Science and education: Major elements in modernisation bid

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s report on higher education, science and technology policy at the opening session of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party on 16 October has received wider attention and coverage than might be expected.

This is partly because it is not clear whether China will continue to promote a zero-COVID policy, despite the recent stepping up of measures in Beijing, and partly because the changing Sino-United States relationship and geopolitics in the region have affected China’s recent policies relating to higher education, science and technology.

Although it is impossible to predict what the future holds for China’s higher education, science and technology, an analysis of some noteworthy and new policies mentioned in the report may help us better anticipate and understand the direction of future development and change in this area.

Modernisation with Chinese characteristics

Set against the report made by President Xi at the previous national congress in October 2017, the new points outlined in the report can be summarised as follows.

Firstly, the report sets a new goal for the next 100 years, namely: China aims to build a modern socialist power and to comprehensively promote the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation under the banner of Chinese-style modernisation.

According to the report, Chinese-style modernisation should be socialist in character and led by the Chinese Communist Party, taking in common features of modernisation in all countries, but also those with Chinese characteristics based on its own national circumstances.

Further, the report proposes the implementation of a strategy of revitalising China through science and education and strengthening support for those involved in the modernisation process.

This is the first time that the report to the national congress has had a separate chapter on education, science and technology. This is important as it puts education, science and technology and talent development in a more prominent position.

Moreover, the report highlights that knowledge and talent should be respected and that the construction of global talent and innovation centres should be accelerated while China’s independent innovation capabilities should be enhanced.

Reliance on domestic academic system

Notably, while China continues to recruit high-level talent from abroad, mostly overseas Chinese scholars, it seems that China will place more emphasis on fostering high-level talent based in its domestic higher education institutions and research institutes and will rely more on its own academic system.

More importantly, it emphasises that high-level talent attraction in all areas is important for the sake of both the party and the Chinese people.

In addition, the report stresses China’s efforts to build its own national innovation system that can contribute to the achievement of Chinese-style modernisation and also form an open innovation ecology which is globally competitive. There is little doubt that China will continue to strengthen investment in research and development despite its economic situation.

Finally, although the report emphasises the importance of carrying out original and leading scientific and technological research, it also affirms that research should be undertaken by taking national strategic needs into consideration.

Moreover, despite the fact that the report highlights the establishment of an academic system developed for the international community or global scientific community and the importance of international exchange, it places a greater emphasis on the absolute leadership of Marxism, especially the Communist Party of China, and the basic policy of higher education and science and technology development as being in the service of achieving Chinese-style modernisation and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Global exchange vs national innovation

Despite the fact that China has announced that it has realised the goal set at the previous national congress, specifically, the goal of creating a better-off society, there is a need at the domestic level to formulate a more inspiring and ambitious goal to unite the nation and people under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.

The goal of achieving Chinese-style modernisation not only puts Chinese identity in the centre of the frame, but also has a huge appeal to ordinary Chinese people and aims to boost China’s science and technology and global competitiveness.

Moreover, the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in China and the slow progress made in research and development of domestic vaccines have also caused the Chinese government to realise that it needs to further improve the level of scientific and technological development in some key areas.

From an international perspective, the intense relationship between China and the US and other Western countries, and ongoing geopolitical change, especially in relation to the Russia-Ukraine war, have also made China more aware of the need to establish its own independent innovation system to counter sanctions and hostility from Western countries such as the US.

Balance and flexibility

Although it is hard to foresee to what extent these policies can be successfully implemented and whether the goals the party has set itself can be achieved by mid-century, according to the report, it is clear that China will adopt a more balanced and flexible policy towards higher education, science and technology.

No doubt, China will continue to take all steps necessary to maintain the absolute leadership and rule of the Communist Party.

In the meantime, it will, on the one hand, maintain or perhaps strengthen exchanges in higher education, science and technology with developed Western countries with a view to learning from those countries and introducing advanced Western science and technology back home.

On the other hand, China will also make greater efforts to establish a national innovation system and independently train high-potential talent.

Futao Huang is professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan.