Beijing to sharpen country’s R&D focus

a man sitting on a stage in front of a computer: China’s total public and private sector spending on hi-tech research and development reached a record high of US$324 billion last year. Photo: AP

China’s total public and private sector spending on hi-tech research and development reached a record high of US$324 billion last year. Photo: AP

Hello, this is Bien Perez from the South China Morning Post’s Technology desk, with a wrap of our leading stories this week.

Amid rising tensions with Washington, Beijing has had to downplay some of the country’s technological catch-up efforts, such as the “Made in China 2025” policy road map. Sensing a threat to US global hi-tech dominance, the Trump administration had seized on the plan as an example of what it sees as unfair state intervention in China’s economy.

In reality, however, China’s pace of hi-tech initiatives has not slowed down. The country’s spending on research and development broke a record last year, reaching 2.2 trillion yuan (US$324 billion), according to data released in August by three Chinese government agencies, covering the private and public sectors. That represented 2.23 per cent of China’s gross domestic product – another record high.

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Earlier this year, Beijing introduced a US$1.4 trillion new tech infrastructure investment plan for developments ranging from 5G and artificial intelligence to autonomous driving.

Following that plan, the Ministry of Science and Technology has rene wed its commitment to look carefully at how the work of researchers is evaluated.

The goal is to ensure the focus is on projects that “achieve real performance”, as opposed to just counting the number of research papers published.

That forms part of China’s broader effort to close its hi-tech gap with the US and reduce dependence on imported technology. Measures to revise the evaluation of researchers started in 2018, part of a push to address a “paper-only” mindset, and cover other criteria, such as academic titles, degrees attained and awards.

China looks beyond GDP growth rate as Beijing outlines five-year plan and 2035 vision

While some progress has been made in how research work gets evaluated in China, awards are still being granted to some scientists for having their papers accepted and published by influential journals, according to Zhang Yewen, a professor of electrical engineering at Tongji University in Shanghai.

“If you don’t refer to any of the four criteria, including which journal someone is published in, how can you evaluate their work,” said Zhang, acknowledging that this state of affairs cannot be reformed completely.

“These judgments can only be made within a very small scientific circle and the public might not be aware of how we do this.”

The urgency of tackling that issue in hi-tech research and development has intensified amid the ongoing tech and trade war between the US and China. Washington has already put many major Chinese enterprises on its trade blacklist, known as the Entity List, that is under the US Department of Commerce.

“For research not focused on the ‘here and now’ but instead on future issues that require a long course of work and accumulation, a liberal system is better,” said Tongji University’s Zhang, who cautioned that China’s collective approach to scientific development does not always work.

Although the share of research and development in the country’s total economic output reached a record high last year, the level remains behind that of the US, Japan, South Korea and advanced European countries, according to the joint report released in August by the National Bureau of Statistics, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Finance.

In May, China’s central government said it will reduce spending on science and technology by 9 per cent this year, as the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic forced the unprecedented cut.

But local governments will increase their investment to ensure growth in overall public expenditure on research and development of more than 3 per cent, according to the national budget proposal submitted by the Finance Ministry in May to the nation’s lawmakers.

Chinese companies ramp up basic R&D spending as US tech decoupling looms: report

Hit video game Genshin Impact slammed for censorship

Chinese-developed video game Genshin Impact has been called out by Western gamers for censoring words, including “Taiwan” and “Hong Kong”, in the hit action role-playing game’s chat function.

The controversy started on the game’s subreddit – a dedicated forum on website Reddit – then spilled over to other social media after well-known Twitch streamer Kazuma Hashimoto, also known as justicekazzy, posted a clip showing how the fantasy adventure game automatically turns a sensitive word into a string of asterisks when typed in its chat box.

“Due to Genshin Impact censoring the words Taiwan and Hong Kong in the in-game chat, I will no longer be posting about the game,” Hashimoto, who is based in Germany, wrote on his Twitter account.

Shanghai-based miHoYo, developer of Genshin Impact, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the chat-filtering issue.

a group of people in costumes: Genshin Impact has a fairy tale-like anime visual style. Photo: Handout

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Genshin Impact has a fairy tale-like anime visual style. Photo: Handout

That issue may have put a blemish on what has been a historic launch for Genshin Impact, available on multiple platforms that include Microsoft Windows-based personal computers, Sony Corp’s PlayStation 4, Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Released on September 28, Genshin Impact had the biggest international launch of any Chinese video game in history, according to industry analysts.

Censorship of certain words and topics, however, has been standard practice for any Western or Chinese game operating in the country.

“Although there isn’t an official list of banned words … most companies share essentially the same list,” said Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst at gaming consultancy Niko Partners. He suggested that boycotts of Genshin Impact are likely to remain limited.

A possible path for Huawei to survive US sanctions

Analyst Kuo Ming-chi has become famous over the years for his mostly accurate predictions about product development at Apple. But in his latest report for TF International Securities, Kuo suggests a possible scenario for Huawei Technologies to survive US trade restrictions.

He said Huawei could consider selling its Honor budget smartphone business, but other industry analysts are sceptical about the Chinese telecommunications giant pursuing such a strategy.

“If Honor is independent from Huawei, its sourcing will no longer be subject to the US ban on Huawei, which will help Honor’s smartphone business and the suppliers,” said Kuo. He indicated that such a move could enable Honor to pursue development of higher end models and better compete against the likes of Xiaomi Corp.

graphical user interface: Honor, a budget smartphone brand owned by Huawei Technologies, unveils a new device at an event in London in May of last year. Photo: Reuters

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Honor, a budget smartphone brand owned by Huawei Technologies, unveils a new device at an event in London in May of last year. Photo: Reuters

Huawei did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Founded in 2013, Honor has helped Huawei overtake Apple and Samsung Electronics in sales at home and abroad by offering trendy smartphones, with an average selling price of between US$150 to US$220, to young consumers.

Shenzhen-based Huawei has been one of the major casualties of rising US-China tensions. Tighter US restrictions imposed this year – covering access to chips developed or produced using US technology, from anywhere – has threatened the company’s smartphone operations.

Huawei says it has enough chips for equipment businesses but not for its smartphones

Still, any move by Huawei to sell off Honor is not expected to directly benefit the company amid ongoing US-China trade tensions.

“Even if Honor becomes a separate business, that doesn’t guarantee that it won’t get caught up in the trade war later,” said Bryan Ma, vice-president of client devices research at IDC.

Honor accounted for 28 per cent of Huawei’s total smartphone shipments in the first half of this year, according to IDC.

No Chinese company is expected to consider buying Honor, according to Linda Sui, director of smartphone research at Strategy Analytics. “It’s a hot potato,” she said. “It will create big trouble for whoever takes it over.”

And that is all for this week. Until next time.

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