In This Issue
Engineering in China
June 1, 1998 Volume 28 Issue 2
The Bridge, Volume 28, Number 2 - Summer 1998

China's High-Tech Successes

Monday, June 1, 1998

Author: Hui Yongzheng

From genetically engineered rice and cancer therapies to advanced computing, fiber optics, and automation, China is working hard to develop - and commercialize - a broad range of important technologies.

China is a populous developing country with relatively limited natural resources, uneven economic development, underdeveloped science and technology (S&T), and a lagging education system. Since its adoption of reform and openness policies 20 years ago, China has focused its efforts on economic development. Although remarkable progress has been made, these efforts have followed the traditional extensive-growth model, which depends mostly on labor-intensive and primary-products-processing industries. This growth model is not sustainable.

In order to develop sustainable, internationally competitive industries, China has decided to make economic development the central task and primary goal of its S&T enterprise. Thus, S&T problems that have a bearing on the national economy and social development are our top priority.

In order to meet the challenge of global high-tech development, many countries and regions, like the European Community, have drafted high-tech development plans. In 1986, after consulting with more than 200 top scientists, China launched its own High-Tech Research and Development Program, also known as the "863 Program" (for the year and month, March, in which the plan was implemented). The program covers such areas as biotechnology, space technology, information technology, lasers, automation, advanced materials, energy technology, and marine technology. To date, the 863 Program has supported more than 10,000 projects. In what follows, I will describe some of our more interesting achievements.

Chinese biotechnology has been reshaped over the past decade through work in such areas as plant genomics, transgenic technology, and genetically engineered medicines and vaccines. Advances related to the sustainable growth of China's agriculture are particularly noteworthy. Using the "two-line method" invented by Chinese scientists, we have successfully cultivated many new varieties of high-yield, high-quality, pest-resistant hybrid rice. From 1986 to 1997, the accumulated growing area for these hybrids has reached 1.6 million acres; accumulated yield for the same period is 1 billion kg. Chinese scientists have mastered the key technology of transgenic cotton and have successfully cloned and transferred pest-resistant genes into major cotton varieties. Trial plantings have been conducted across large areas of the country. China was the first nation in the world to establish the complete rice genome BAC (bacterial artificial chromosome) library. Chinese scientists have determined the frame structures of all 12 rice chromosomes, a total of 430 million nucleotides. The frame structures cover 98 percent of all rice genomes. By 2000, we hope to have laid the theoretical and technological bases for cultivating new rice varieties.

Engineered Drugs and Vaccines
Under the 863 Program, China has established pilot production plants for 20 genetically engineered drugs and vaccines. Chinese scientists have conducted extensive research on many genes related to major human diseases, including cancer. Researchers have also made important progress in transgenic technology, cloning five goats with the gene for human Factor IX, a key protein involved in blood coagulation. China has made the first interferon a-1b cloned from a human gene. The substance is undergoing clinical testing and will soon enter large-scale production.

The Chinese government realizes that information technology is an indispensable part of the infrastructure of a modern economy. In this important area, we have made significant progress in large-scale parallel processing technology. We have successfully developed the "Dawning" series of high-performance computers, helping build the foundation of an internationally competitive computer industry in China. China-made SPC digital exchanges now enjoy a 30 percent share of the Chinese market, which represents one-quarter of the world market, and we hope to market this technology internationally. The first optical-fiber communication line using China-made 2.5 Gb/s SDH optical fiber transmission system was installed in Haikou-Wanning-Sanya in 1997. We have also developed the 8 x 2.5 Gb/s SDH wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) system, which is China's first optical-fiber transmission system with an on-line light amplifier. The system has a regeneration transmission distance of 360 km and maximum transmission capacity of 20 Gb/s. China is one of the few countries in the world that has this kind of capability in large-capacity, high-speed WDM light-transmission systems.

The 863 Program has also been responsible for great advances in the area of automation technology. In 1994, China's Computer Integrated Manufacturing System (CIMS) Engineering Center won the "University Lead Award" given by the U.S Society of Manufacturing Engineers. CIMS technology will serve as a model for the reform of China's industrial technology base. To date, CIMS pilot projects have been conducted in almost 70 companies throughout China, including those in the machinery, electronics, aviation, and textile industries. These enterprises have seen increased profits as a result of implementing the CIMS approach. We believe CIMS technology will significantly raise the overall level of Chinese manufacturing capability and, in the process, help in our transition from an economic-growth model to one based on high technology.

So-called intelligent robots have made great contributions to Chinese science and technology. The success of the 6,000-m automated underwater robot is particularly noteworthy. In 1997, the robot conducted explorations of seabed landforms and multimetallic nodule abundance in the Pacific Ocean, generating much valuable data. Research in intelligent robots facilitates developments in related areas, such as systems engineering, navigation and control technology, sensor technology, acoustics, and high-efficiency energy sources.

In the field of advanced materials, 863 Program initiatives have contributed to important progress in the development of nonlinear optical crystals. Chinese research in nonlinear ultraviolet optical crystals and in solid tunable blue-violet lasers is internationally competitive, and Chinese engineers have made breakthroughs in nickel-hydrogen battery manufacturing. China has worked to commercialize its high-tech achievements through the so-called Torch Program. By means of loans or investments, the Torch Program supports scientists and engineers who want to transfer their research results into business opportunities. In the meantime, we have set up 53 High and Emerging Technology Industry Development Zones across China. The zones provide investors with necessary infrastructure, like transportation, telecommunications, and banking and insurance services, to facilitate business development. Over the past decade, these zones have been a great success. For instance, in 1997, the total industrial output of the zones amounted to 320 billion RMB yuan, and total experts reached 5.5 billion U.S. dollars.

In another effort to foster its high-tech industry, China is using government funds and other incentives to nurture the development of new disciplines. In the area of high definition television (HDTV), for example, we plan to establish a trial broadcasting station by 2000; define technical standards for HDTV; create a market for the production and transmission of HDTV programs; and stimulate the development of other industries related to HDTV. Recently, we conducted our first HDTV closed-circuit demonstration, and there will be an open-circuit demonstration this coming August.

Only by developing its own capabilities and collaborating with international partners can China hope to compete internationally. In the high-tech arena, China has always promoted international cooperation. Chinese scientists are encouraged to take part in international conferences and cooperative research. To date, we have established high-tech collaborations with more than 20 countries. For example, in 1997, China and the United States undertook 19 joint projects in the area of magnetic-bound nuclear fusion research. In many respects, Chinese high-tech research has become part of the global high-tech R&D enterprise.

About the Author:Hui Yongzheng is vice-minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology, People's Republic of China.