China has announced a plan to reorganize its Ministry of Science and Technology in the face of U.S.-led efforts to restrict Beijing’s access to advanced technologies, especially those with potential military applications.
“Facing the severe situation of international scientific and technological competition as well as external containment and suppression, it is necessary to ... accelerate the realization of high-level scientific and technological self-reliance and self-improvement,” said the State Council, China's Cabinet, in a reform plan submitted to the National People's Congress last week according to Reuters.
The announcement came after Chinese President Xi Jinping told the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on March 6 that “Western countries led by the U.S. have implemented comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country's development.”
The U.S. and Lithuania held talks on March 7 to discuss countering China’s influence.
Xi has long urged his nation to strengthen its self-reliance in science and technology and pursue a role as a global tech power. In October 2020, China set a goal to be self-reliant in technology within 15 years.
According to the latest reform plan, the Ministry of Science and Technology will be "slimmed down" and will no longer participate in the review and management of specific scientific research projects. Management responsibilities such as organizing and formulating high-tech development and industrialization plans and policies will be assigned to other ministries and commissions.
The ministry will be given greater say in the use of government science funds to have more control in areas such as optimizing innovation chain management and strengthening macromanagement responsibilities.
The ministry will also set up a new Central Science and Technology Commission led by the Communist Party of China, highlighting the party's leadership in the sector. The committee will report to Xi, while its administrative responsibilities will be assumed by the reorganized Ministry of Science and Technology.
According to a report by an Australian think tank, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Chinese researchers are ahead of their U.S. counterparts in 37 of the 44 technologies it surveyed, including robotics, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, advanced materials and quantum technology.
Quest for self-reliance
Jacob Feldgoise, a data research analyst at the Center for Security and Emerging Technologies at Georgetown University, told VOA Mandarin in an email that the science and technology ministry’s restructuring is a continuation of Beijing’s pursuit of technological self-reliance.
“The Chinese government hopes that by funding basic scientific research into chokepoint technologies, they can spur Chinese scientists to discoveries that make foreign chokepoints obsolete,” he said.
Chinese documents define chokepoint technologies as those made by only a handful of companies in North America, Europe or Japan, according to The Register.
Based on current plans, Beijing will have invested $150 billion in its semiconductor industry from 2014 to 2030 with mixed results. [[
Leading enterprises supported by the government, from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. to Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, have struggled to develop chips after being blacklisted by the United States. Yangtze Memory Technologies Corporation, once China's best hope for making memory chips for smartphones and computers, is also under sanctions and struggling to expand capacity despite receiving infusions of government money.
US thwarting China
The Biden administration has been undercutting China's ambitions with sanctions and by imposing controls such as those announced in October that bar American companies from sending to China equipment and software used to design and manufacture advanced chips.
According to a Wall Street Journal report from March 3, the Biden administration is formulating a new regulation that prohibits U.S. investment in some industries in China to maintain the U.S.’ leading edge. The report did not identify specific technology areas.
U.S. allies have joined the effort to contain the emergence of a self-reliant China. For example, the Dutch government said on March 8 that it would curb chip exports to China and planned to impose new restrictions on the export of state-of-the-art technology needed to carve circuits on advanced chips.
Paul Triolo, senior vice president for China and technology policy at the Albright Stone Group, told VOA Mandarin via email on March 10, “For semiconductors, for example, with dozens of ‘chokepoint’ technologies, it will be very difficult for Chinese companies, even with massive government support, to master all the technologies required to do advanced semiconductor manufacturing. The success of Chinese companies will depend on the degree they can maintain some access to foreign sources of technology, how quickly they can recruit and bring on board skilled engineers, and how rapidly they can innovate and master critical technologies.”
Bill Drexel, a fellow in the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told VOA Mandarin via email on March 10 that while the U.S. export restrictions “create stronger market incentives for Chinese companies to make progress in critical areas … on the whole, I think the measures the U.S. is using will make self-reliance for China very difficult for the next few years — let alone any decisive advantage.”
“I think it will be effective for the next few years,” said Drexel, “but only in areas with real chokepoints in which the U.S. has an advantage. There are also a number of sensitive technology sectors where China has a lead, including some chokepoints of its own, such as rare earth metals. … So, I think it is still too early to tell how the strategy plays out, especially depending on if and how China responds in kind. We’ll have to see.”
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.