Business World, 28 July 2019


[Continued from Part I]

Aside from its share of the global market, the second portent of China’s inevitable rise is the rapid growth of its science and technology (S&T) capabilities. To be sure, China’s S&T is still nowhere as established or prestigious as that of the US or Europe. As proof: there has still been only one entirely home-grown Mainland Chinese Nobel Prize-winner in science — Tu Youyou, a female scientist who established scientifically the effectiveness of a traditional cure for malaria. Significant and helpful but hardly the stuff of cutting-edge innovation.

But competing for strategic and economic dominance does not necessarily require one to accomplish breakthroughs on the commanding heights of science. Instead, one only needs access to the expanding global pool of useful knowledge and to be adept at applying it to commercial (as well as military) ends. For this purpose, it is not Nobel prizewinning scientists one needs but rather many proficient applied scientists and engineers. This is the lesson learned by all industrial latecomers, including Germany and the US itself relative to Britain, Japan relative to the US and Europe, and, more recently, South Korea relative to the US and Japan.

China has been prolific in this regard. In terms of STEM graduates, China overtook the US in producing first-degrees (baccalaureates) in science and engineering (S&E) as early as 2000, then exceeded the totals for eight European countries sometime in 2004. In 2014, China produced 22% of the world’s S&E baccalaureates. Fully 42% of all Chinese baccalaureates are in STEM fields. It is a similar picture for the even more important doctorates: China as a country now produces the largest number of science and engineering PhDs in the world (including Chinese nationals schooled abroad), having overtaken the US in 2007. It is telling that these statistics come from the US’ own National Science Foundation, whose citation of these figures implicitly expresses its own anxiety over China’s rapid catch-up and lead in S&T. The availability of this pool of scientists and engineers is what underpins Huawei’s confidence that it can survive and continue its global 5G rollout despite a US embargo. Shenzhen itself, where Huawei is based, is reminiscent of Silicon Valley, a beehive of start-ups each trying to come up with the next big thing. A large domestic market, combined with technological capacity, gives Chinese entrepreneurs the confidence to experiment and innovate, with the prospect of ultimately attaining the economies of size and scope achieved by Alibaba and Tencent.

Besides achievements with commercial applications, the quality of China’s S&T, though still not at Nobel-winning levels, is nothing to scoff at and by some measures has already caught up. Scientific publications are one indicator. The index compiled by the journal Nature for 2018 (see Table) still shows the US as the top country in terms of contributions to top science journals (equivalent to about 19,600 articles in so-called “fractional counts” or FC). But China is a close second (11,000 articles) outdoing Germany, the UK, and France combined. More ominously, China showed the largest increase in the Nature Index while the US and virtually all other countries (except Australia) showed declines. (For the curious, only Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam even make the list in Southeast Asia.) The top institution producing high-quality scientific articles globally is the Chinese Academy of Sciences, with a fractional count of 1,679 — versus 846 for second-place Harvard. In mathematics and computing, Tsinghua and Harbin Institute outrank Stanford, MIT, and Berkeley in the top one percent of most highly cited scientific papers.

Then there are the obvious publicity-grabbing results, as noted by the London Economist in a survey earlier this year, including such “big-science” feats as the first satellite landing on (and data transmission from) the dark side of the moon, the most powerful supercomputer, the largest radio telescope, audacious experiments in cloning (the latest being on monkeys), and gene-editing (including its unethical first application on human babies), and possibly the world’s largest particle accelerator just to study the Higgs boson.

The US administration has recently sought to curtail this rapid Chinese catch-up by restricting access to its own advanced technology. This explains such measures as the restrictions on sales to Chinese firms like Huawei “for security reasons,” the demand for China to stop compelling tech transfers as a condition for accepting foreign investment, the curtailment of contacts between Chinese and US academics and scientists, and even tighter restrictions on US visas given to Chinese students.

But all this may be too late. There are real signs that Chinese S&T may have — to use a physics simile — “gone critical,” like a nuclear pile capable of a self-sustaining chain reaction. In short, Chinese S&T may be able to subsist on its own, thank you. This does not mean it can produce all the most fundamental results alone — no S&T system can do that. What it does mean is that Chinese scientists and engineers can take publicly available useful knowledge and fundamental results and then quickly adapt these and improve on these to serve their own strategic ends, whether commercial or military. They will also produce their own results which Western scientists will inevitably be interested in knowing (e.g., who would not want access to the world’s largest particle accelerator or fastest supercomputer?) Fundamental science by its nature has an existential drive for publication (and therefore a public character), so it is difficult to prevent basic results from diffusing. The key lies not mainly in knowing fundamental principles — which can be learned from textbooks and journals — but in having the capability to apply them. The latter China can already do. The US attempt to stop Chinese benefiting from Western science may, as Coleridge put it, be as futile as “drawing nectar in a sieve.”

Bottom line: China will be around and in a big way for some time. To the Duterte administration’s credit, it has quickly recognised China’s rise and determined the importance of dealing with it beneficially rather than ignoring it or taking an openly hostile stance. Nor will China’s importance for the Philippines begin and end with Duterte’s presidency. Dealing with a confident and assertive China will be an imperative even, say, under a President Robredo.

The administration’s specific conception of a China strategy, however, leaves much to be desired. Confronted with the reality of Chinese dominance, the only master plan the administration seems able to conceive of is that of the female baboon that presents its red swollen rump to the male’s face. That has yielded neither respect nor benefits. For all that China’s giant middle-class market, abundant capital, and technological prowess could have offered, all the country has gotten thus far under its baboon-strategy is permission to fish in our own shoals and the large-scale, often illegal, employment of Chinese nationals in what is an illegal activity (gambling) in their own country. (A remarkable export of labor rather than capital from a rich to a poor country!)

The realization that China is an economic and military superpower has instilled a natural feeling of awe in our leaders, a quite understandable reaction especially for those with small-town provincial origins. (Not the first time, though: Aguinaldo too was a mayor who failed to fully understand US imperialism and prematurely sought accommodation.) As a smelling salt to regain their consciousness, our leaders perhaps need to remember the words of a lesser-known Chinese poet, who wrote (caesura supplied):

A weak nation can defeat a strong,
A small nation can defeat a big.
The people of a small country
can certainly defeat aggression by a big country,
If only they dare to rise in struggle,
Dare to take up arms and grasp in their own hands
The destiny of their country.
This is a law of history.