Friday, December 20, 2013

China innovates

J-31 Prototype
I am posting my article entitled Chinese innovations published in the Indian Defence Review (Vol 28 (4) - Oct-Dec 2103)
The Chinese Dream
A few months ago, The People's Daily provided some details on the Chinese Dream, so dear to President Xi Jinping. The mouthpiece of the Communist Party first explains why a Dream: “The concept of Chinese dream has been widely spread for some time. In the context of weak economic recovery, complicated security situation and accelerated adjustment of international order, the world needs dreams indeed. ”
But who is this Dream for?
Beijing answers that it is for peace, for the world: “The Chinese dream is a dream for peace. Adhering to the peaceful development is China’s choice of the times. China stands for peace settlement for global disputes and issues and the new security concept of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equal and cooperation. The country strives for development under peaceful global circumstance and promotes world peace by self-development. China has actively participated in the dialogue and cooperation for international security. It has contributed to world peace.”
But there is more to the Chinese Dream: “The Chinese dream is a dream for cooperation. The interrelation and interdependency of countries have deepened largely, and cooperation and mutual benefits have become a common view. ”
The new Chinese president Xi Jinping dreams of Harmony for China and the rest of the world: “The Chinese dream is a dream for harmony …the Chinese dream belongs to the world.”
Well, it is unfortunate that recent events on the ground do not reflect these high philosophical objectives. The South China Sea, the East China Sea as well as for the Himalayan borders between India and China, (whether it is in Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal or Arunachal Pradesh), have only witnessed tensions, not harmony.

The Chinese Dream passes through an Innovative China
It is certain that India has to learn something from China in terms of ‘dreaming’. But first Delhi should realize the true objective behind the Chinese Dream which is to make of China a dominant, self-reliant superpower.
Very early in its history, the Chinese Communist leadership realized that the great renaissance of the Chinese nation was dependent on ‘innovation with Chinese characteristics’. Beijing has now taken decisive actions to remedy some of the nation deficiencies in this field. India has not yet.
On June 22, 2013, The South China Morning Post affirmed that “China's top science advisers have listed 19 projects as the research priorities of the next decade. They include quantum telecommunications and a high-performance jet engine that could drastically improve the capacity of its indigenous fighter jets. ”
According to the Hong Kong newspaper, the report was prepared by more than 200 experts associated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It was a road map for breaking into the US dominance in domains as diverse as military, space, new materials, energy or agriculture.
Though not all the projects have a direct military implication, ultimately, ALL the projects will help the progress of the Chinese indigenous technology and most of them, will have a dual use.
The South China Morning Post mentioned: “The most eye-catching one is a new jet engine that promises to deliver thrust equivalent to 15 times its own weight. The thrust-to-weight ratio is a key indicator to measure a jet engine's performance. In comparison, the Pratt & Whitney F119 turbofan engine used in the United States' F-22 raptor fighter has a thrust-to-weight ratio of eight and is widely considered one of the most advanced jet engines today.”
This particular field is usually considered to be the weakest in China's aviation sector. Beijing has had to rely on foreign imports (mainly from Russia) for its fighter jets. Even China’s purported heavy-hacking activities have not so far been able to reduce the dependence on the Russian technology.
Of course, the Chinese plans for the new proposed engine have triggered wide-spread skepticism, but the point is that China has the political will and the economic means to jump into such innovative adventures.
The Chinese Dream goes hand in hand with military modernization. It is not new, but in the recent years and months it has been taken up by the new leadership in Beijing with a renewed vigour

The History of the Chinese ‘Innovations’

Following the ‘Two Weapons, and One Satellite’ program included in the science and technology development plan for 1956-1967, China took the decision to overcome deficiencies in areas critical to its national security and in March 1986, initiated the National High Technology Program (known as Program 863 – for 1986/03).
Program 863 was launched to promote China’s high-tech development in key areas such as information technology, biology, aeronautics, automation, energy, materials and oceanography.
Government institutes, university research labs and state-owned company R&D departments were all asked to participate in Program 863; the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) was the main recipient of the 863 funds.
According to a Chinese official document: “In 1983 the United States put forward the Strategic Defence Initiative (i. e. the Star Wars Initiative), then came the EURICA of Europe, …which are all strategic plans aimed at the 21st century. The implementation of those plans has created impacts on the great development of high technologies in the world. ”
It was enough to convince the Communist leadership in Beijing to undertake a similar ‘indigenous program’, especially after four top scientists, Wang Daheng, Wang Ganchang, Yang Jiachi and Chen Fanyun submitted, in March 1986, a letter to leadership in which they suggested that China should adopt appropriate countermeasures to catch up with the development of high technologies in view of the impacts on China of recent world advancements in the fields of high technologies.
Deng Xiaoping immediately instructed the government “Quick decision should be made on this matter without any delay”.
It was done. The 863 Program with the objectives: “to combine military use with civil use, with stress on the latter and limit objectives and concentrate on focal points”, was soon included in the Ninth Five-year Plan.
Fifteen years later, another landmark document was published, “The National Medium- and Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology (2006-2020)”, is also known as the MLP.
The MLP describes itself as the ‘grand blueprint of science and technology development’ to bring about the ‘great renaissance of the Chinese nation’.
The preamble calls for the Chinese people to “seize the opportunities and meet the challenges brought by the new science and technology revolution …despite the size of our economy, our country is not an economic power, primarily because of our weak innovative capacity.”
An excellent report China’s Drive for Indigenous Innovation prepared by James McGregor for the Global Regulatory Cooperation Project of the US Chamber of Commerce, says: “The MLP blueprint is full of grand visions, good intentions and gilded rhetoric about international cooperation and friendship. …It also sets goals for expanded cooperation with foreign universities, research centers and corporate R&D centers. ”
The MLP defines indigenous innovation as “enhancing original innovation through co-innovation and re-innovation based on the assimilation of imported technologies.”
What ‘assimilation’ and ‘re-innovation’ means is well-known from those who deal with China; “Importing technology without ‘transforming it into Chinese technology’ is not acceptable to China anymore”, the report states. “One should be clearly aware that the importation of technologies without emphasizing the assimilation, absorption and re-innovation is bound to weaken the nation’s indigenous research and development capacity, ” adds the MLP.
The plan is often considered by many international technology companies to be a blueprint for technology theft on a scale the world has never seen before. That is not true innovation, but re-innovation.

A few innovations
When President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came into office in March 2003 as PRC’s President and Premier of the State Council respectively, innovation in science and technology was at the top of their minds, particularly as Beijing was to be the center of the world for the 2008 Olympics.
Apart from the launch of Shenzhou V, its first manned spacecraft and a first home grown Chinese microprocessor (with the capacity to process 200 million instructions per second, proudly fulfilling a nearly two decade-long national goal) invented by Chen Jin, a 35-year-old Fujian native with a University of Texas PhD working at Shanghai Jiaotong University, there was little innovation in China in 2003.
At the same time, the US employed some 62,500 Chinese-born science and engineering PhDs. Mainland natives were heading many American research labs and university departments; further most of the 60,000 Chinese students living in the US, had been granted residence permits by President George Bush in 1990 in the aftermath of Tiananmen events.
Interestingly, the ruling 9-member politburo standing committee was composed of 8 engineers and one hydrologist; they could therefore grasp the importance of ‘innovation’.
McGregor explains: “With the rallying cry of ‘innovation’, Premier Wen in mid-2003 used his position as head of the Leading Group on Science, Technology, and Education to bring together the two heavyweights of science and technology in China – CAS and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) – to coordinate an old fashioned Soviet ‘big push’ style campaign. ”
Nature magazine had a special issue (Fall 2004) with a collection of essays from prominent Chinese scientists also criticizing the draft plan for giving bureaucrats of the Ministry of Sciences and Technology (MOST) too much power over scientists. They believed that if megaprojects should remain the central focus, money was bound to be allocated to mediocre projects, based on ‘connections’, a well-known Chinese disease.
It was suggested that the power of MOST over research funding should be reduced, and perhaps the ministry should be disbanded altogether.

Assimilating and Absorbing
The idea of Megaprojects for ‘Assimilating and Absorbing’ technology was mooted. It was an import substitution action plan in order to create Chinese indigenous innovations through ‘co-innovation’ and ‘re-innovation’ of foreign technologies.
The megaprojects have an objective of ‘assimilating and absorbing’ advanced technologies imported from outside China to help the country to ‘develop a range of major equipment and key products that possess proprietary intellectual property rights’. The MLP speaks of ‘major carriers of uplifting indigenous innovation capacity’.
While the MLP identified the goals and specific sectors in which government innovation was of strategic importance, the 11th Five-Year Plan issued in December 2007 formally detailed the 16 megaprojects. While 13 were listed, 3 remained classified .
Michael Raska, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS), quotes Prof. Tai Ming Cheung, a leading scholar on China’s defense industries at the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California San Diego, suggesting that the three military megaprojects were :
  • Shenguang Laser Project for Inertial Confinement Fusion:
  • The Shenguang (Divine Light) laser project explores the inertial confinement fusion (ICF) as an alternative approach to attain inertial fusion energy (IFE) – a controllable, sustained nuclear fusion reaction aided by an array of high-powered lasers;
  • Second Generation Beidou Satellite Navigation System
  • According to Jane’s magazine, by the end of 2012, China had 16 operational Beidou satellites in orbit – six geostationary satellites, five Medium Earth Orbit spacecraft, and five satellites in Inclined Geo-Stationary Orbits covering the Asia-Pacific region. By 2020, Beidou 2 envisions a full-scale system of at least five geostationary and 30 non-geostationary satellites providing a global coverage;
  • Hypersonic Vehicle Technology Project:
  • Available data show that China has started developing conceptual and experimental hypersonic flight vehicle technologies such as hypersonic cruise vehicles (HCV) capable of maneuvering at Mach 5 speeds (6,150+ km/h), flying in near-space altitudes.  
Michael Raska says: “Taken together, China’s long-term strategic military programs are deeply embedded in China’s advancing civilian science and technology base, which in turn is increasingly linked to global commercial and scientific networks.”
There is no doubt that even the ‘civilian’ innovations are useful to the defence sector in China.

The Chinese impediments
China has its own problems; one is the rigidity of its bureaucracy functioning under the Communist Party. The Chinese are however serious about tackling the babudom. In April 2007, Party leaders nominated a former Audi engineer with great experience, Wan Gang, as MOST minister; it was the first non-communist party member acceding to minister rank in 35 years.
In June 2007m Wan Gang established a ‘Special Projects Office’, the equivalent of an economic zone headquarters to make sure that the megaprojects would not be buried by the bureaucracy. The megaprojects office was to evaluate applications, approve funding and closely monitor the projects. The budget for each project was specific and identified both central and local government contributions.
McGregor says: “This unprecedented high-level hands-on micromanagement demonstrates that the indigenous innovation program is the government’s highest strategic economic priority.”
Of course, the 16 megaprojects (which, as seen earlier have become 19 in 2013) have been a source of controversy and debates both in China and abroad.
Many observers believe that the present Chinese system is not congenial to innovations considering its structure and the restrictions imposed by the unique Party system.
Though Xinhua announced than more than 1.02 million scientific theses have come from Chinese scientific and technical personnel in the past decade, (the second-highest number of such theses worldwide), doubts still persist about the quality of these theses.
The Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China (under the MOST) affirms that the quality has risen: “Theses published from 2002 to 2012 have been cited a total of 6.65 million times, ranking sixth in the world. ”
The Institute adds that: “More than 7,920 scientific theses qualify as ‘highly-cited theses’, or those among the top 1 % in terms of citations, climbing one place to rank fifth”, but also admitting that Chinese scientists in 2011 published 141 theses on Nature, Science, Cell and other world-class magazines and journals, moving down a spot from 2010 to rank tenth.”
It is not easy to compete with the West in term of innovation in this domain.
On July 2012, an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) entitled “China as an Innovation Center? Not So Fast” warned that ‘innovations’ may take more time.
Anil K. Gupta and Haiyan Wang admitted that the Chinese ‘inputs’ in the field of innovation were very impressive, the R&D expenditure increased to 1.5% of GDP in 2010 from 1.1% in 2002, and should reach 2.5% by 2020. Its share of the world's total R&D expenditure grew to 12.3% in 2010 from 5.0% in 2002, placing it second only to the U.S., whose share remained steady at 34-35%.
But though data looks impressive, “Yet there's less here than meets the eye. Over 95% of the Chinese applications were filed domestically with the State Intellectual Property Office. The vast majority cover Chinese ‘innovations’ that make only tiny changes on existing designs.”
It does not mean that China is not trying hard to innovate. The regime gives itself the means to succeed one day.

An example of China’s re-innovation
The China Brief of the Jamestown Foundation recently mentioned China’s deployment of the world’s first operational anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) which was confirmed “with unprecedented clarity by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The ASBM’s development path was unusual in many respects, but may increasingly represent the shape of things to come for China’s defense industry.”
The US Department of Defence annual report to Congress on China’s Military spoke of the status of China’s DF-21D ASBM: “China continues to field an ASBM based on a variant of the DF-21 (CSS 5) medium range ballistic missile that it began deploying in 2010. Known as the DF-21D, this missile provides the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific. The DF-21D has a range exceeding 1,500 km and is armed with a maneuverable warhead.”
For the US DOD, “it gives the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean”.
But where does this technology come from?
The same article of The China Brief answers this question. Chinese sources themselves have credited the US Pershing II missile with influencing the development of China’s DF-15C and DF-21 ballistic missiles: “Following the Pershing II’s deployment, initial ‘research work’ reportedly was completed in the early 1990s and incorporated into China’s Dongfeng (DF) missiles via a ‘warhead that possesses terminal homing guidance and maneuvering control capability’”.
When they first saw missiles of the DF series, experts realized the relation with the Pershing II. An article published in Hong Kong by a mainland-owned daily stated: “When they saw the new-type intermediate-range missile in China’s ‘Dongfeng’ family during the latest military parade held on the National Day, people would certainly like to compare it with the ‘Pershing II’ missile, wouldn’t they?” This is called re-innovation.

Can India achieve such a feat?
Especially in the defence sector, India depends in a large measure on imports. For many, the main reason is the lack of large-scale Research and Development (R&D). We shall take the example of HAL.
A few months ago, Dassault Aviation, the constructor of the Rafale selected in the MMRCA project, expressed some doubts about the capacity of HAL to absorb French technology; without even speaking about ‘innovations', can HAL ‘digest’ the French technology?
A source who has been associated for decades with HAL explained that tremendous efforts need to be made in the domain of ‘research’, if India is serious about catching up with China and the West in the domain of ‘innovation’.
Today HAL hardly does any R&D other than development connected with a production project. There is no doubt that government- or private-funded laboratories are needed for developing technologies which are comparable to the ones in the West. Unfortunately top ranked Indian students after graduation head for USA where they receive generous offers providing them satisfaction both in remuneration and the quality of work. It is these very talented young persons who need to be retained to do innovative work in Indian laboratories. This will happen only if India is able create world class laboratories and offer competitive remuneration.
Is the Indian system able to be a top-class innovator, is the question?

India’s babudom
India is suffering from the same disease as China, but despite the bureaucratic deficiencies, the leadership in Beijing has a tremendous political will (and adequate economic means) to change this scenario in the years to come; it does not seem the case in India, at least under the current political equation.
Take the case of the HAL’s HPT 32 Deepak trainer plane being discarded by the IAF, which ultimately selected (and now inducted into IAF) the Pilatus PC 7 from Switzerland. The alternative proposal from HAL for the HTT 40 (Turbo-prop trainer) was also not considered as it was still at the initial design stage. This raises serious doubts on the state of Indian research, once again without mentioning ‘innovations’. The lack of good leadership and weak design ability are some of the main HAL’s problems.
When Steve Jobs passed away, experts debated why China did not produce its own Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg? One contributor to Forbes explained that the emergence of such ‘innovative’ entrepreneurs “does not blend well with China’s culture of Confucian conformity to existing norms. Throughout China’s history, the established order saved little respect for inventors, entrepreneurs, and business pioneers.”
There is some truth in this, but the Confucian conformity added to the Communist bureaucracy and the supreme importance of the Party’s diktats is today balanced by a tremendous will to ‘innovate’ in order to materialize the Chinese Dream.
The Indian Dream has unfortunately not even been formulated as yet. It is a great pity, because the ingredients (brains) are very much present.

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