In official party terminology, the term “key core technologies” refers to all existing or emerging technologies that promise critical strategic advantages to nations that control their production, distribution, or use. The phrase is used most often when Party leaders and state planning documents discuss technologies that Chinese firms lack the ability to manufacture, or that they can only manufacture by relying on foreign suppliers for parts or expertise. The term is intended as a call to action. When a Chinese leader identifies a specific field or product as a “key core technology” he is urging cadres, scientists, and industrialists to build the academic, financial, industrial, or legal infrastructure China needs to engineer this technology with Chinese resources alone.
The phrase key core technologies first appeared in mid-2010s, but its antecedents predate Xi Jinping. Economic planning and science policy documents produced by the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government in the early 2000s reference “core technologies in key areas” [关键领域核心技术]. The “National Medium and Long-term Science and Technology Development Plan Outline,” a communique published by the State Council in 2006, provides a typical example. The communique argues that “in key areas related to the lifeline of the national economy and national security, real core technologies cannot be bought.” (State Council 2006). The communique presents the indigenous development of these “core technologies” as a prerequisite for sovereign control of Chinese economic development. To secure Chinese economic growth on the long run, the communique directs officials to build a National Innovation System [国家创新体系] focused on achieving Chinese self-sufficiency in eleven “important fields and priority topics,” eight “cutting-edge fields,” and four “fields of basic research,” including renewable energy, materials science, and protein research.
These documents largely operate in a market-friendly frame. The core technologies in key fields were presented as essential to the modernization of the Chinese economy. Chinese firms would learn to engineer these technologies not by isolating themselves from the global economy, but by integrating with it. This reflected the consensus of the times: China faced a rare PERIOD OF STRATEGIC OPPORTUNITY where foreign capital and know-how could safely serve the REJUVENATION OF THE CHINESE NATION.
This consensus eroded in the 2010s. Over this decade Chinese science and technology policy became more ambitious, more security-oriented, and more state-directed. These changes are reflected in the highest level guidance offered by Xi Jinping. Indigenous innovation is a central component of his NEW DEVELOPMENT CONCEPT [新发展理念], a framework for reorienting Chinese economic planning towards what Xi Jinping calls “high quality development.” During the reform era Chinese economic growth was largely driven by investments in fixed assets and cheap foreign exports. Xi’s New Development Concept, in contrast, calls for a growth model anchored in high end manufacturing at the edge of the technological frontier.
Under the aegis of the NEW DEVELOPMENT CONCEPT the phrase “key core technologies” entered top-level economic planning documents. The State Council published an “Innovation-Driven Development Strategy Outline” in 2016 which highlighted China’s inability to produce several key core technologies:
We must also note that certain industries in our country are still at the mid- and low-end of the global value chain, and certain key core technologies are under others’ control. Developed countries still have a clear lead in [advancing] the scientific frontier and high-tech fields (State Council 2016, emphasis added).
To mitigate China’s relative weakness in the global value chain, the outline proposes a three-stage plan: first, the Chinese state must construct a functioning national innovation system and a MODERATELY PROSPEROUS SOCIETY by 2020; then, it must achieve a leading position in the global science and technology ecosystem by 2030; finally, it must become a “strong techno-scientific power” and achieve NATIONAL REJUVENATION by 2050.
The outline provides specific directions for which fields of technology must see progress, and by which dates progress must be made. The list is a useful portrait of what sort of technologies are considered “key” and “core.” By 2020, the outline instructs, the Chinese party-state must construct national research-industrial complexes for:
- High-end general-purpose chips
- High-end CNC machine tools
- Integrated circuit equipment
- Broadband mobile communications
- Oil and gas field technology
- Nuclear power
- Water pollution control
- Genetically modified crops
- New pharmaceutical drugs
- Infectious disease prevention and control.
By 2030 the same should be accomplished for:
- Aero-engine and gas turbines
- Quantum communications
- Novel information network technology
- Intelligent manufacturing and robotics
- Deep space and deep-sea exploration
- Materials science
- Emerging energy sources
- Brain science
- Medical systems and care (State Council 2016).
While many of these technologies have military applications, the drive to establish “technological self-sufficiency and self-empowerment” [科技自立自强] in these fields has more to do with economic security than military power. Dependence on foreign technology meant that China’s future economic growth might be held hostage by HOSTILE FORCES outside of China. These fears were soon vindicated by American export controls. Beijing could no longer trust that it would have access to key technologies on the global marketplace. If China was to successfully construct a NEW DEVELOPMENT PATTERN that relied on Chinese resources to power Chinese growth, then China must possess the ability to produce cutting edge innovations independent of the West. “Breakthroughs in key core technologies,” Xi Jinping concluded in 2020, are a “significant question” in the success or failure of “our state’s development pattern and the key to forming [a development pattern] with our domestic large-scale cycle [of goods and services] as the mainstay [of our economy]” (People’s Daily 2020).
Assessing the progress of this program is difficult. After the key core technologies schema was codified in the Fourteenth Five Year Plan in 2020, China’s central government ministries and provincial governments began publishing lists of research complexes and megaprojects that they have funded to accelerate technological self-sufficiency. Economists who have studied these lists note that funding is concentrated in sectors where Chinese firms currently have competitive advantages or where there are reasonable prospects of developing such an advantage on the short term. In other words, investment is being channeled technologies that where Chinese firms have the potential to leap-frog over current market leaders, allowing China to pass developed nations “on the curve” [弯道超车] (Naughton et al 2023). However, these efforts are tied to benchmarks that lie many years in the future. Their success or failure may not be apparent for years to come.
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