If necessity is the mother of invention, Tencent Holdings chairman Pony Ma Huateng must have a really big need to find a technological edge for China, as he has again lamented the poor state of his country’s basic research capability.
Speaking at the Future Forum X Shenzhen Summit, Ma said that China had achieved a leading position in some science and technology applications, but had to build a more solid foundation so it could achieve a position of strength in sectors like information sciences, physics, materials and life sciences.
As a case in point, Ma noted that China led the world in mobile payments, but lacked the technology that underpinned these systems. The United States embargo on selling chips to ZTE was a wake-up call, because one could not compete without chips and an operating system, no matter how advanced the payments set-up might be.
“This is [finding] glory in service,” said Ma. “Like building a home on sand, it stands to fall with a push.” He called on the government, industry, universities and research institutes to work together to invest more resources in basic scientific work.
One option was to launch a sponsorship program for Chinese scientists aiming at luring them back to conduct research, Ma suggested. Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping gave his full support for Hong Kong to take on the important role of helping to transform China into an innovative country by having greater access to national technology research funding.
China’s richest man said Tencent was ready to invest in chip research or cooperate with its partners and suppliers; while he acknowledged that chip technologies were not his firm’s core strength, it did had the volumes of user data to influence development.
Ma said it was a big question whether there would ever be an operating system based on Made-in-China chips, as this was too challenging, but though it was a meaningful direction to ponder.
Ma pushed the same research theme at the China National People’s Congress in March, though on this occasion the historic context he used was itself invented. He cited a much-quoted survey by the Beijing Foreign Studies University that found the compass, gunpowder, printing, and papermaking were the “classic China inventions” that young people from 20 countries most admired.
The only problem is that none of them totally originated from China, although it did play a crucial part in their development and widespread use. Ma said at the congress that high-speed railways, online shopping, mobile payments and sharing bikes were the modern versions of these inventions.