China’s rapid tech-rise over the past 70 years

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/23 18:28:40 Last Updated: 2019/9/25 23:21:09

Transition from small player to world leader supported by numerous achievements and global firsts

The Chinese flag, seen on a building in the city center of Shenzhen, South China's Guangdong Province, during a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Monday Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

Over the past 70 years, China's science and technology industry has undergone an extraordinary path of development. Starting from scratch, the country has shown the world an example of how a backward player can grow into a world leader in the technology sector.

With its heavy investment in research and development, China is now not only getting closer to the technological frontier in conventional areas such as electronics, machinery and automobiles, but is also driving technological innovations in emerging areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, space technology and e-commerce.

The following data and information provide evidence to the rise of China's technological capabilities thus far.

Graphics: GT

The total number of research and development (R&D) personnel in China ranks first in the world, as China pursues its policy that talent is the foundation of sci-tech innovation. In 2018, the total number of full-time R&D personnel in China reached 4.19 million, 6.2 times of that of 1991, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). 

In 2013, the total number of researchers in China surpassed that of the US, a country which is commonly recognized as the world's technology front-runner. China has since then, for six consecutive years, ranked first in the world for its number of researchers.

For the eighth consecutive year in 2018, the number of applications for intellectual property rights in China ranked first globally. In 2018, 4.32 million patent applications were made - 86 times more than in 1991 - and 2.45 million patents were granted - 98 times the number in 1991.

Accordingly, China has become a major global originator of intellectual property. By the end of 2018, the world's highest number of invention patent applications were made in China for the eighth consecutive year; the number of international patent applications submitted through the patent cooperation treaty (PCT) ranked second in the world; the number of trademark registration applications reached 7.37 million; the number of copyright registrations exceeded 3.46 million; the number of production registrations reached 2.35 million; and computer software registrations reached 1.05 million.

Government support for R&D has continued to increase. In 2017, it allocated 838.36 billion yuan ($118.18 billion) for science and technology R&D, 130 times what was spent in 1980, with an average annual growth rate of 14.1 percent from 1981 to 2017. 

China's investment in R&D has continued to grow rapidly, reaching 1.97 trillion yuan in 2018, 138 times 1991's figure. The average annual growth rate from 1992 to 2018 was 20 percent, exceeding the annualized growth rate of GDP calculated at current prices in the same period, according to a July NBS report.

Funding for basic research in 2018 was 111.8 billion yuan, 62 times that of 1995, with an average annual growth rate of 19.6 percent from 1996 to 2018.

By the end of 2018, there were 501 key laboratories, 132 national engineering research centers and 217 national engineering laboratories in operation.

Achievements and breakthroughs

A series of policies released by the central government to guide and encourage enterprises to increase investment in R&D have allowed China to grow from a backward player to a leader in the high-tech sector, while also achieving many breakthroughs over the past 70 years.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, China has launched the Tiangong space laboratory and the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft, and the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System has begun to form a global network.

The fourth generation of stealth fighters and large surface vessels has surpassed the international advanced level and has been put into service. China has also made remarkable achievements in the fields of jumbo domestic aircraft, high-speed railways, third-generation nuclear generators and new-energy vehicles.

China launched its Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS), nicknamed "Micius," on August 16, 2016. It was the world's first project of its kind.

The Chinese supercomputer Sunway TaihuLight was the first in the world to achieve a processing capacity of over 100 petaFLOPS per second in 2016.

Jiaolong, China's manned deep-sea submersible, in 2012 successfully completed the world's first 7,000-meter dive into the western Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, the deepest known natural trench on Earth.

China has filed 54,000 patent applications for satellite navigations in 2018, ranking first in the world.

China launched the world's largest number of space rockets in 2018, according to the MIT Technology Review.

In January 2019, China's Chang'e-4 probe successfully made the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the Moon, in the South Pole-Aitken basin.

China's Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) is at present the world's largest single-dish radio telescope.

Even more breakthroughs are in the making, as innovation in science and technology has become a new driver of China's development and economic growth. With the deepening of the "Internet Plus" initiative, new products, forms of business, and models based on the mobile internet and the Internet of Things (IoT) have flourished, providing strong support for China to transform and upgrade traditional industries. 

The application of big data and cloud computing continues to deepen, and the new generation of information technology represented by 5G is becoming practical, giving birth to a large number of big data enterprises, unicorns and gazelles. 

China has built a large number of high and new-technology industry development zones to boost innovation. The number of high-tech zones has grown from 27 in 1990 to 168 in 2018, and the number of enterprises in the zones has increased from 1,600 to 117,000.


A vivid example of China's tech rise is the development of Shenzhen, which evolved from a small fishing village in South China to a tech powerhouse that is becoming not only a domestic leader, but a leader internationally.

The city is leading the world in the new energy vehicle (NEV) industry and its application, a spokesperson from Shenzhen-based NEV maker BYD told the Global Times. 

In 2010, Shenzhen was the first city in the world to put pure electric buses into the market, and all its own buses became electric in 2017. 

In 2018, taxies in Shenzhen also became electric. 

In terms of NEV sales, BYD has topped the global market for four consecutive years, with leading shares in multiple markets. BYD has sold its products to over 300 cities in more than 50 countries and regions. The firm accounts for over 60 percent of shares in the UK's pure electric bus market and, specifically, for 80 percent in London. 

As China's experimental zone of its reform and opening-up, Shenzhen's willingness of ground-breaking new policies and industries has also cultivated the rise of cutting-edge industries such as genetics, and industry giants like the BGI Group.

According to a statement that the BGI Group sent to the Global Times, the company has broken the US' monopoly in the independent research and development of genetic sequencing upstream tools, and is now one of only three companies globally that can independently develop and produce clinical, high-throughput gene sequencers in large quantities.

Companies located in the city believe there is another golden era ahead, following the central government's release of a document aiming to build Shenzhen into a pilot demonstration area of socialism with Chinese characteristics, as well as the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area plan.

In the fields of medical device manufacturing, bio-pharmaceuticals, third-party testing services and medical big data, a number of world-leading enterprises have already emerged in the Greater Bay Area. 

In addition, the complete supportive sectors and mature, high-end industrial clusters in the region will also benefit the integral development of companies in the area, BGI Group said.

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