China has launched a path to become more self-reliant in semiconductor production. Image: Twitter

A little-known group of experts is developing a roadmap to reduce China’s reliance on foreign technology and promote self-sufficiency, a high-stakes gambit that could change how China interacts and competes in the crucial and fast-moving global sector.

The advisory group, known as the National Science and Technology Advisory Committee (NSTAC), was only made public two years after its establishment in 2019. It recently submitted a secretive report focused on technology self-sufficiency that was deliberated by top Chinese officials, according to reports.

The committee’s creation was first raised by President Xi Jinping in February 2017, two weeks after the presidential inauguration of former-US president Donald Trump, who went on to ban Huawei and ZTE products in the US and restricted chip exports to China in the name of national security.

The tech war and its impact on China’s access to crucial components including advanced semiconductors likely spurred the advisory group’s creation, according to academics and observers familiar with the committee’s work.

The NSTAC is known to offer Beijing opinions on how to make use of resources and experts in military institutions, universities and private companies to transform their scientific achievements into commercial products, the academics and observers said.

China has previously taken radical action to compete with the West – and not always successfully.

Between 1958 and 1962, Chinese leader Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign with two main goals – surpassing Great Britain in steel production in 15 years and catching up with the US in 50 years.

Without any technological guidance or know-how, many villagers set up their own furnaces to make steel, resulting in a huge waste of energy and metal materials and neglect of agricultural production that led to a disastrous national famine.

Although China saw its steel output eventually surpass the United Kingdom in 1978 and the US in 1995, it still lagged behind the West in many other advanced technologies.

China’s steelmakers eventually caught up with the US and UK. Photo: Facebook

In March 1986, Deng endorsed a suggestion from four Chinese scientists to set up a science and technology development plan called the “863 Program,” which referred to its date of establishment.

The program initially focused on seven fields – biotechnology, space, information technology, laser technology, automation, energy and new materials. It also included new fields including telecommunications in 1992 and marine technology in 1996.

The program was instrumental in helping China to obtain advanced technologies from the West and leapfrog its own domestic production. 

But those tactics have come under tough scrutiny in more recent years. In June 2016, the US Commerce Department demanded Huawei Technologies disclose all information regarding its export or re-export of American technology to Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

Soon thereafter, on February 6, 2017, Xi told the 32nd meeting of the Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission that China would set up a National Science and Technology Advisory Committee to give advice on the country’s developments of core technologies for both military and civilian uses.

On November 18, 2021, Xi said at a meeting of the CPC Central Committee’s politburo that the committee was established in 2019 and had provided advice on the technological developments, human resources planning, carbon neutrality directions and even anti-epidemic measures.

In the meeting, the politburo deliberated the committee’s 2021 Advisory Report, as well as the National Security Strategy (2021-2025) and the Regulation on the Recognition of Military Merit and Honour.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been a key player in setting up the advisory group. Photo: AFP

Although the Advisory Report has not been made public, Chinese academics had previously spoken about the committee’s key missions as well as the country’s broad science and technology decision-making consultation system.

“The consultation system has two missions, firstly making forecasts on the developments of the world’s most cutting-edge technologies,” Wan Jingo, a researcher at the Institutes of Science and Development, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), said back in February 2017.

“Secondly, it should give advice on the developments of technologies that can serve China’s needs, from promoting economic and social developments and improving people’s livelihoods to strengthening national defense.”

Wan said China had successfully “kept track of” the world’s technological trends with the advice of domestic scientists. However, he said it was necessary to set up a decision-making consulting system as the country sought to “lead” technology trends in the future.

He said the advisory committee should include two dozen scientists from the industrial and educational sectors and elites from different communities.

“The Second World War has shown the importance of science and technology,” Dai Tao, another researcher at the Institutes of Science and Development, CAS, said in a report in April 2017. “Most developed countries have attached great importance to the building of their scientific and technological decision-making consultation systems.”

In July 1945, Vannevar Bush, the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRT) in the US, submitted a report titled Science, the Endless Frontier to then US President Franklin Roosevelt, redefining relations between the government and science, Dai noted.

Since then, the US had made huge investments in technologies and also established the President’s Science Advisory Committee in 1957, he added.

Dai said the Science Advisory Committee had deeply influenced US policy decisions in the following 60 years, while the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser System had also operated for more than half a century.

“At present, a new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation has begun. Science and technology have been applied in military, economic, social, cultural and political areas at an unprecedented speed and depth,” Dai said.

“The weak global economy, the intensifying international competitions, the complex and changeable international relations, and the confrontation between globalization and anti-globalization have put forward higher requirements for science and technology decision-making consultation,” he added.

Some China would argue it has become a geopolitical victim of its own success.

In December 2018, Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada for allegedly breaking American sanctions on Iran.

In May 2019, Trump issued an executive order barring US companies from using information and communications technology from anyone considered a national security threat and declared a national emergency on the matter.

People visit the Huawei stand at the Mobile World Congress fair in Barcelona on June 29. Photo: AFP / Josep Lago

The US Commerce Department placed Huawei and 70 of its affiliates on its “entity list”, cutting the company’s access to US chips and technologies. All these developments likely accelerated the committee’s establishment in 2019.

Chen Qiang, a professor at Tongji University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering, and Chang Xuhua, an associate professor at the university’s Shanghai International College of Intellectual Property, jointly wrote an article about the importance of setting up a science and technology decision-making consultation system.

“China should coordinate the works of government departments, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Party Schools, high schools, army, technology companies and social think tanks to form a new think tank system with Chinese characteristics,” said the two authors.

They said official technology think tanks had large stores of resources but lacked initiatives, while informal think tanks were full of ideas but could be easily controlled by external powers.

They said Chinese universities had academic advantages but lacked practical work experience. The authors added that these three groups should increase their collaborations, while red tape that blocked developments should be removed.

At the same time, China will likely face more stiff challenges in obtaining foreign technologies amid a growing US and EU consensus to curb access. 

On September 29 this year, US and European Union officials held their first meeting of the US-EU Trade and Technology Council in Pittsburgh. It moved to set up 10 working groups on different topics, including the misuse of technology threatening security and human rights, export controls and investment screening, aimed at protecting EU-US businesses, consumers and workers from unfair trade practices.

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