China is the example that knowledge can overtake tech

China tech: Not too many years ago, the list of universities with the greatest scientific impact was dominated by the US (from Stanford to MIT Boston) and the UK, while today, the traditional balance of global academic excellence is marked by the rapid rise of China, with the Western region leading the way. According to updated data from the Leiden University Center for Science and Technology Studies, there are now six Chinese universities in the global top ten: an eloquent sign of a scenario that has already changed in terms of the geographical location of centres of reference. This ranking is based on the absolute number of articles (papers) published and the total volume of citations in the world’s most authoritative scientific journals.

Years of investment in education and the development of the entire academic system have led China to enhance national universities and local scientific-technological research, triggering a virtuous circle that is also bearing fruit thanks to the collective vocation for productivity. It is no coincidence that the data produced by Unesco underline a significant increase in the number and activity of scientists and engineers in China: to be precise, in 2023, there were 2.2 million.

Scientific and technological cooperation

All this alters international balances in a non-negligible way but could generate further secondary impacts on the Western academic world, conditioning the outcomes of research, the areas where most funds are directed and – in a broader sense – the future of scientific studies. In this competitive logic between the two shores of the Pacific Ocean, one must also interpret the construction – metaphorical but above all economic – of golden bridges to encourage the movement towards China, not only of professors but also of scientists, researchers and other luminaries, ranging from frontier science to applied science, from basic research to technological innovation. For a single talk by a Nobel Prize winner, budgets can be close to EUR 100,000.

China is the example that knowledge can overtake tech
China is the example that knowledge can overtake tech

Fast growing

It is no coincidence that in the first three months of 2024, China’s GDP grew by 5.3% compared to the same period last year, more than the 4.6-4.8% expected by analysts. Xi is focusing on the high-tech and green energy sectors (solar panels, electric cars): the ‘new productive forces’ he intends to exploit to pull the Dragon out of the dilemma and dominate a growing share of global production. Looking at the data, the strategy is working. Industrial production grew by 6.1% in the first quarter, fixed assets invested by 4.5%, manufacturing investment rose by 9.9%, and investment in infrastructure increased by 6.5%.

Between risks and opportunities

Considering the enormous leap forward made in just a few decades, this scenario could soon lead China to become the locus of global research. In a dynamic facilitated not only by the peculiar ability of the Chinese Communist Party to direct the country’s efforts in a massive way but also by the now certain overcoming of the old paradigm according to which China’s scientific production could be great in numbers but remained unimpressive in terms of quality. While there is fear in the United States, and to a lesser extent Europe, of losing their historic competitive advantage, the opportunities arising from this development, first and foremost for the Chinese community, should not be forgotten. The increased interest in scientific research and technological innovation not only concerns the academic world as an ivory tower but is also reflected at the cultural and social levels.

Antonino Caffo has been involved in journalism, particularly technology, for fifteen years. He is interested in topics related to the world of IT security but also consumer electronics. Antonino writes for the most important Italian generalist and trade publications. You can see him, sometimes, on television explaining how technology works, which is not as trivial for everyone as it seems.