People shop in a Huawei store in Beijing on January 29, 2021. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker

Beijing is expected to give more substance to its tech self-sufficiency drive and deliberate on and unveil a roadmap aimed at making major breakthroughs in key areas ranging from chips to more Covid vaccines when thousands of members of the Chinese parliament gather in the capital next week.

The central leadership has recommitted to its innovation drive and tech self-reliance and these subjects will feature predominantly in Premier Li Keqiang’s work report this year, the centerpiece for panel discussions by the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) representatives. 

Sources who viewed the draft of Li’s report noted that a roadmap with “measurable timeframes” may be announced as Beijing doubles down on “tech autarchy” to rid the nation’s dependence on Western imports and solutions.

A similar plan towards carbon neutrality in 2060 may be published as well.  

Dutch investment bank ING Group said in its report that in 2021 Beijing may need to pivot its policy focus away from combating the virus, since it has become more important to head off geopolitical risks and their impact on China’s domestic tech sector. 

The Beijing-based Economic Observer newspaper also noted that sectors like chips, jet engines, next-generation telecommunication solutions and vaccines and drugs against infectious diseases, among other things, would receive ample funding. This will be done under a new central resources sharing platform coordinated by the Ministry of Science and Technology to put energy and effort from the state and private sectors and blend ideas into a common value. 

It was also noted that periodical reports on how China’s indigenous research work on key frontiers is coming along will be submitted to the NPC to keep lawmakers up to speed. But other reports say related plans for such a sharing and pooling platform were still far from being worked out. 

Inside the Great Hall of the People during last year’s National People’s Congress in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Professor Wong Kam-fai, a deputy dean of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Systems Engineering and Engineering Management who is also a CPPCC deputy, told Asia Times he expected Beijing would give China’s chip and integrated circuit sector eight to 10 years in the unconfirmed roadmap to play catchup and even pull ahead of Western competitors to eventually tackle their monopoly and the United States’ export bans. 

Wong said he was optimistic that with the policy blessing and Beijing’s patience as seen in the relatively long timeframe, China may narrow the gap in chip design and manufacturing in the mid-2030s and create a TSMC-like chipmaker by then. 

Xinhua also noted that President Xi Jinping or Premier Li, together with officials from the science ministry, may attend panel discussions by NPC and CPPCC deputies from the nation’s research institutes as well as private tech companies to seek policy recommendations. 

In a hint of more state and private sector collaboration, recent reports by Chinese papers also revealed Huawei’s wide-ranging cooperation and talent exchanges with state-backed institutes affiliated with the science ministry. 

Rumors were rife earlier this month that Huawei’s chairman for technology Xu Zhijun would join the state-owned Shanghai Microelectronics Equipment Co, Ltd as its president and some even said Xu could join the science ministry. 

Talk about Huawei and state labs swapping researchers and intellectual property is still trending in Chinese social media despite Huawei’s clarification that Xu would stay put with the tech giant. 

People visit the Huawei Connect Conference in Shanghai on September 23, 2020. Photo: AFP/STR

Also, at the end of January, Huawei, under the auspices of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, took the lead in pooling the Peking University, Tsinghua University, the People’s Liberation Army’s National University of Defense Technology as well as 90 Chinese chip designers and foundries for the establishment of a national integrated circuit standardization committee.  

It is said that NPC deputies in Shenzhen, Huawei’s home base, had lobbied to form more such state-private sector joint platforms to foster tech breakthroughs, and policy wonks will put forward a related motion when they meet in Beijing next month. 

NPC Chairman Li Zhanshu, also a member of the Communist Party Politburo’s Standing Committee, has reputedly instructed the NPC secretariat to draft up legislative proposals based on policy recommendations from Huawei, its partners and the science ministry. 

China News Service also cited Liu Shijin, a deputy director of a CPPCC committee on economic affairs, as saying that Beijing would attach greater importance to innovation and other affairs than the frivolity of chasing GDP growth.

Liu said Beijing would reallocate some of the funds originally earmarked to reflate the economy to instead support innovation programs and platforms and that Premier Li would set a “soft” GDP growth target, likely 4-5%, for the year.

“Just like Huawei has revised downward its revenue targets for the coming years as it invests heavily on research and development, I think Beijing is also prepared for a more modest GDP growth rate when more resources in the long run are needed to achieve tech self-reliance,” said Liu.

“Anyway, China is the only major economy that got over the recession and attained positive growth in 2020 and Beijing is facing less pressure to further stimulate the economy.”    

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