For China, investing in indigenous development of space tech as well as more general science and technology (S&T) has been a priority issue for a couple of decades now. Self-reliance in S&T implies assuming leadership positions, which, as per President Xi Jinping in a speech given in 2021 to China’s elite Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the National Congress of the China Association for Science and Technology, is China’s key strategic goal for the next two decades. The key aspect of this shift in prioritization is the critical strategic contribution that S&T brings to national development. In fact, Xi has made it clear that S&T is now a “core” interest for China, for which there will be no compromise.
This shift occurred during the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2017 and was reiterated in the 20th National Congress held in October of this year. Some of the areas identified as “core” now by the CCP are quantum information, stem cell research, brain science, lunar and Mars missions, artificial intelligence, satellite internet, and robotics. Reflecting back on the 20th National Congress, key S&T priority areas will guide China’s development for the next two decades.
Upgrading Space, S&T Within the CCP Organizational Structure
This is one of the most insightful developments in the organizational structure of the CCP. Critically, the Central Committee of the CCP, which has 205 members, now includes 29 new members with science and technology backgrounds. Appointing space scientists and those with engineering backgrounds to central party membership as well as leadership of critical Chinese provinces demonstrates the emphasis on a technical background under Xi’s leadership.
Six Politburo members have science and technology backgrounds, ranging from space science to nuclear energy. Amongst the most notable are Xinjiang Party Secretary Ma Xingrui, and Zhejiang Party Secretary Yuan Jiajun, who were aerospace leaders steering China’s space program before their political appointments.
Ma was vice president of the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST), and was the chief engineer for the Shijian 5 satellite project. Ma went on to become the deputy general manager of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), as well as director of the State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, under which falls the China National Space Administration (CNSA). He was also a member of the Central Military Commission.
Yuan Jiajun, a graduate of the Beijing Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was the vice president of CASC, and former president of CAST. Yuan contributed to China’s Chang’e lunar mission, China’s first re-entry space module, and pushed for partnership with Russia in regard to China’s Mars mission.
Another aerospace veteran, Jin Zhuanglong, now heads the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which directs and formulates China’s industrial policy. Jin formerly served as deputy director of the Office of the Central Military Civilian Integration Development Commission and was deputy general manager of CASC. Critically, Jin was commmander-in-chief of the C919 project, China’s first indigenous passenger plane project. In 2004, he was appointed secretary general of the Commission for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense and served as deputy director of the CNSA.
Another notable name from the CCP Central Committee is Zhang Hongwen, former vice governor of Anhui province who also worked at China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.
This trend indicates the rapid upward mobility of those with education in technical fields and who have served in China’s aerospace sector. In fact, those with substantial aerospace experience have been rewarded with provincial leadership positions as well as elite appointments to the highest decision-making bodies of the CCP, including the Politburo and the Central Committee. It is the first time in CCP history that two members of the Politburo have an aerospace background.
STEM, Space Innovation Tied to Chinese Leadership
The promotion of Politburo and Central Committee members with science and technology, space, military science, and nuclear energy backgrounds are clear signals to the world that developing China’s science and technology industrial base is a key political priority for the CCP. One can estimate this shift from the amount of money China spends on S&T research and development (R&D), the number and quality of peer reviewed articles being published, and the growing budget for China’s civilian and commercial space programs.
According to a National Science Foundation (NSF) report from April 2022, while the United States remains the global leader in R&D spending ($708 billion in 2020), China’s R&D spending was not far behind, reaching $526 billion in 2020. As per the NSF report, “the average annual rate of increase in China’s R&D total (10.6% from 2010–19) continues to greatly exceed that of the United States (5.6%).” This surge in funding is geared towards meeting China’s Innovation Strategy, directed by its “Made in China 2025” strategy.
Data compiled by Japan’s National Institute of Science and Technology Policy discovered that China leads the field in terms of the most cited science papers (27.2 percent) compared to the U.S. (24.9 percent) in 2018, 2019, and 2020. In the period 2018 to 2020, China overtook the U.S. in the number of peer reviewed scientific papers published in scientific journal articles annually (407,181 compared to 293,434). While some tend to question the quality of these Chinese publications, their dissent appears more opinionated than factually based, and perhaps underestimates China’s growing science capabilities.
China is also quickly becoming a leader in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Ph.D.s as per data compiled by the Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technologies. The center’s report, titled “China is Fast Outpacing U.S. STEM PhD Growth,” indicates that from being behind the U.S. in 2000 – with Chinese universities granting 9,098 STEM Ph.D.s compared to the United States’ 18,209 that year – China overtook the U.S. a decade later, granting 34,801 STEM Ph.D.s compared to U.S. universities granting 26,076 in 2010. In 2019, Chinese universities granted 49,448 STEM Ph.D.s compared to U.S. universities producing 33,759. The report suggests that by 2025, China will have double the number of STEM Ph.D. graduates of the United States.
It is clear that under Xi’s leadership, China’s innovation in space and S&T is a core national strategy goal. Xi’s stress on building the education and research foundation for long-term Chinese leadership in space and S&T – and his decision to reward those with aerospace/science backgrounds with top level CCP leadership positions – demonstrate a country that takes the development of indigenous strategic technologies seriously.
In 2016, Xi equated the spirit of aerospace to the spirit of Mao Zedong’s Long March. China’s development of its S&T and space sectors indicates that under Xi’s leadership, China aspires to dominate in this field in the next two decades and establish its leadership in the frontier of technology and innovation. That is what national rejuvenation is about.