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Solid basis for innovation

By Shujie Yao* (China Daily).
 
China needs to improve its investment mechanism in science and technology and promote more research and development.
A recent report claimed that China is going to reach the vanguard of global innovation in 2011, outpacing both the United States and Japan in the number of patents filed.
 
Yet there is increasing urgency for China to make significant technological progress. Labor costs are rising and in many regions an acute labor shortage is beginning to bite. The low-level processing industry has become less and less profitable and margins are being squeezed further as China faces continued pressure to allow the renminbi to appreciate.
 
At present there are several barriers to China's ability to transform itself into an innovative nation that is internationally competitive.
Large State-owned enterprises (SOEs) do make technological progress, but with guaranteed huge profits, it is hardly surprising that the incentive to innovate is low, which decreases their prospect of being internationally competitive.
 
Motivation is greater in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) but, even then, many SMEs rely on cheap labor costs for the bulk of their profits. They lack the capital and simply do not possess the scale of economy to sustain innovation over the long term.
 
There is strong evidence that academic research is out of touch with industry in China.
 
Chinese government investment has increased 20 percent every year for the last decade. The government funded the country's top 39 universities with the aim of making them world-class institutions. Yet in China, research output - published papers, patents and evidence of knowledge transfer - is fairly low.
 
Another obstruction to innovation is the continued inadequacy of China's laws governing intellectual property rights (IPR). Domestic research institutions and enterprises fear their innovations will be copied and the cost of IPR protection is prohibitive. Patents registered by Chinese universities have increased markedly in the last year, but they tend not to be related to new inventions, but rather improvements made to existing designs.
 
The author of the article makes some suggestions.
 
Innovation could be spurred, giving more autonomy to universities, and these in turn should grant more independence to researchers, or encouraging more collaboration between researchers and industry.
 
As well as tightening up laws on IPR, the government should consider the introduction of a taxation system that rewards innovation. Higher taxes on SOEs would force them to seek profits through a more innovative business approach, rather than relying on monopoly. A tax incentive scheme could be offered to SMEs to increase research and development.
 
China should offer substantial financial support to a few key industrial champions in each sector. The support should not be viewed as easy credit, but as an opportunity to develop cutting-edge technology that would improve China's brand image. China is set to become the second largest economy in the world and is already the world's leading exporter, but it lacks recognizable brand names such as Toyota and Samsung.
 
Development of human resources is crucial. The government has to ensure its "Thousand People Plan", which is designed to attract skilled personnel from overseas, translates into concrete examples of innovation.
 
If the government recruits the right people from overseas and makes full use of their skills and experience, then the technological gap between China and the West can begin to narrow.
 
*The author is head of the University of Nottingham's School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and program director for China at the Globalization and Economic Policy Center.
 

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