Tim Byrnes is an unlikely symbol of China’s bid to become the world’s high-tech superpower. For a start he is Australian. Yet the 39-year-old quantum physicist’s decision to swap a research post in New York for Shanghai goes some way to explaining the lengths to which Beijing is going in its efforts to upend the world order.
“Quantum physics is very strong in China,” says Mr Byrnes. “The top groups are as good as anywhere in the world . . . and doing some amazing things.”
Mr Byrnes is working to develop new technologies that will ultimately, he hopes, help deliver the holy grail of the sector — a quantum computer. His position as assistant professor of physics at New York University Shanghai is the result of a global recruitment drive to hire 10,000 of the world’s brightest minds. Recruitment forms part of a broader strategy to build China’s technological might alongside efforts to restructure its industrial policy through a scheme known as Made in China 2025. Billions of dollars have been pumped into research and the acquisition of overseas assets, unnerving global rivals.
In the past two years alone, China has announced more than $110bn worth of tech merger and acquisition deals, according to Dealogic, triggering national security fears due to Beijing’s role in some of the deals. The Made in China plan was characterised by Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, to the US Congress in January as an “aggressive by-hook-or-by-crook strategy that involves serially manipulating the marketplace and wantonly stealing and coercing transfer of American know-how”.
Born out of a drive to modernise its army and navy to keep pace with the US and Russia, China’s state-backed programmes in science and technology have acquired a more civilian bent in an effort to put the country at the forefront of areas including artificial intelligence, biopharmacy and electric cars.
President Xi Jinping last year set out the objectives behind the spending, describing science and technology as “the main battlefields of the economy”. These priorities were further reinforced at this month’s session of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament.
If successful, the plan could mark a fundamental shift from an economy that earned a reputation as a copycat manufacturer to one that is setting the pace. China has some form. Its “BAT” tech trinity of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent has enhanced the models those companies aped from Google, eBay and Facebook, but its goal to create national champions in areas like semiconductors and AI represent a far bigger step. The Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin-based think-tank, last year described the plan as being the “building blocks of an overarching political programme”, adding: “In the long run, China wants to obtain control over the most profitable segments of global supply chains and production networks.”
Mr Xi’s clarion call is recognition that competitiveness in technology is one of the three pillars, along with economic and sovereign might, on which any modern superpower stakes its claim. The need is made more acute by slowing domestic growth and concern that the much-touted rebalancing, from an investment-led economy to one driven by consumption, is failing to convince.
There is also an element of old-fashioned fear: the concern of being reliant on technology from overseas has only intensified after Donald Trump’s election as US president on the back of protectionist trade rhetoric.
“From semiconductors to ecommerce, Mr Xi has unabashedly trumpeted the goal of making China the ‘master of its own technologies’,” Mr Atkinson told Congress.