China speeds up sci-tech innovation amid COVID-19 challenges in past three years

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This simulated image captured at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China shows the manned spaceship Shenzhou-15 conducting a fast automated rendezvous and docking with the space station's Tianhe module on Nov. 30, 2022. [Photo/Xinhua]

As one of the engines driving China's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the country's science and technology innovation has been accelerated over the past more than three years.

China's space station program, the country's sci-tech flagship program, completed its planned tasks in the past three years, such as the maiden flight of the Long March-5B carrier rocket in 2020, the launch of the Tianhe core module in 2021, and the launch of the Mengtian and Wentian lab modules in 2022.

On Nov. 29, 2022, the Shenzhou-15 manned spacecraft was successfully launched and docked with the space station, marking the completion of all 12 missions planned for the verification of key technologies and the construction of the space station.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges to China's space industry, making it difficult to guarantee human resources for research and testing activities, said Wang Xiaojun, head of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, which is under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).

He added that the pandemic also affected communication and coordination, as well as supply chains and international cooperation.

However, the space industry managed to deal with such difficulties by embracing science-based control policies guided by the country's effective prevention and control measures, such as full vaccination coverage to protect personnel, and the adoption of a more flexible way of work, to ensure that all missions were completed on time, he said.

According to annual reports issued by the CASC, China achieved 39, 55 and 64 space launches in 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively, up significantly compared to the pre-pandemic period. In 2019, China managed 34 space launches.

The space industry is just one example of how China managed to develop its sci-tech innovation despite the impact of the pandemic.

According to annual statistics issued by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, which is under the Ministry of Science and Technology, as of September 2022, China had 1,808 hot papers, accounting for 41.7 percent of world's total and ranking first in the world.

Hot papers are papers published within the previous two years and which were cited enough times in the most recent two months to be placed in the top 0.1 percent when compared to peer papers. China had 1,056 hot papers in 2019, and the number grew to 1,375 in 2020 and 1,515 in 2021.

China's highly cited papers reached nearly 50,000 in 2022, accounting for 27.3 percent of the global total and ranking second in the world. Among 22 disciplines of highly cited scientific papers, China ranked first in five disciplines, namely agricultural science, material science, chemistry, computer science and engineering technology.

By comparison, the number of China's highly cited papers in 2019 was 30,755, or 20.0 percent of the world's total. This number grew to 37,170 and 23.0 percent in 2020, and 42,920 and 24.8 percent in 2021.

China's national high-tech zones also witnessed a robust rebound in recent years, underlining the contribution made by innovation to the economy.

China has established 173 national high-tech zones so far and will raise the number to 220 by the end of the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025). In 2021, national high-tech zones generated 13.4 percent of China's GDP.

According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, in the first nine months of 2022, 173 high-tech zones achieved a total industrial output of 23 trillion yuan (about 3.34 trillion U.S. dollars), an operating revenue of 36.1 trillion yuan, and an export value of 3.7 trillion yuan, respectively, with year-on-year growth of 7.8 percent, 6.6 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively.

A rise in China's ranking in the Global Innovation Index (GII), an annual ranking of the world's economies based on innovation capacity and output published by the World Intellectual Property Organization, reflects the progress made in sci-tech innovation in the past three years.

The Chinese mainland moved up to 11th place in the 2022 GII report, after having ranked 14th and 12th in 2020 and 2021, respectively. This elevation in ranking marked the Chinese mainland's 10th consecutive ascent, taking it to the top of the 36 upper middle-income economies.

In terms of innovation input sub-indicators, the Chinese mainland ranked first in terms of domestic market scale and the number of firms offering formal training.

In terms of innovation output sub-indicators, the Chinese mainland ranked first in patents by origin, utility models by origin, labor productivity growth, trademarks by origin and creative goods exports, according to the report. 

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