Olli Suominen: The adoption and renegotiation of research priorities in Chinese localities


Olli Suominen: The adoption and renegotiation of research priorities in Chinese localities

HEIs in China have increasingly less leeway in how to conduct their own STI policies. Localities are tasked with priority areas and with financing related research activities. The rise in the importance of STI for national policy making has created internationally competitive research clusters, but it has also exacerbated the gap between coastal and inland universities and regions.

China's policies in science and research as well as other sectors are guided by national development plans. The most important guidelines for national and local policies are the five-year plans and the annual high-level political meetings known as two sessions. Both in the most recent five-year plan (extending to 2025) and in the reports published after the 2024 two sessions, various reform measures in the fields of science and technology are highlighted. Scientific and technological self-sufficiency, a more effective innovation policy, and closer civil-military integration emerge as recurring themes in the plans as well as in public speeches given by the communist party leadership. Research and science are also allocated increasingly more financial resources. 

The development and evolution of policy priorities can also be seen in research and science policy at the local level. The provinces and the self-governing municipalities of China – Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing – closely follow the aforementioned national development plans and align their activities correspondingly. Reliance and references to top-down level steering has become increasingly salient in public speeches both at the level of municipalities and even individual institutions. In more concrete terms, this dynamic has lately been evident, for example, in how provinces have cut down the number of civil servants in order to be able to invest more in science and research. During the 21st century it has been common to talk about centralized decentralization – how responsibility for implementing decisions, yet not the authority to make them, in China is transferred from the central government to lower levels. Simultaneously the concentration of decision-making power around the party leadership in Beijing has accelerated during the reign of Xi Jinping. The historical proverb about the sky being high sky and the emperor distant referring to the local leeway in governance is becoming increasingly detached from reality. 

The most direct manner in which the central government seeks to guide and direct local STI policies is through the support and funding provided for the so-called state key laboratories (SKLs). SKLs are top STEM research institutions operating either as affiliated to universities or as separate entities. More than half of all SKLs are located in Beijing. About one fifth of SKL’s are located in both Shanghai and in the Greater Bay Area (Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macao), and 10% in Chengdu and Chongqing areas in central and southwest areas of the country. Different localities have been tasked with different focus areas. Physics has emerged as Beijing’s SKLs’ foremost forte, while Shanghai and Greater Bay Area – and especially Hong Kong – are strong in biology. The national level support for SKLs has, in a relatively short time, created internationally competitive regional clusters of excellence. Among the above-mentioned regions, the research profile of the Greater Bay Area in particular has risen dramatically in the last five years, according to a survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and carried out by Elsevier. The rise of the profile can be seen e.g. as a clear increase in the number of research publications and active researchers. 

In addition to policy implementation – that is, developing the designated priority sectors in research – local authorities have also been tasked with financing these activities. Most of the funding of Chinese universities comes from the provincial level instead of national. To cite an example, 43% of health technology research funding comes from the provincial level. In many other fields, the numbers are even higher, up to 80%. The delegation of financial responsibility has meant that the quality of universities has been very strongly dependent on the financial situation of the hosting province. The universities of China's rich eastern and southern coastal provinces are considerably better resourced. This makes them particularly attractive partners for foreigner universities. However, they are also more risky in terms of cooperation, as they are often connected to China's military and surveillance sector and thus play a key role in dual-use chains.

This self-reinforcing cycle of qualitative differentiation has been going on for decades. Although efforts have been made to cultivate the development of science and technology in China outside of the above-mentioned areas, the results of these initiatives have remained rather meager; for example, there are practically no SKLs located outside the aforementioned geographical areas. There is some evidence, however, that China's STI activities are somewhat more evenly distributed compared to wealth across the country. Yet, the recent slowdown of China's economy has been particularly strongly reflected in the provincial administrations drifting into financial difficulties. The growth model based on construction, financed with provincial debt, is coming to an end. It is in particular the poorer regions, which have been forced to rely on strategies such as laying off teachers and firing bureaucrats to meet the top-down STI targets. Financial problems have thus accelerated the gap between universities in inland and coastal provinces even further. The effect of the accelerating financial problems of the provinces should also be paid attention to in the higher education and research sectors. Cooperation with HEIs in inland provinces can be financially more risky due to their deteriorating economic situation.

Olli Suominen, TFK-expert in the Embassy of Finland in Beijing

Photo and text Olli Suominen: The research profile of the Greater Bay Area has risen considerably. Part of this richest area in mainland China, the city of Zhuhai has become a key port city and tourist destination, but also an important hub for science and research.