SAR’s strengths aid facilitation of nation’s sci-tech endeavors

The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China has attracted an enormous amount of commentary unleashed globally as the leadership of the world’s second-largest economy lays out its plans for the future. This is off the back of 2,296 delegates elected to represent the views of almost 100 million party members and who themselves are part of the 1.4 billion Chinese people. It’s always a grand affair of huge significance and importance whose ramifications impact not just the Chinese people but the whole world. 

Decisions and words from CPC Central Committee General Secretary Xi Jinping on down will be pored over, assessed, interpreted, commented on and critiqued in the global press and in the court of public opinion, but perhaps most importantly, in the halls of power of all great nations. Indeed, their own policies and strategies may need to adapt and respond, in multifarious ways, to the latest emerging directions of the Chinese ship of state. Whatever else, this ship of state is well-equipped and crewed for whatever choppy waters lie ahead.

Xi’s address covered a significant number of important topics — it had ambition, scope and focus across broad areas that I believe will continue to propel China forward. As a Hong Kong-based Western scientist, I am interested in what this may mean for us.

In fact, Hong Kong featured prominently in his address, appearing 27 times and significantly first being emphasized near the start of his address. The importance of “one country, two systems” was not only stressed but so was its high level of autonomy for the long term. So clearly, we are seen as important and relevant to China’s future with guarantees for our special status. We certainly have his attention. Importantly, for me also, science was specifically mentioned 28 times, technology on 23 occasions, and significantly, education 42 times.

We have a strong advantage in Hong Kong in having top-class educational infrastructure from kindergarten upward that culminates in our world-class tertiary education establishments

As a dispassionate forensic observer, focusing myself on science, education and the “NewSpace” economy (which refers to the emergence of the private space industry; NewSpace ventures are becoming more common, spanning areas such as private launch companies, small satellite constellations, or sub-orbital tourism), there was much to admire and applaud in the expressed intent. A few brief quotes from the official English translation demonstrate this for me:

“We must regard science and technology as our primary productive force, talent as our primary resource, and innovation as our primary driver of growth.”

This is a very important statement. It clearly places science and technology at the very apex of recognition of what has in the past and will in the future provide the engine room of further Chinese development. And what is the fuel for the engine but human talent in all its forms. It is the most valuable resource we have available. The key, however, is how to effectively recognize, acquire, nurture and protect this talent. Here our own chief executive’s Policy Address expresses a strong interest in retaining and acquiring global talent — dovetailing well with General Secretary Xi Jinping’s speech in the announcement of a specific program for Hong Kong-based talent.

We have a strong advantage in Hong Kong in having top-class educational infrastructure from kindergarten upward that culminates in our world-class tertiary education establishments. We now have five universities in the top 100 globally for the first time, with my own University of Hong Kong leading the pack. It’s these halls of academe that can recognize, nurture, mentor and help develop Hong Kong-based talent. This is via instruction from eminent academics recruited from around the world. This is what can give us an edge as it means exposure to and instruction of our homegrown and imported student talents by some of the best minds and expertise available, all concentrated in one city. This is from fintech to finance, biology to business, English to engineering, art to architecture, science to sociology, and much else besides. This sets us apart.

This same theme was touched on again in the second quote I have selected from General Secretary Xi’s speech, this time with education front and center:

“We will continue to give high priority to the development of education, build China’s self-reliance and strength in science and technology, and rely on talent to pioneer and to propel development.”

This is doubling down on the significance of science and technology but facilitated through education. Education seems to underpin the entire program. A highly educated population can have the confidence, capacity and capabilities to drive the scientific and technological breakthroughs that are necessary to address the challenges facing not just China but the entire world.  It was also good to see scattered throughout the address a firm recognition of the problems and urgency of protecting the environment for the health of us all, coupled with a strong imperative to green the economy by whatever means necessary.

There was also another theme that stood out that I personally care deeply about as an internationalist, and that is encapsulated in this third quote:

“We will expand science and technology exchanges and cooperation with other countries, cultivate an internationalized environment for research, and create an open and globally competitive innovation ecosystem.”

These are fine words, as international cooperation is essential in science. No one country has a monopoly on knowledge, talent, excellence or science capability. As the world hurtles toward climate breakdown and as a multipolar international order emerges, it is science and technology coupled with truly meaningful international collaboration and partnership that can help find solutions to at least better prepare and mitigate for what is to come. Fair competition also spurs innovation and reduces the cycle time from discovery to technical development and exploitation. Efficiency and implementation speed become elements of humanity’s armory for both good and bad. True international cooperation, mutual respect and understanding are needed for the path of good. Enaction of the intent expressed above is essential.

I finish with one final quote from General Secretary Xi’s address:

“We have witnessed major successes on multiple fronts, including manned spaceflight, lunar and Martian exploration, deep-sea and deep-earth probes, supercomputers, satellite navigation, quantum information, nuclear power technology, airliner manufacturing, and biomedicine. China has joined the ranks of the world’s innovators.”

It’s clear that these Chinese science and technology-based activities, particularly in space, and the associated prominence given to them in the national focus encapsulated in the above quote, point to a China that has clearly joined the ranks of elite major science powers and as a leading spacefaring nation. China already leads the world in the numbers of yearly patents awarded, and recently now with the most scientific publications from any one nation in the world’s best-refereed and peer-reviewed journals across the diaspora of scientific endeavor, but the prominence given to peaceful space exploration and space science is significant. This is accompanied by the rapid emergence of the associated NewSpace economy, which should be worth about $1.25 trillion by 2030.

So, there is much to admire and ponder in these specific areas I have highlighted here, and above all the key and central role played by science, technology and education in what is an amazing giant step forward for the Chinese nation over the last 20 years.

The author is a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Hong Kong, the director of its Laboratory for Space Research, and vice-chairman of the Orion Astropreneur Space Academy.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.