Envisaging the future of Chinese modernization
Published: Dec 27, 2023 10:10 PM
Scholars discuss the fourth theme of the 2024 Global Times Annual Conference. Photo: GT

Scholars discuss the fourth theme of the 2024 Global Times Annual Conference. Photo: GT

Editor's Note:

The 2024 Global Times Annual Conference, themed "Following the Path of Chinese Modernization, Coping with Changes Unseen in a Century" was held in Beijing on Saturday. To understand the implications of Chinese modernization in this turbulent world and analyze what China can do to stay on this path and overcome various challenges in 2024, the Conference invited over 100 representatives from all walks of life as well as experts and scholars to share their views on four major themes. The following contains excerpts from the fourth theme - "Innovation, technology and humanities: the future of Chinese modernization."

Technology fuels Chinese modernization

Wei Jianguo, former Chinese vice minister of commerce: 

I believe that the Chinese modernization guided by technological innovation in the future is inclusive, which means that we must not only learn from the US, but also learn from Japan, Europe, and other countries. We must also be willing to share our experiences with others. Only by giving full play to our own marginal effects and advantages can we form a super technological innovation for all mankind.

Ni Guangnan, an academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering: 

Building self-reliance and strength in science and technology is key to building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects. Looking around the world, science and technology is the engine that promotes historical progress and is an important guarantee for the sustainable development of human society. Scientific and technological innovation has always provided the most powerful driving force for the prosperity of people all over the world. Currently, in order to further promote Chinese modernization, we must adhere to scientific and technological innovation and persist in talent cultivation. 

Huang Renwei, executive vice dean of the Fudan Institute of Belt and Road and Global Governance:

From a strategic perspective, our technological breakthroughs must grasp China's two major characteristics. First, focus on China's own talent training approach, that is, a large-scale concentrated youth training. Second, highly integrate artificial intelligence with China's human resources. Some people inexplicably claim that there are fewer children in China, then use this to denigrate the Chinese economy. This point of view is outdated. Now we can produce massive robots to replace the labor force. We must further study the impact of AI on China's human resources, including both high-level and low-level human resources.

Cao Heping, an economist at Peking University: China is promoting "new productive forces," that is, promoting productivity mainly by innovative technology. As scholars, we should reach a consensus that in the process of China's transition to the digital economy, although the growth rate of GDP is slightly slower, the change in speed of the national economic system structure is actually very fast. We should build up this confidence. As long as the process of China's economic transition to a modern economic structure is steady, rapid and sustainable, we should keep following our own path.

Shen Yang, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication:

The mentality of being the second and the first are completely different. To be the second, we just need to follow others, but to be the first, the following qualities are required: First, we should not compare ourselves with the US in terms of science and technology. We should have our own direction of scientific and technological development. Second, we should not pursue the whole industry chain. Third, we must alleviate risks. Since China is a country that pursues peace and opposes war, we must at least reduce risks.

Advantages in China's tech innovation

Wei: Currently, China's technology is entering a crucial stage of development. I believe that China's current technological development is in a "sprint" stage. Many countries and regions, including the US, India and Europe are watching us. We are already leading in many technological fields, such as the digital economy. At the same time, we have also shown remarkable performance in institutional innovation.

The key to turning all existing scientific papers into practical applications and bring them to the market lies in our financial innovation. Finance is the "lifeblood" of the market. One crucial reason why the US has succeeded in the field of technology is the investment in innovative projects. Capital investment and venture capital are crucial. Even if nine out of 10 projects fail, as long as one succeeds, it is enough.

China has two significant advantages in technological innovation: talent and market. In the future, the world's technology center will shift, and China is moving "upward."

Huang: With a population of over 1.4 billion, China should have the most outstanding talents in the world. We have the most abundant talent resources. The key now is how to make good use of these talent resources. If we do this well, we can achieve sustainable innovation.

Lü Benfu, a professor from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences: 

We have many advantages in terms of innovation. However, China still needs to strengthen its weaknesses in mechanisms for scientific research and achievement transformation, innovation ecology and original innovation.

Innovation from zero to one relies on business model promotion, as discovering new "blue oceans" often requires entrepreneurs to explore. Innovation from one to N driven by technology is called iterative innovation, which also requires large enterprises to quickly transform technology into business achievements.

Relations between technological innovation and development

Lü: Turning the invested money into scientific papers is called research and development, and then turning the "paper" into "money" and actual production ability is called transformation. The combination of the two is innovation. Innovation is a process from zero to one and from one to N. The driving force includes technology promotion and business promotion.

Technology innovation, such as quantum computing and AI, is triggered by the innovation of low-level technology.

The innovation from zero to one is called "blue ocean innovation," which is often conducted by companies. We call the innovation from one to N "iterative innovation," for instance, the development of iPhones from iPhone 1 to 14. At present, except for a few domestic companies that can engage in iterative innovation, most lack the ability to quickly transform technology into commercial results. 

In addition, there are disruptive innovations in the market. For example, the Xiaomi smartphones used to sell for 5,000 yuan but now they sell for 2,500 yuan. The company targets customers in the rural areas first and then urban customers. This method is also adopted by Pinduoduo, a Chinese online shopping giant. We have demographic dividends. 

In terms of disruptive and iterative innovations, we still have challenges, especially when it comes to making greater efforts in iterative innovation. 

Shen: Technology is not just a matter of technology. China has an important advantage. The number of science and engineering graduates is already equal to that of several countries in the world combined. I think we have no shortage of capital and equipment, so how do we cultivate top talents? How to provide entrepreneurs, especially innovators, with a good return mechanism?

The US has done a better job in this regard. We must also improve our institutional design. After the institutional design is completed, China's local innovation and entrepreneurship will reach a higher level.

And how do we make our science and engineering graduates become top innovators? This goes back to education. We need to keep talents active in thinking. 

To summarize, the first thing is to cultivate top talents, and the second thing is to have a good mechanism for technology and finance to collaborate with each other.

Shrinking technology gap

Huang: Currently, the US is still the global tech hub and it is trying to prevent China from becoming the next global tech hub. The US has taken measures to prevent China from using American technology, restricted the flow of American funds into the Chinese technology sector, and prohibited American talent from serving in the Chinese technology sector. Therefore, it can be said that China is facing a very fierce "tech war." 

But in reality, China has broken the US blockade in certain technological areas, and has achieved breakthroughs. In areas such as new-energy vehicles, clean energy and rare earth materials, China has a significant market share globally, which are resources contested in the "tech war."

The US, supposing that it can block China, has overrated the impact of its strategy of "small yard, high fence" in the field of science and technology.

Chinese technology can achieve breakthroughs through its market share in China and the world. I divide the world market into three categories: developed markets, Chinese markets and other developing markets. By building its own "small yard, high fence," the US will ultimately lose at least the markets of China and most other developing countries. 

Cao: In terms of integrating technological innovation into industries, China is not inferior to the US. But in terms of innovative mentality, we are currently relatively weak. Technological innovation cannot be achieved without modernizing people's thinking. To boost economic development, there must be mechanisms to attract talent. And to achieve innovative mechanisms, we must be open-minded. 

Dou Dejing, adjunct professor at Tsinghua University's Electronic Engineering Department:

The level of technological innovation should be assessed from both scientific and technological aspects. Currently, compared with the US, which is the world leader in science, China still has a long way to go in terms of reaching breakthrough achievements, Nobel Prizes, or publishing research results on top journals and top conferences. However, China's performance in technology is impressive, especially in technologies that relate to the daily lives of ordinary people. For example, with WeChat and Alipay, China has done better than the US. 

Shen: I have a proposal. When talking about technological innovation, we should not always focus on Americans. Instead, we should return to the fundamental needs of the Chinese people, as the fundamental needs of the Chinese people are the source of Chinese innovation. For example, Chinese people hope to combine their traditions, spirit of the times and emerging technologies in education to create the best education in the world. They also hope to have better medical conditions for healthcare. Only by achieving these ultimate conditions can our innovation be admired by people all over the world. 

AI development and regulation

Dou: First, I don't think it is necessary to slow down the development of AI. Second, in terms of security issues, such as the rapid development of operating systems, there is much vulnerability, but we can remain cautious and optimistic about this.

Shen: Regarding the development and regulation of future AI, I would like to discuss the following points: First, philosophically, we believe in the unity of heaven, humans, and AI. Second, when using AI, it depends on the country that runs the fastest, so it's not about rushing to achieve something. When others develop quickly, we need to keep up in a timely manner. If we don't keep up, all aspects will be constrained. Third, looking at the development of human society as a whole, human nature is a constant. However, specific variables must serve as constants. I think we should promote this concept and match it with corresponding social rules. For example, if a large number of people become unemployed due to AI, we need to have a social safety net to compensate for those that have been affected by AI.

Cao: Will digital technology and high-tech create or eliminate more jobs? Years of empirical data have shown that if it is technology- and knowledge-intensive, it will create more jobs than it eliminates. "So what we need to do is transform and train the workforce, provide transitional compensation, cultivate new skills and provide corresponding financial support, rather than slow down or stop the transformation of the economic structure."