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This is part 3 of a series exploring the New National Innovation System (NNIS) in China, please see here for part 1, and here for part 2.


Central to the function of the national innovation system is the role of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST). The current restructure was initiated by the 20th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCCCP) in March 2023 as part of the annual Two Sessions. But it is actually the second major restructure at MoST in the past five years.

In 2018 the central government view was that MoST needed to take direct responsibility for the majority of R&D funding and policy across the whole of government. It was hoped that this centralised approach would solve the problem of siloed working and China’s technology bottlenecks by coordinating diverse resources towards specific goals. The ministry then absorbed responsibilities for 15 other state organisations to create one central mega-bureau.

Five years on, with the pressure on China mounting as various countries scale back research collaboration, introducing export controls and various other policies, the central government is desperate for China to become technologically self-sufficient. MoST is regarded as not delivering this key strategic priority and the 2018 reforms therefore a failure.

In 2023 a radically different approach is adopted.

Large swathes of responsibilities are reassigned away from MoST and its role sharpened into a compact agency that spearheads the most demanding national innovation projects and overall sci-tech strategy rather than getting bogged down in operational delivery. However, this risks losing the benefits that centralisation may have brought and therefore to avoid fragmentation, a new Party commission is set up to coordinate the system.

The Central Technology and Science Commission (CSTC)

Centralisation and Party control over the state are core features of Xi Jinping’s overall approach to governance. It’s therefore not surprising that the latest restructure has created a new Party body, likely chaired by Xi himself, to oversee the critical mission of technological self-sufficiency. The Central Technology and Science Commission (CSTC) has absorbed the responsibilities of various small leading groups and has the required status to ensure that the various ministries work effectively together.

One of the problems that MoST had previously as a mega-agency was that it lacked the ability to leverage and align other Ministries. Just as in the UK, science has rarely been the most prestigious central government department and old habits and hierarchies take time to change.

The new commission avoids this problem. While exact membership (or even the chair) isn’t currently public, it certainly includes the ministers and/or vice-ministers of all relevant ministries and therefore provides Xi with a direct forum to intervene and resolve any territorial squabbling. The Secretariat for the commission sits with MoST, making its instructions significantly harder to ignore.

One of the first actions (that we know of) by the CSTC was to order a discipline inspection and campaign of training at MoST. Something like this would have been necessary to get everyone up to speed on the new organisational structure and approach – just like the months-long campaign that surrounded the formation of UKRI. However, there are hints that this was also about perceived corruption, and the general view that MoST’s failure since 2018 was down to a lack of political discipline and zeal which urgently needed to be rectified.

The Details

The restructure is a massive change in direction from 2018. MoST’s overall budget has been cut and many of its responsibilities have been reallocated to various other ministries and agencies.

Under the previous structure, MoST worked closely with several sector-specific programme management centres, e.g. the Centre for Rural Development and Technology. These would fine tune the specific scope of a new call for proposals and oversee the resulting projects. Leaving the MoST officials to sign off budgets and set the general structure of the programmes without needing to be sector-experts themselves.

The 2023 restructure takes this approach further with the specialised Centres being reassigned to their respective ministries, giving each more direct control and responsibility for research in their sector. This leaves MoST with the primary responsibility for setting sci-tech policy and overseeing only the most strategically significant national technology missions.

For example, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) will take over the administration and evaluation of agriculture research projects. Likewise, the National Health Commission (NHC) will take responsibility for medical and bioscience research. Meanwhile, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA), which was absorbed by the MoST entirely in 2018, was then reassigned to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MHRSS) in 2023.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) is the biggest receiver of MoST responsibilities. It has been given responsibility for both high-tech development and industrial planning, as well as guiding the development of sci-tech industries and markets. It also now oversees both sci-tech industrial parks and the provincial high-tech and innovation departments giving it significantly more operational levers to guide a place-based research strategy that links to local industries and priorities.

Finally, NSFC has also received some of MoST’s funding responsibilities, including responsibility for climate change research. Given its importance for international collaborators, and the increasing budget for basic science, NSFC will be the topic for a future deep dive article.

Implications for International Stakeholders

The most immediate implication of the MoST restructure has been a significant reduction in transparency surrounding research and innovation policy. Historically MoST was a relatively open ministry. However, meeting readouts from the CSTC have not been published and even the membership is opaque. Coupled with the disciplinary campaign within MoST and the fact that many of its lower priority programmes have been distributed out, securing meetings with MoST officials and generally understanding what is going on has already become significantly more challenging.

Conversely, the reallocation now means that there are a number of other stakeholders which just became significantly more relevant for international research collaboration. It may be that working with the sector-specific agencies and ministries will be easier as they will have more direct access to both funding and expertise. MIIT in particular is one to watch as the massive network of science parks has historically been hard for international partners to engage with effectively. It may be that new ideas in this space could create interesting opportunities for collaboration.

Basic science is a key priority and has secured a significant budget increase last year. It follows that NSFC has enjoyed more power and flexibility because of the restructure and indeed we’ve seen some interesting new types of programmes emerge in recent months. NSFC is the partner of choice for many international institutions so changes there require careful attention.


The MoST restructure is the core of the 2023 reforms. As with the overall NNIS, the goal is to generate a notable change in the perceived efficiency of research investments – as measured by progress in key technology bottlenecks.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the extent to which this plan is successful will shape the next few decades of global great power competition, security, and trade.

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