This article by Pippa Ebel was awarded Runner-Up in the “Young China Watchers & Lau China Institute Writing Competition 2023” on the topic of “China: Knowledge Superpower”.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of Young China Watchers or the Lau China Institute.

Education and research is an overlooked arm of China’s global development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Party’s 2016 ‘Education Action Plan’ unveiled its vision for education cooperation spanning people, organisations and governments. The plan, if realised, positions China as a leading contender in the race for knowledge supremacy, particularly in science and technology. By deepening ties with partner countries in education and R&D, China creates a powerful ecosystem in which it is the lead architect. Yet, this ambition faces challenges. Whilst BRI partnering countries have been quick to cooperate, institutions and governments in the West[1] are increasingly hostile towards Chinese investment in education. This imbalance between BRI partnering countries and the West is likely to intensify and could undermine China’s success.

Attracting international talent

Farrukh Raza was the first Pakistani biochemist from Islamabad University to be sponsored by Tianjin’s Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Belt and Road Initiative scholarship. He has already completed his initial research project: to develop new technology for producing value-added products from waste, reducing production time and cost by 80%. He has now been granted funding for further research, this time in aquaculture. This year, CAS will increase investment, inviting up to ten young Pakistani students to pursue research in biochemistry and biotechnology. By “training leading talent and technicians for countries along [BRI] routes”, China is expanding its research capabilities, as well as the production of new scientific and technological IP.

Investing in education infrastructure

Besides investing in human resources, Beijing has established new research institutes in universities across the country. These typically focus on scientific and technological innovation. China’s leading universities Tsinghua and Peking University (Beijing), and Fudan University (Shanghai) for instance, prioritise artificial intelligence and advanced technology research. Gul Naz, a chemistry PhD student of Tsinghua specialising in nanotechnology, explains that the institutes create “innovative solutions for various challenges faced by people and countries along BRI routes”[2]. Innovation is central across all institutes. The ‘Collaborative Innovation Center for the Belt and Road Initiative’ for instance, which opened as part of Zhejiang University in 2019, characterised itself as “demand orientated” and “innovation driven”. By mobilising resources for research and development, China is gaining an edge over competitors where funding for academic and research is being squeezed[3].

Establishing research institutes overseas

BRI-specific institutions are not limited to China. Institutes have been established throughout BRI regions, often in partnership with leading local academic institutions. CAS alone has invested 1.8 billion yuan ($268 million) toward science and technology projects, as part of a network of 40 partner institutes spanning 14 different countries[4]. The AIT Belt Road Research Centre in Bangkok is just one example of these partner centres, focusing on science, technology and sustainability. Despite a pause during the pandemic, exchanges between Chinese and local research teams picked up in January this year, signalling a resumption of activity and investment. These efforts fulfil the MoE’s aim to advance “the application and transfer of sci-tech achievements… driving regional and sub-regional economic and social development.” China’s global expansion provides access to more resources, and gives opportunities to transfer knowledge. In doing this, China not only exports technology but also continues to develop and optimise it.

“BRI-specific institutions are not limited to China. Institutes have been established throughout BRI regions, often in partnership with leading local academic institutions.”

Obstacles to China’s growth

While BRI partner countries have responded enthusiastically to Beijing’s investment in education, the West has been more critical. Decision making bodies in Europe and the US have moved from a vigilant stance to a hostile one. Governments have introduced increasingly heavy-handed measures to block partnerships between domestic research bodies and Chinese actors. Germany’s China Strategy, released in July this year, made clear it would reduce support for research collaboration, fearing a “knowledge drain”[5]. Such fears were echoed in a report issued the same month by a prominent British security committee. It a chapter entitled ‘Chinese Interference in UK Academia’, the word “threat” is mentioned 33 times, “security” 30 and “interfere” 24. Fears among Western leaders have a significant impact on domestic institutions who are dissuaded and often prevented from future cooperation with China. This may result in two increasingly isolated R&D ecosystems, with China on one side and the West on the other. This division limits how China expands its influence, and could impact BRI partner countries’ willingness to deepen ties with China in the future, if they face pressure from Western powers.

“Governments have introduced increasingly heavy-handed measures to block partnerships between domestic research bodies and Chinese actors.”

Looking ahead

China has made significant progress in developing a powerful research ecosystem that connects its allies. Results are already showing on a people-to-people scale, as in the case of Farrukh’s creation of new agricultural technologies. However, the success of Beijing’s investment in education will ultimately be measured by research outcomes and their practical application in supporting scientific and technological breakthroughs. For China to become a knowledge superpower it needs to work at scale across multiple sectors, with broad global reach. By expanding overseas, China increased access to talent, resources and has the opportunity to optimise technology through transfer and exchange. Alienation of Western countries could undercut the speed and scale of China’s evolution, and ultimately prevent its full transformation into a knowledge superpower.

[1] For simplicity, this essay uses the term ‘West’ to refer mainly (but not exclusively) to Europe, the Americas and Australasia.

[2] Quote taken from an interview between the author and Gul Naz in August, 2023

[3] In 2022, the EU slashed 115 grants for UK scientists following Brexit. More recently in June this year, Sweden’s government announced no further grants would be issued in development research.

[4] According to CAS, they have engaged 120,000 people in science and tech collaborations across BRI regions, and funded a further 1,000 science researchers to undertake technical training in China.

[5] Released on July 14th, Germany’s China Strategy cautioned against a “knowledge drain” as part of its overall strategy to “de-risk” from China. An announcement by a leading University in Bavaria soon followed, announcing it would cut collaborative ties with the China Scholarship Council.

Will China’s ambitions for knowledge supremacy be realised?
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