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C3S Interview on ‘Science and State Power in India and China’

Image Courtesy: Andrea Ucini

C3S Interview 005/2019

The Chennai Centre for China Studies brings out an informative conversation between Research Officer Balasubramanian C and Mr. L.V. Krishnan Former Director- Safety Research Group, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam; Member, C3S,  on “Science and State Power – Development of Science and Technology in China and India”.

Q. Both India and China began their journey as independent nations seven decades ago. Both had realised the importance of S&T for the country’s progress. Now, China has moved ahead of India by leaps and bounds in science and technology. How did it happen?

Both China and India were starved of foreign reserves during the first two decades of existence as free countries. The socialist economy of India looked down upon private enterprise. With meager monetary resources and other developmental priorities, S&T received little funding. Yet, in its quest for S&T, India was ahead of China, by setting up several National Laboratories with external help with special attention given to atomic energy for peaceful purposes. With external assistance, the IITs were set up for the training youth in Technology.

For almost three decades, China was isolated with the Soviet Union as the only friend and the terms and conditions of assistance were decided by the Soviets. Soon, a departure in their relations happened.  The first three decades were a disaster due to Mao’s policies. Despite that and the lack of access to technology, China was determined to progress. The prime focus was on nuclear weapon technology.  This is how China managed to develop nuclear weapons and missile technology in the 1960s with the help of little assistance received through the Soviet Union. The two fields: nuclear weapons and missile technology were carefully protected from the devastating effects of the Cultural Revolution in the period 1966-76.

In its quest for modern S&T outside of military applications, China started poorly at first. But, remarkably it has moved ahead of not just India but many other Western nations. Three important factors helped the growth of China in military as well as civilian applications of S&T.

  1. America’s overture to China ending its hostile approach to the country and providing access to advanced technology.

  2. The emergence post-Mao of an astute leader, Deng Xiaoping, with his ‘Get Rich First Motto’. His policies were designed to derive maximum benefit from US technology.

  3. And thirdly the determination of the Party and the people to succeed.

Allowing the US and foreign firms to set up manufacturing bases in China helped the GDP to grow, making available funds for investment in S&T. The Communist Party wisely focused on improving human capital, sending scholars abroad and giving them jobs upon their return, established Universities and R&D centres at home. In parallel, the Communist Party spent on infrastructure, establishing ecosystems for product manufacturing and export.

Q. What would you say was the ‘special measures’ adopted by China that contributed to its remarkable progress in S&T?

Some years ago, the CSIR in India had observed that the progress made by China and Korea in S&T were due to the following actions by the Government:

  1. Targeted development and commensurate resource mobilisation. Target is set to ensure that China attains a top position in the chosen field. The target is set with much foresight into future applications and policies for its realisation are announced with requisite funding made available.

  2. The policies are allowed to evolve keeping in view the developments elsewhere in the world and are provided support for their implementation which are strictly enforced.

  3. Constant monitoring of progress

  4. Will to acknowledge failures and efforts to correct them.

Q. What are the areas where China has developed immense expertise that can enable India to cooperate with China?

By way of illustration, several areas can be cited where China has already established itself as a World leader.

High-Speed Railways is easily the most impressive one among them. China started the HSR programme quite recently. While the planning began in the 1990s, only in 2003, it set out to build a 400 km stretch at a top speed of 200 km/hr. This figured 40 years after Japan’s Shinkansen programme was launched. It was completed by 2008. Just ten years after commencing HSR operations, the Chinese route network totalled 25,000 km by 2017.

Q. Such a massive growth in a short span of time can you share some more insights on how it happened?

At first, the plan was to build a High-Speed Railway line indigenously but was given up due to the project demanding more time. Alternatives such as, motors, coaches, signalling and other equipment were imported from different countries. China insisted on technology transfer and training of personnel by companies such as Kawasaki, Alstom, Bombardier and Siemens.

Soon enough, it developed its own technology, calling it a process of “Digestion and Re-innovation”. Numerous Universities, national laboratories and companies contributed to the process.

Today, the speed of Beijing-Shanghai train averages 300 km/hr, the same as the Japanese Shinkansen, and can reach a high of nearly 400 km/hr.

China is now having discussions with various countries seeking to build HSR for them. Notably, it is building an HSR line in the US between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

China also has the Shanghai Maglev superfast train linking the city with the airport, built some years ago with German assistance and runs at 430 km/h to cover the 30-km stretch in less than eight minutes. China is now reported to be planning to build a similar link elsewhere in the country, but on its own.


Supercomputers are employed in critical areas like drug discovery, forecast and tracking of hurricanes, EQ and climate change prediction, aircraft design, and space programme.

In 2007, India & China each had nine supercomputers in the Top 500 List. At the time, the entry-level was 3 Teraflops (3 trillion operations per second). In 2011, India had only two while China’s rose to having seventy four in the list.

This year, the entry-level is higher at 1 Petaflop (a thousand trillion operations per second). China has three times as many, while the US has just half that of China. Ranked by speed, China today has the 3rd and 4th fastest computer in the world, behind the US.

Top 10 have speeds ranging from 19-148 Petaflops. India has just 3 in the top 500 with the fastest one ranked 53 and with speed about 4 Petaflops.

Two of the 3 Indian machines are utilised by Government Departments and IISC, Bengaluru whereas 200 machines in China are spread out in various research centres and Universities and are available to researchers.

However, Chinese machines use imported hardware made by the US firm Nvidia. HiSilicon, owned by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies has begun producing Nvidia like processors for image recognition (2000 images/min).

Q. What is India doing on this front?

India announced the National Supercomputing Mission in 2015 aiming to build 70 supercomputers. Last December, the French firm Atos was awarded the contract to build all of them, with Size ranging from 650 Teraflops to 1 Petaflop; C-DAC in India has produced PARAM Yuva II with sustained performance of about 400 Teraflops and peak performance of 500 Teraflops.

In 2011, the Indian Ministry of Science and Technology launched a project to create chips of modest size for Quantum Computers which was realized in 2014. In 2016, chips three times larger were made with the aim to make chips bigger by 2020.


Speaking of the Consumer drone industry, DaJiang Innovations DJI of China has now over 70% of the global market share. Its revenue was about three billion dollars in 2017. It was a DJI drone operated by an inexperienced pilot that once crashed on the White House lawn in 2015.

The Chinese leading role is based on the fact that Shenzhen is home to more than 360 drone enterprises. These are capable of supplying a complete set of components for making drones – power systems, flight control, navigation, image capture and transmission. The advantage of Shenzhen is that it has a large mobile phone manufacturing industry. Components used in drones like gyroscopes, GPS modules and accelerometers used in mobile phones can easily be sourced here for use in drones.

Q. While speaking of drones, China has taken a lead in large unmanned aircraft and its export to other countries as well?

Indeed. China has exported 160 unmanned armed aircraft to 13 countries in the period 2008-2018; some with a take-off weight of 4,200 kg max; the latest is Serbia; other recipients, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, UAE; at about $ 1 million each. Now, China is also reported to be building them in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan may proceed with the same trajectory.

The Missile Technology Control Regime bans the export of drones with range beyond 500 km, but China is not a member of the MTCR. Chinese craft is capable of 280 km/hr. and range upto 4,000 km.

India has bought 10 UAVs from Israel and expects to get 22 for naval use from the US.

Q. China has employed dredgers to build artificial islands in the South China Sea. How is this technology helping China build its influence?

China is extending its geopolitical influence by building the world’s biggest dredging industry. It declared dredging a “Priority Growth Area” in 2001. That was the year when a US Naval Intelligence Aircraft and a PLA fighter collided near Hainan Island. That was ostensibly a cause for China’s plan for setting up an Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) technology zone in the South China Sea and for reclamation of the reefs to turn them into military bases. At the time, China’s dredges no match for the task.

First, China purchased ocean going dredges from abroad. The sources were Dutch, Japanese and Belgian. Since then China has reportedly built 200 dredges of massive size and has the world’s largest dredging industry. Since 2013, it has very quickly turned reefs in the South China Sea into islands big enough for the purpose. Now, the large dredgers China has are also used for enlarging the ports China is acquiring all over the world, like in Srilanka to accommodate huge container ships. In 2018 China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) completed its dredging project at Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Yuzhny. Establishing leadership in dredging technology is also part of China’s quest to become a maritime power.

Q. Speaking of China’s science and technological prowess, are there areas where success has eluded China?

There are some areas where success has so far eluded China. Manufacture of Commercial Airliners is one such. Way back in the 1970s, China attempted to build an aircraft similar to Boeing 707 and the test flights took place in the 1980s. Due to design issues and the higher costs, the project was abandoned and China continued to buy Boeing aircraft. In 1985, through an agreement with McDonnel Douglas, China began assembling a narrow body airliner from imported kits and supplied some to the US. The first indigenous airliner C919, based on Boeing 707, had its maiden flight in 2017, 8 years after its launch. The annual air passenger traffic in China is expected to reach 1.6 billion in 2 decades. China has set a goal of doubling the number of commercial airports to 450 by 2035.

With an anticipated need for 7000 aircraft by 2040, the keenness of China to build C919 kind planes in large numbers is understandable; major systems will have to be outsourced from world companies; the ambitious plan is for production of 150 aircraft per year. China claims 800 orders have been received for its C919 so far. The turbofan engines for it are still imported but there are ambitious plans to produce them locally.


China’s imports of integrated circuits in 2018 was over $400 billion worth. This represented an increase of about 20% over 2017. Though China’s imports of Integrated Chips are massive, much of it is used in products that are exported to the world.

China still depends on external sources for basic device IP, Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tools, and semiconductor manufacturing equipment. Memory products are also required in huge volume and the Microcontroller market is dominated by international producers. Though Integrated Chip industry chain encompasses design, manufacturing, packaging and testing, advances in chip technology are based on new materials. China began to build chip fabrication plants quite recently, about five years ago.

The “Made in China 2025” plan set a strategic goal to grow the country’s Integrated Chip industry to achieve a self-sufficiency rate of 40% by 2020, increasing to 70% by 2025.

One of the reasons for lagging in the semiconductor industry is that talent from academia is lapped up by high paying Internet and Artificial Intelligence companies with fewer interested in Integrated Chip industry. Huawei is said to be the sole firm which pays the Internet firms.  China is willing to attract good foreign engineers for chip design and has plans to set up design centres abroad that can hire talented local technical engineers in other countries including India.

Q. Among the top ten solar panel manufacturers of the world in 2019, there are six Chinese firms, four occupying the top four ranks. Elucidate China’s success in solar panel technology.

World PV market began to take off in the late 1990s.

Local production in China began even before China initiated the installation of solar power plants in the country. This again suggests characteristic prudent anticipation and eagerness to establish leadership when the time arrives. China purchased manufacturing equipment in the international market and attracted executives from pioneer Photo Voltaic firms abroad built by ethnic Chinese. In 2007, China became the world leader in cell production and module assembling (35%).

Q. Technological achievements cannot happen without a proper science and technology infrastructure. Where do India and China stand?

Among the several aspects of the Ministry of Science and Technology, two are particularly noteworthy – Strategic Planning and Foreign Talent Attraction as well as Foreign Expert Services. The year of 1996 can be said to be the take-off year for R &D in Science and Technology in China.

Over the next ten years, the GDP in China grew three-fold in absolute terms along with the expenditure on R&D increasing manifold (From 0.4% of GDP in 1996 to 1.4% in 2006). Over the next 20 years, both grew in step and by about five-fold.

The CSIR in India is a part of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). It has 38 National Labs, employs 12,000 S&T Staff, runs 3 Innovation Complexes and produces 450 patents per year. In comparison, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has 12 Branch of Academies, 100 Research Institutions, 3 Universities and 300 Laboratories. It has a staff of 60,000 (China itself is said to have over 6 million R&D personnel). Under Chinese Academy Sciences, nearly 4 million patent applications are filed. Its R&D budget is about 2 trillion yen.

Chinese Academic Sciences is described as “a locomotive driving national technological innovation and supporting nationwide S&T development, a think tank delivering S&T advice and a community for training young S&T talent.”

Interviewed by Balasubramanian C, Research Officer C3S

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