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2023 saw a significant restructure of China’s science and technology policy and funding system. In this, the first in a series of articles reviewing the recent the changes, I’ll be introducing the overall trajectory of the national science ecosystem and an outline of the theoretical shape of the ‘New National Innovation System’ (NNIS). Future articles will dive into specific aspects of the changes such as the restructure of MoST, the reorganisation of State Key Labs, implications for NSFC, and more as the changes propagate throughout the government structure.

Historical Development

While there was a restructure of MoST and NSFC as part of the wider government reforms in 2018, the current changes are more substantial and have been widely described as a major shift in the overall organising logic of the science ecosystem.

Many Chinese authors (e.g. this recent article by He Defang,) describe several stages of the Chinese science ecosystem. These could be characterised as:

  1. Imperial and Revolutionary China (pre-1949)
  2. Founding of the PRC (1949) – Reform and Opening (1978)
  3. Reform and Opening (1978) – Beginning of the 21st century (2006)
  4. ‘Modern’ Period (2006 – 2022)
  5. New National Innovation System (2022 onwards)

Imperial China’s traumatic conflicts with the technologically superior Western empires has left a profound impact on China’s political economy. Making ‘modernisation’, and the development of technology and industrial capabilities, a core component of Chinese political thought that has continued throughout both the Republican Era and the contemporary People’s Republic.

Other commentators such as Sun (see table below) describe three stages of development since 1949. Each characterised by different organising principles, requirements and policies to promote technological development in line with the prevailing government priorities of the time.

Table outlining three main phases of development in China's national innovation system

Regardless of exact structure, what is critical to note is that the recent changes are intended to be as profound and far reaching as those that followed on from Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening in 1978.

Anyone with an interest in research collaboration with China, or China’s technological capabilities more generally, should therefore be watching these developments closely.

No longer modelled on the West

One of the reasons many countries’ national funding agencies found collaborating with NSFC so easy over recent years was that it was originally based on the model of the German DFG and the USA’s NSF. Similarly, the Chinese university system – while always retaining some distinctly PRC characteristics such as Party Committees and oversight – was originally intended to mirror other great international university systems.

What is becoming clear from the recent NNIS reforms, in parallel with similar shifts across the Chinese government system, is a significant shift away from such liberal systems of distributed stakeholders and open competition and towards a more centrally defined strategic approach.

Key Aspects of the NNIS

This diagram elegantly illustrates how Chinese policymakers conceptualise the science and innovation system as a whole and how they aim to balance and integrate market forces and competition with Party-State control and strategy.

Within this overall framework there have been, and will continue to be, many specific reforms and policies which deserve their own consideration in future articles, but to summarise:

  • Creation of the Central Science and Technology Commission: A new Party group that oversees and coordinates all government science and technology policies and strategies. The Commission’s secretariat is MoST, significantly elevating the Ministry’s status in the overall government structure.
  • Restructure of MoST: Following on from this new role, many of MoST’s funding and programme management responsibilities have been reallocated to other ministries – for example the Ministry of Environment and Ecology (MEE) took over the team delivering environmental programmes (CRTDC), and similar changes. In practice, MoST now has significantly less day-to-day involvement in grant/programme management, but a much larger role policy role in the sci-tech system as a whole.
  • Implications for NSFC: NSFC – continuing as a subordinate part of MoST – therefore becomes more influential as it now directly controls a significant proportion of MoST’s overall funding. Note – this is somewhat inferred, I need to do more research and will publish a more detailed article later.
  • Restructure of Key Lab system: Over recent years there has been a sustained effort to consolidate the existing Key Lab system. Cutting those Key Labs that were no longer meeting targets for various reasons. This actually started while I was still working in China and was directly involved in preparing Ningbo Municipal Key Lab applications so it is clear that the consolidation is intended to cut waste and consolidate resources at every level of government.
  • Renewed focus on ‘Talent’ programmes: One of the most interesting stories I picked up last year was that NSFC is now funding undergraduates to gain real research experience and setting targets for a significant rebalancing of grant funding towards early career researchers. This proactive focus on human capital, while also consolidating significant funding for the very best, is a core feature of the NNIS.

Implications of the NNIS

Several key documents on how these changes will be implemented have yet to be released. But both President Xi Jingping and Premier Li Qiang’s focus on technological self-sufficiency and innovation over the past year make it clear that research has become one of the highest priorities so we can expect an extensive restructure with changes permeating through the system over time.

Key points to expect include:

  • Substantially concentrated funding – National leading individuals and institutions, especially those working in high priority technology areas are going to see a significant increase in their funding, access to resources and preferential policy treatment.
  • Non-priority areas will weaken – By extension, collaboration in non-priority areas may become more challenging as institutions pivot their strategies towards government priorities to avoid missing out on available resources. This is particularly concerning for international collaboration as government priority areas are almost entirely those which would concern export control authorities.
  • Focus on integrated projects – The NNIS map included above emphasises the importance of creating a “government-user-industry-university-research” complex (政用产学研) so, projects that involve multiple stakeholders and the entire production or value chain are also likely to increase. The prospect of larger consortia, more likely to involve State Owned Enterprises (SoEs), will make due diligence for international collaboration significantly more challenging.
  • Personnel turnover – A stated goal of the NNIS is to focus on early career researchers, cut under performing teams or individuals and pursue a ‘whatever works’ approach to breaking technological barriers. It’s possible therefore that we may see a significant shift in power and influence away from some established academics – although the extent to which this is possible remains to be seen.


Dissatisfaction with the outcome of the 2018 restructuring of MoST and the USA’s implementation a technology containment strategy and therefore the need to establish technological self-sufficiency are driving a significant restructure of the Chinese research and innovation system.

The significant concentration of resources, under tighter state control in priority areas, and focus on enhanced stakeholder collaboration is likely to lead to significant short term breakthroughs in key technology bottlenecks.

I am however sceptical of whether this focus on immediate bottleneck areas will enable the kinds of genuinely novel research and the “30-year later Nobel prize” work that create entirely new fields. I would argue therefore that the NNIS is largely still a ‘catch up’ strategy rather than one that aims to shift China into a genuinely world-leading position.

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