FOR hou jianguo his fellow scientists call him “the genius of small things“His first job was repairing small machines at a factory in Pingtan, a fishing village in southern China. With what he saved for three years, he paid forChemical at the University. Then he devoted himself to researching the nanomaterials. He was attracted to everything that was tiny: atoms, molecules, subatomic particles…
But Hou made the leap into politics and left it all behind. He worked his way up among the more than 95 million members of the ruling communist party. They placed him at the head of the largest technological university in the country and later Deputy Minister of Science and Technology. Three years ago, the Government entrusted him with the mission of supervising a team of 70,000 researchers, the best in each area, and gave him a budget of US$15.2 billion to develop everything from quantum computers to hypersonic missiles.
Hou (63 years old) is now the head of the largest research institute in the world: the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS, by its acronym in English). Under his tutelage are five universities and more than a hundred of the most advanced technological and scientific research institutions in the Asian giant. And from the world. A few days ago, a report Australian Institute of Strategic Policy (ASPI), renowned think tank based in Canberra, which has already analyzed nearly two and a half million published academic articles, pointed out that China already dominates the critical technologies for the future, above the United States.
To mention China in this report is to do so in the gigantic technology laboratory run by Hou Jianguothe star institution that appears most often in the results and is at the forefront of technologies that will promote, according to ASPI, innovation, growth and military power in the coming decades, including artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, electricity, batteries, advanced radio frequency communications, such as 5G and 6G, and quantum technology.
The second world power is leader in 37 of the top 44 technologies tracked. The report notes that the US ranks first on the podium only in the remaining seven technologies: vaccines, quantum computing and space launch systems. “Our investigation reveals that China has built the bases to position itself as the greatest scientific and technological superpower in the world. It has established a sometimes surprising lead in high-impact research in the most critical and emerging technology domains,” the report says.
“The critical technology tracker shows that for some technologies, the top 10 research institutions in the world are headquartered in China and collectively generate nine times more high-impact research papers than the second-ranked country,” he continues. After China and the US, the UK and India are the next research powerhouses.
Last year, another report published by the Ministry of Science and Technology of Japan already placed China above the US as a world leader both in scientific research results and in studies of what it called high impact. Beijing, according to this report, publishes an annual average of 407,181 scientific articles, representing 23.4% of production world search.
“China now leads the world in producing high-quality science. This has US policy experts and Washington officials worried about how China’s scientific supremacy will change the global balance of power,” said Carolina Wagner, a researcher at Ohio University who has spent years tracking Chinese government investments in science, technology and innovation.
“Today, the Chinese ranks second after the US in terms of spending on science and technology,” emphasizes Wagner. “During the period 1996-2020, spending on R&D in China grew by far: 2,992%. About 20% of research funding comes from the government and companies represent 76% -the majority is also controlled by the Executive-, while the investment that comes from abroad is minimal, just 0.1%”, points out another study by think tank Dutch Rathenau Institute.
American researcher Wagner also notes that Chinese universities now produce the highest number of engineering doctorates in the world. “In addition, since the year 2000, China has sent around 5.2 million students and academics to study abroad. Most of them studied science or engineering. Many of these students have stayed abroad, but an increasing number are returning to China to work in well-resourced labs.”
Beijing has also recruited some of the world’s best minds in the latest technologies, indicating that it will be able to dominate global supply chains in certain critical areas that will give it much more leverage. This is what the ASPI report also points out: “We see that China’s efforts are reinforced by the importation of talent and knowledge: one fifth of its high impact articles are written by researchers with postgraduate training in a country of five eyes (referring to the intelligence alliance formed by US, Australia, UK, New Zealand and Canada)”.
In view of the report submitted by the think tank Australian and funded by the US Department of State, is the Australian analyst Jamei Gaid, specialist in software development. “In some of these technologies, we’re seeing that China is publishing about 65% of the top research in the world. All of that still does not translate into technological superioritybut Beijing has built the foundations to position itself as the leading global science and technology power”, says Gaid.
The report reiterates that CAS is the main source of technological innovation for the Asian giant. This state-owned research institution, which also acts as the Government’s main advisory body on any reform related to science or technology, opened its doors in 1949, practically at the same time as Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing.
Hou Jianguo and his team’s central hideout is in a block of gray buildings north of Beijing. With the exception of some guided tours in which they invited the press to a specific presentation, the walls of this institution are impassable for foreign journalists. For the past three years, the excuse for not giving interviews has been the pandemic restrictions. Now that China has thrown off the yoke of lockdown policy, they don’t respond directly to requests.
The magazine Nature highlights in an article that CAS began to gain strength as a leader in regional development with the manufacture of the first synthetic insulin of bovine origin (1965), the construction of the Beijing’s first particle accelerator (1984) and the discovery of high-temperature iron-based superconductors (2008).
After President Xi Jinping was pushed to the top of the Communist Party (2012), the scientific institution began to rival, or even surpass, the US when it built the world’s first quantum satellite, the largest hypersonic wind tunnel, the fastest supercomputer and the most powerful radio telescope. “China’s leadership is the product of deliberate design and long-term political planning,” Gaid said.
The nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the world rolled out of CAS designs last year. It was a demonstration of strength and technological advancement by Beijing that surprised the intelligence agencies of other countries.
“This institution is behind the new push that Beijing wants to give to the defendant semiconductor industry, especially now that the blows in the form of sanctions against this sector by the United States do not stop. Some companies this week on the Washington blacklist originate from CAS, which is now working to develop advanced chips without using US technology,” he explains. Jason Mingengineer at the Beijing-based Semiconductor Institute, also affiliated with academia.
In recent weeks, with substantial support and funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology, AI specialists linked to CAS have been working to launch a chatbot developed with advanced chat features similar to ChatGPT, trained by the Californian company OpenAI. Beijing does not want to be left behind in this technology. It remains to be seen how it will introduce it into a cyberspace dominated by censorship.