mysterious disappearance from the IISS website, theories The Register has encountered suggest the document was considered an unpatriotic dampener on the Chinese New Year festivities that followed just days after its release. Or maybe Beijing saw it as insufficiently patriotic reading before the imminent Winter-Olympics.

The paper's frank disclosure of weaknesses that rivals could exploit is seen as another reason for suppressing the study, as is the fact it doesn't fully support the Party line that China's doing great at most things.

What is certain is that Beijing won't explain its actions. ®

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