On August 9, 2023, U.S. President Biden signed an executive order regarding technology investment. This order restricts U.S. investments and transactions in sensitive high-tech areas, including semiconductors, quantum computing, and AI, with China. This move further intensifies the “Cold War” hue of the U.S.’s recent crackdown and blockade on Chinese high-tech.
The U.S. policy of decoupling from Chinese high-tech reflects the intense global technological competition in the 2020s.”This competition, fiercer than ever before, is spreading across the globe. It will determine the allocation of a new wave of corporate dividends, the emergence of new technical geniuses, the success or failure of regional development, the outcomes of major power contests, and even the direction of the next phase of civilizational evolution.
Unlike the three technological revolutions of the past 300 years, major economies view technological transformation as a fundamental core capability for national security. They are restructuring their national security strategies in the face of the fourth technological revolution. The U.S. is striving to build a cohesive and leading Western position in technology, suppressing non-Western countries through a “high-tech Cold War,” based on the logic that technology determines national security.
China is not afraid of the “high-tech Cold War” and is confident in moving beyond the role of following high-tech developments to gradually becoming a competitor or even a leader in some areas. To comprehend this, it’s crucial to analyze the underlying logic of the fourth technological revolution and examine the main aspects of Western efforts to suppress Chinese technology. The importance of China’s continued pursuit of becoming a technological powerhouse can be appreciated only by understanding the deep logic of the global technological revolution and Western technology strategies. Avoiding comprehensive technological suppression by the West is a challenging task. China can become a leader in global technological competition and contribute to national resurgence and rejuvenation only by continuously deepening systemic reforms, including institutional innovation, system reform, talent motivation, and financial support.
01: In the next decade, the effects of the fourth technological revolution will be catalyzed.
Over the past 500 years, the rise and fall of great powers in the modern era have largely depended on whether a nation could capitalize on technological advancements to drive industrial development and strengthen national power. The United Kingdom seized the historical opportunity of the 18th-century mechanization revolution, building the grandeur of the “empire on which the sun never sets.” The United States capitalized on the waves of electrification in the 19th century and information technology in the 20th century, laying a solid foundation for over a century as the world’s leading economy and its post-World War II hegemonic status. The intense global technological competition reflects the deep understanding of decision-makers worldwide about the linear relationship between technological innovation and the rise of great powers.
Looking at the historical cycles of technological change and economic development, we are currently in a unique period transitioning from the “depression” caused by the tail end of the third technological revolution to the “recovery” emerging at the forefront of the fourth technological revolution. According to the Kondratiev theory of 50–60-year cyclical economic fluctuations, economic cycles accompanying technological changes exhibit patterns of “recovery, prosperity, recession, and depression.” The influence of the last wave of technological innovation on the economy can be categorized into four phases: recovery (early 1980s to 1990s), prosperity (around 2000), recession (around 2015), and depression (after 2015). Currently, the global economy is experiencing its most sluggish moment since World War II, marked by the waning “Internet+” wave, a general decline in asset prices, a sluggish real estate market, and the impact of the pandemic on global economic and trade operations.
Humanity must discover new technological breakthroughs to drive the next wave of economic growth. The impact of the new round of technological revolution, also termed the “Industrial Revolution,” is eloquently discussed by Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, in his book “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Transforming Power.” He states, “We are now experiencing the fourth industrial revolution, which is not confined to any specific field. It represents innovation in the entire system and is highly disruptive. This technological revolution is not just changing what we do and how we do it, but also who we are, our lives, and our perspectives of the world. The fourth global technological revolution is giving everyone a glimpse of hope”.
Building on the foundations of the 18th-century mechanization revolution, the 19th-century electrification revolution, and the 20th-century information revolution, the fourth global technological revolution of the 21st century is characterized by more three-dimensional, diversified, and leapfrogging innovation and transformation. Technological changes in space and ocean exploration aimed at expanding human living space, global energy technology transformations for zero-carbon, clean, efficient, and sustainable goals, life science technology transformations represented by brain-computer interfaces, gene editing, regenerative medicine, and synthetic biology, as well as manufacturing equipment technology transformations directed towards new materials, digitalization, and machine replacement, particularly in information technology transformations centered on AI, mobile communication, IoT, blockchain, quantum information, high-end chips, and the metaverse, are quietly altering the global landscape of industrial structures, economic maps, and national strengths.
Because the effects of the fourth global technological revolution will be stimulated, all countries recognize the critical importance of participating in this new round of technological revolution. Developed countries aim to maintain their lead by leveraging their inherent technological advantages. In contrast, developing nations hope to drive industrial upgrading through the technological revolution, achieving a leapfrogging enhancement in their comprehensive strength.
Contrary to the resistance shown by some national decision-makers to new technological revolutions in modern history, the lessons from the rise and fall of great powers over centuries serve as a clarion call to today’s decision-makers. Those who preemptively seize the high ground in the technological revolution will likely dominate the global value chain, gaining an early advantage in the future competition for national strength. This explains why, despite the recent slowdown in global economic, trade, and investment growth, sometimes even negative growth, the pace of technological change has kept up its pace. Between 2013 and 2022, global industrial R&D investment grew steadily at about 4.6% annually, significantly outpacing the economic growth rate of around 3.2%.
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) released the “Global Innovation Index 2022 report: What is the future of innovation-driven growth?” After measuring the innovation progress of 132 economies, it was found that despite disruptions since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, environmental degradation, and various geopolitical conflicts, R&D and related investments driving global innovation activities flourished in 2021—almost all economies were highly active in innovation, exceeding expectations. In 2021, global top companies’ R&D spending grew beyond the pre-pandemic levels of 2019, reaching over 900 billion USD. In the same year, the number of scientific papers published globally surpassed 2 million for the first time without the anticipated decline. Venture capital transactions surged by 46%, nearly matching the record levels during the internet boom of the late 1990s.
The 2023 WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) International Patent Report shows that 2022 PCT applications increased by 0.3% from the previous year, reaching 278,000 applications, the highest annual total ever recorded. Eight of the top 10 technological fields in PCT applications in 2022 experienced positive growth. Digital communication (+8.7%) and computer technology (+8.1%) saw the fastest growth, followed by semiconductors (+6.8%), biotechnology (+6.7%), and electrical machinery (+6.1%).
With continuous accumulation in technology investment, an increasing number of tech experts believe that disruptive breakthroughs in new technologies like quantum computing, controllable nuclear fusion, and AI will occur in the next decade. Each new technological advancement propelling explosive breakthroughs and exponential growth in new industries will also be accompanied by shifts in countries’ economic growth momentum, social evolution, and adjustments in the international political landscape. This can explain why U.S. President Biden has repeatedly emphasized that “the next ten years are the decisive decade for America’s fate.” In response, even under expectations of a relatively subdued mid-to-long-term economy, countries are still investing in R&D, particularly in strategic sectors like information technology represented by 5G and 6G communication, as well as A.I., aerospace, biomedicine, and life sciences, to secure strategic high ground and win the future.
02: The Nationalization of Global Technological Competition
Recently, China has emerged as the world’s top producer and exporter of technology products, the country with the highest number of published scientific papers in the natural sciences, and the leader in filing technology patents. Unlike the past three technological revolutions, major economies now view technological transformation as a fundamental capability essential for maintaining national security in the face of the fourth technological revolution. This understanding serves as a starting point for reforming their national security strategies.
For instance, in recent years, the United States released a new version of its “National Security Strategy,” emphasizing supply chain security, cutting-edge technology, and the development of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) talents. The Japanese government revised three important documents closely related to national strategy: the “National Defense Program Guidelines,” “National Security Strategy,” and “Mid-Term Defense Program,” highlighting the strategic role of advanced technology. The European Union issued the “Strategic Compass,” considering investment in technology and industrial bases as one of the pillars of E.U. security. Germany launched its first “National Security Strategy” post-World War II, extending the concept of security to technology and other fields.
The West, led by the United States, equates hegemonic maintenance with technological security. In this regard, Western countries, spearheaded by the United States, strive to create a leading and unified position in the “Dual Chains” of technology: On the physical level, they attempt to reconstruct the “value chain” of global high-tech production, supply, sales, and upgrading; on the conceptual level, they strengthen the “thought chain” characterized by Western values in terms of consistency or similarity of ideology. In response to this, the West has taken two significant measures:
2.1 Introducing Intensive Technological Strategies to Enhance Their Own Strength
In recent years, the United States has unprecedentedly frequently introduced technological strategies and investment policies. In June 2021, the U.S. Senate passed the “2021 U.S. Innovation and Competition Act,” earmarking the largest scale of technological innovation and production investment in decades (approximately 250 billion USD) to maintain the U.S.’s technological hegemony.
In August 2022, U.S. President Biden signed the 1054-page “2022 Chips and Science Act” at the White House, authorizing investments totaling about 280 billion USD, marking the official enactment of a law providing substantial subsidies to a single industry. This act includes a particularly unique clause: any chip company accepting U.S. subsidies must manufacture chips within the U.S. Additionally, the act proposes 10 billion USD to establish 20 technology research centers and invests 200 billion USD to enhance research and exploration in high-tech fields.
American President Joe Biden signs into law H.R. 4346, […]
The “Chips Act” plans to establish an “American Workforce and Education Fund,” providing 52.7 billion USD in subsidies to the semiconductor industry.
In May 2023, the White House in the United States unveiled a series of new initiatives centered around using and developing American AI. It updated and released the “National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan.” This plan aims for long-term investment in basic and responsible A.I. research.
The European Union’s strategic planning for “technological sovereignty” has also been swift. In February 2020, the European Commission promoted several technology strategy reports, including “Shaping Europe’s Digital Future,” “European Data Strategy,” and the “White Paper on Artificial Intelligence.” It plans to invest 100 billion euros to enhance R&D in digital technologies, aiming to consolidate Europe’s position in the global digital economy. In July 2022, the European Commission passed a strategic document named the “European Innovation Agenda” to propel European countries to take the lead in global technological innovation.
Japan feels a similar urgency. In 2020, the Japanese government developed or revised a series of scientific and technological innovation documents, including the “Basic Act on Science and Technology” and the “Comprehensive Strategy on Science, Technology, and Innovation 2020.” Japan increased financial investments and policy support to promote comprehensive digitalization and intelligent transformation of society. In the context of intensifying competition among nations in cutting-edge technological fields such as AI, biomedicine, 6G communication, quantum technology, space exploration, and new materials, Japan ensures that it keeps pace and consolidates its position in technological innovation in the international market.
2.2 Strengthening the Western Alliance of Values and Waging a “High-Tech Cold War” Against Competitors
As described in a series of lengthy articles published by The New York Times in July 2023, the United States’ blockade of Chinese chips is tantamount to warfare. In recent years, to counter the rapid rise of emerging economies, including China, in technology, the United States has intensified its steps in waging a “high-tech cold war.” The U.S. has led the coordination on emerging technology issues and driven the permanent platform for international trade, the “U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council” (TTC). The TTC convened four meetings in September 2021, May and December 2022, and May 2023, focusing on the struggle for high-tech standards and aiming to counteract the growing influence of what it calls “non-market economies.”
Furthermore, the United States has adopted a “small yard, high fence” strategy to create a “high-tech alliance,” intending to block technological exports to its competitors completely. This strategy has been encouraged by the corporate sector. For example, in May 2021, technology giants and chip manufacturers from 64 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan, formed the “Semiconductor Industry Association of America” (SIAC) to pressure the White House to implement chip subsidies. In March 2022, the “Chip 4” alliance, comprising the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan of China, was established as a production closed-loop, attempting to exclude Chinese companies. In July of the same year, U.S. Treasury Secretary Yellen proposed “friend-shoring,” emphasizing reducing dependence on China and building a new transnational value chain of high-tech products with “trustworthy friendly countries.”
In April 2022, the United States announced its intention to build an “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet” and, together with 60 global partners, released the “Declaration for the Future of the Internet.” This aimed to create a “digital alliance,” or a technological version of NATO, centered around the United States within the global internet. In August 2023, U.S. President Biden signed an executive order to establish a foreign investment review mechanism, limiting U.S. entities from investing in China’s semiconductor, microelectronics, quantum information technology, and A.I. sectors, further intensifying the “cold war” tone of the “high-tech blockade” against China.
At the same time, the United States has strategically adjusted its relations with some emerging economies with good relations. For instance, it has wooed ASEAN to strengthen technology value chain cooperation between the United States and ASEAN and fully courted India, attempting to create a technological encirclement against China. In summary, Western countries, led by the United States, are fully engaged in enhancing their technological strength internally and constructing a technological barrier externally. This mirrors the logic of the United States during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, attempting to defeat its opponent by dividing into two camps. This reflects the current global economic development and political turbulence and indicates intense technological competition against the backdrop of increasingly fierce major power rivalries.
The “New Cold War” against Chinese technology has become a consensus among many strategic scholars in the United States. As one article from the renowned RAND Corporation states, “Both the United States and China are racing to develop AI and other emerging technologies to gain a competitive edge in an ongoing series of global contests over power, security, wealth, influence, and status. … A primary responsibility of the U.S. government—and specifically, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)—is to identify and develop the technology that is most likely to advance U.S. interests vis-à-vis China and ensure the United States stays ahead in these key areas. To do this, the Pentagon can draw some important lessons by turning back to America’s last epic technological competition with a peer adversary: the U.S.-Soviet race to develop nuclear weapons during the Cold War.”
Clearly, the fourth technological revolution humanity is experiencing now is not just a “geopolitical” or “geo-economic” adjustment but also involves a “geo-civilizational” evolution stemming from “geo-technological” changes. Whoever achieves the forefront breakthroughs in technological innovation may seize the early opportunities for future economic development. Some American strategic scholars believe that if China led the fourth technological revolution, it would undoubtedly signify the official decline of Western civilization. Western countries must drive the strategic competition of technological transformation, fighting for the monopoly and leading in cutting-edge innovation capabilities, thereby continuing to dominate the international rules system.
03: China Must Have Confidence in Its Technology
In response to the technological suppression by the United States, many in China feel pessimistic about the future. Some scholars often cite the example that only one Chinese person has won the Nobel Prize in Natural Sciences for research conducted in China to argue that China’s technology is far behind the West, especially the United States. However, history has shown that the Nobel Prize, focusing on basic research, has a certain lag effect and is insufficient to fully reflect the current state of a country’s technological development.
Before the 1940s, the United States, the world’s leading industrial and economic power for decades, still lagged significantly behind European countries in the number of Nobel Prizes in Natural Sciences. As a major country maintaining the world’s largest industrial production value and the second-largest economic volume, China’s current modest number of Nobel Prizes does not fully and objectively reflect its real technological strength.
As the prominent American think tank Eurasia Group pointed out, “Yet, the costs of decoupling may outweigh the gains. It won’t cripple China’s tech sector, but merely ‘slows down China at the cost of hurting US companies at the same time,’ … One way the US-China tech race could acquire Cold War vibes is by creating a bipolar world where Chinese technology reigns supreme in Asian and African nations but is blocked from the West.” The sudden increase in crisis awareness in the United States and the subsequent formulation and implementation of a series of “high-tech cold war” response strategies by the Western world itself demonstrate China’s significant emergence in the fourth technological revolution.
In 2016, the Chinese government proposed a “three-step” strategy for technological rise in the “Outline of the National Innovation-Driven Development Strategy”: After entering the ranks of innovative countries by 2020, the goal is to be among the forefront of innovative countries by 2030 and then to become a world-leading country in scientific and technological innovation by 2050. The report of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China explicitly stated: “By 2035… achieve a high level of self-reliance and self-improvement in science and technology, and enter the forefront of innovative countries.” These strategic development outlines are gradually becoming a reality.
In recent years, China has successively become the world’s leading producer and exporter of technological products, the country with the most published scientific papers in the field of natural sciences, and the nation filing the most technological patents. In 2022, China ascended to the top position in the “Nature Index,” which measures high-quality research output. China’s investment in R&D has consistently ranked second in the world. These indicators not only corroborate the current state and future potential of China’s technological innovation but also represent new strategic opportunities for the development of Chinese technology.
A 2021 research report jointly authored by prominent scholars from Harvard University and the University of Cambridge, titled “The Great Tech Rivalry: China VS the U.S.,” points out that in the next ten years, China is expected to approach, if not surpass closely, the United States in fields including quantum information, semiconductors, biotechnology, AI, 5G communication, and clean energy. The report also states that China’s rapid technological advancement poses a challenge to America’s dominance in these areas, noting, “In some fields, China has already surpassed the United States; in others, based on the current trajectory, China is expected to overtake the United States in the next decade”.
Driven by its innovation strategy, China has achieved numerous globally recognized technological accomplishments in recent years. Chinese supercomputers have topped the world rankings for several consecutive years; significant achievements in human-crewed spaceflight, lunar exploration, and the “Tiangong,” “Shenzhou,” “Chang’e,” and “Long March” series have been made; and the Beidou Navigation System has officially entered a new era of global networking services. Advances in nanocatalysis, metallic nanostructured materials, iron-based superconducting materials, and high-temperature gas-cooled nuclear reactors place China at the forefront globally. Major scientific research infrastructures like the spallation neutron source, the full superconducting tokamak nuclear fusion device, and the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope have laid a solid foundation for China to conduct world-class scientific experiments.
Furthermore, a new pattern of mutual shaping and positive circulation among Chinese finance, technology, and industry is gradually forming. The role of finance in driving technological innovation is growing, becoming more targeted, and broadening its impact. By June 2023, the combined market value of the 204 companies listed on the Beijing Stock Exchange had surpassed 266.8 billion RMB, and the 542 companies on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s STAR Market totaled a market value of 6.72 trillion RMB. Notably, the balance of loans to high-tech manufacturing, technology SMEs, and “specialized and innovative” enterprises has maintained a growth rate of over 20% for three consecutive years, with long-term loans in the high-tech manufacturing sector growing by 41.5% year-on-year.
International technology data also shows that China’s technological progress is robust. In 2020, China’s exports of high-tech products reached 757.7 billion USD, a 6% increase year-on-year, ranking fourth globally; the proportion of high-tech manufacturing in the manufacturing sector reached 48.1%, a 1% increase from 2018, ranking 14th globally; income from intellectual property rights reached 8.9 billion USD, a 34% increase year-on-year. In 2022, China’s exports of high-tech products increased by another 4.0% year-on-year. As evaluated in the report of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, “basic research and original innovation have been continuously strengthened. Breakthroughs have been made in some key core technologies. Strategic emerging industries have grown robustly. Significant achievements have been made in manned spaceflight, lunar and Martian exploration, deep-sea and deep-earth exploration, supercomputing, satellite navigation, quantum information, nuclear power technology, large aircraft manufacturing, and biomedicine, placing China among the ranks of innovative countries.”
It cannot be denied that in this round of major technological competition, the United States still plays a crucial role as a “leader.” However, the balance of technological transformation is tilting towards emerging economies, particularly in Asia. The United States is showing a long-term slowdown trend in multiple technological advancement indicators, mainly in areas such as semiconductor performance, battery price, cost of renewable energy sources (excluding wind energy), and biopharmaceutical R&D.
In response, the WIPO’s “Global Innovation Index 2022” notes that the top 100 global Science and Technology (S&T) clusters are primarily concentrated in three regions: North America, Europe, and Asia, particularly in two countries: China and the United States (both with 21 clusters, with China having the same number of top 100 technology clusters as the U.S. for the first time). This is followed by Germany with 10 clusters and Japan with 5. The top five global technology clusters (1 in Japan, 2 in China, 1 in South Korea, and 1 in the USA) have 4 in East Asia.
Given this rapidly developing data, it becomes crucial to objectively assess China’s latest technological development status. It is necessary to realistically recognize the areas where China’s core technologies are still behind the United States, the “intestinal obstruction” in hard-tech transformation, and the relative shortage of high-end technology talent. However, it is also essential to have confidence in technology and acknowledge the historic and comprehensive changes happening in China’s technology sector in recent years.
04 How to Break Through the “New High-Tech Cold War”
General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out in his speech at the 19th Chinese Academy of Sciences and the 14th Chinese Academy of Engineering, “We have reached a historic intersection of a new round of technological revolution and industrial transformation with our country’s change in development methods, facing both a once-in-a-lifetime historical opportunity and the severe challenge of widening gaps.” In the foreseeable future of the “New High-Tech Cold War,” the goal of building China into a strong scientific and technological country and achieving high-level technological self-reliance and self-improvement, as mentioned in the report of the 20th Party Congress by 2035, becomes more challenging. Therefore, efforts to break through, reconstruct the new situation, lead changes, and rejuvenate the overall situation are necessary to break the current “New High-Tech Cold War”.
Regarding post-pandemic recovery, China’s economic development still faces comprehensive impacts from three years of the pandemic. Addressing the inadequacy of innovation-driven capabilities requires new momentum from institutional openness and mechanism reforms. For instance, there’s a need for special measures to introduce high-tech talents globally, to combine technological inputs with a unified domestic market, to stimulate social and market expectations and confidence in investing in technology, and to promote reforms and circulation in the factor markets, enhancing per capita labor productivity.
Regarding major power competition, China must break through Western encirclement by adopting open innovation strategies. While recognizing gaps and identifying shortcomings, continue seeking opportunities for cross-border cooperation. Focus on cultivating core areas such as AI core algorithms, optoelectronic chips, and lithography machines, leveraging the systemic advantage of concentrating resources on major tasks to resolve “neck-holding” technologies and forge “game-changing” technologies; strengthen national strategic technological forces concerning national security and people’s welfare.
In terms of economic development, increase countercyclical adjustment efforts to ensure that the proportion of fiscal input into technology does not decrease. Pay more attention to the primary role of enterprises, particularly in boosting their confidence to invest in R&D.
China must fully unleash the potential of insufficient supply and flow of elements such as talent, capital, and information and address the deficiencies in mechanisms and systems for technology result application, evaluation, licensing, transfer, rights confirmation, and benefit distribution. Enhancing the efficiency of financial services through technological innovation is crucial to addressing the persistent issue of many technological achievements remaining in the “laboratory” and “patent books.”
More importantly, China should build an “industry-university-people-research” collaborative innovation and linkage system. Encourage research institutions to fully consider market needs, local R&D to serve national objectives, developed areas to support less developed ones, and private inventions while fully protecting patents. This will foster a multi-level, multi-regional, and multi-field new atmosphere of technological innovation. Additionally, further progress can be made by intensifying the transformation of “new infrastructure,” expanding new industries, and accelerating the efficiency of technological market conversion.
Facing the current selfish and conservative trends of the West in frontier scientific and technological innovation, China can break through radical protectionism, isolationism, xenophobia, and populism in the field of technology. Increasing the frequency and scope of sharing high-tech with more developing countries can mitigate and counter Western suppression. Also, forming a cross-border technology demand capture mechanism and collecting technology intelligence in a bottom-up, multi-party, participatory manner is essential. Furthermore, China can intensify the construction of offshore innovation centers and international technology incubation platforms, dynamically adjust and optimize technology policies, continuously attract top talents with special policies, bring global high-end talents and cutting-edge technologies closer to China, and aim to serve the win-win development of all countries, creating a world-leading new scientific center.
Enhance the breadth and precision of frontier technology’s social application to serve Chinese society’s governance better. Regarding social governance with Chinese characteristics, exploring world-leading new energy and new economic operation models and widely applying the combination of technology for good and market profitability to all corners of society is increasingly important. Particularly using new technological scenarios to drive post-modern social settings and create a series of world-leading developed cities, showcasing the superiority of Chinese-style modernization through exemplary and benchmark urbanization processes. Thus, the goal of China as a “strong technological country” serving society and individuals will naturally become a soft power admired by other countries.
In summary, facing the prospect of a global “high-tech cold war,” China should not be discouraged; instead, it should seize this new historical opportunity and develop formidable technology, ambition, spirit, and strength. Building on the foundation of the new technological revolution, China can initiate a new era of interconnected high technology, promoting innovation in technological mechanisms and systems, ultimately serving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and contributing to the building of a community with a shared future for humanity.