A contribution by Marjorie Michaud,
3rd-year student in ESSCA’s Bachelor in International Business Development:
« My career project is in international trade, but I have a keen interest in science. »

For years, China and the United States have been fighting to become the world’s biggest economy. However, this « soft war » goes beyond the economic. The People’s Republic openly plans to become the world’s leading superpower within 30 years.

Science is one of the areas in which China wants to become a world leader, and the country is already emerging as a global scientific superpower. The race for new scientific discoveries could be really decisive for the future of these two countries and their global influence. The stake of this battle is highly strategic and could make the difference between the World’s two biggest economies.

25 years ago, China’s economy was tiny and its high-tech sector barely existed. Since then, the situation has evolved significantly. Knowing that science and technology are at the basis of economically advanced societies, China absolutely wanted to become a world leader in this field.

Globally, China has become the second largest investor in research and development with 21% of the world’s research budget. Only the United States is in a better position with a market share of 26%. However, if current trends are confirmed, China could quickly take the first place. Indeed, over the last two decades, China’s research budget has grown at an average annual rate of 18%. Meanwhile, the United States recorded an average rate of “only” 4% per year, starting, of course, from a much higher level. Clearly, China makes a real effort to become an innovative and scientific leader, and these efforts are made in diverse scientific sectors.

First of all, in the Biotech sector, the United States and Europe dominate but China is fighting to find its place. As an illustration, we recently heard a lot about a spectacular experiment in China made by a young scientific researcher Hé Jiankui from Shenzhen University. Just before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong (held from 27 to 29 November 2018), this scientist claimed a major breakthrough with two recently born twins. What makes them special is that their genome was modified when they were still in embryo state. These genetically modified babies constitute a first world-wide. Hé Jiankui did a gene surgery in order to prevent HIV infection because the father was carrying this virus and thought he could never have healthy children. But after scientific tests, the genomes of the two girls looked perfectly healthy, said Hé Jiankui. However, this controversial experiment was condemned by the biggest part of the scientific community because of its ethical aspects – particularly knowing that the embryos were healthy, which made this experiment not justified medically.

The creator, on the contrary, thinks families need this technology and could be developed as simply as IVF – In Vitro Fertilisation – was over the last decades. He said it was actually simply an advancement of IVF. The aim here is not to design a baby but to prevent from a disease: it makes all the difference according to Hé Jiankui. One thing that is certain is that this scientific experience has made the world talk a lot on China’s advances in Biotech.

China is also determined to dominate other scientific and technical sectors mainly in new industries such as artificial intelligence, telecommunications and computing. In order to face the “Data giants”, the so-called GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft), China is investing a lot in Artificial Intelligence and wants to become the leader in this area by 2025. China understood that it is really important to remain at the forefront of technology to remain independent in terms of AI and to face these « technological elites » which could dominate the world if no one moves.

Moreover, the world’s most populous country is home to some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs in the world. We can take the example of the Chinese startup “SenseTime” specialised in artificial vision, which is now the most profitable one in this area in the world. The Artificial Intelligence in China is used in many areas : in companies to read the emotions of employees, in schools to manage the students’ behaviour, in shops to understand the desire of customers or even by the police as a tool to make facial monitoring and recognition. To go further, China will directly use this technical and technological revolution in a forthcoming social revolution. By 2020, the Chinese government is reported to intend setting up a « social credit system”. This project consists in massively collecting the digital data of its citizens in order to give them a “grade” assessing the degree to which they are trustworthy. Everything that happens on phones and computers will be collected and evaluated to give each citizen a score publicly accessible. This score, aiming to increase the degree of morality may affect the daily life of Chinese people and provide the government with unprecedented control mechanisms.

So, well beyond copying Western techniques and far from being only the “workshop of the world”, China is achieving prowess in scientific areas as biotech or Artificial Intelligence but also in many other scientific and technical fields like in robotics, military technologies or aerospace.

China has made impressive progress and is now able to compete with the greatest. And of course, I think that being a leader in scientific and technical fields could support the country in its quest of leadership on a larger scale. As the Chinese president Xi Jinping said, it could help China to become « a mighty force » that would lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues.

In this way, the rapid progress of China makes me think that this country could be one of the leaders in the world. However, the term “global leader” seems to me very optimistic. Indeed, China still shows weaknesses and the current US president – Donald Trump – with the trade war he declared, appears to be determined not to let China become a hegemonic power.


(Pictures from unsplash.com)

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