China is not the only nation to drastically improve its science capacity in recent years, but China’s rise has been particularly dramatic. This has left U.S. policy experts and government officials worried about how China’s scientific supremacy will shift the global balance of power. China’s recent ascendancy results from years of governmental policy aiming to be tops in science and technology. The country has taken explicit steps to get where it is today, and the U.S. now has a choice to make about how to respond to a scientifically competitive China.
Growth across decades
In 1977, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the Four Modernizations, one of which was strengthening China’s science sector and technological progress. As recently as 2000, the U.S. produced many times the number of scientific papers as China annually. However, over the past three decades or so, China has invested funds to grow domestic research capabilities, to send students and researchers abroad to study, and to encourage Chinese businesses to shift to manufacturing high-tech products.
Thanks to all this investment and a growing, capable workforce, China’s scientific output – as measured by the number of total published papers – has increased steadily over the years. In 2017, Chinese scholars published more scientific papers than U.S. researchers for the first time.
Quantity does not necessarily mean quality though. For many years, researchers in the West wrote off Chinese research as low quality and often as simply imitating research from the U.S. and Europe. During the 2000s and 2010s, much of the work coming from China did not receive significant attention from the global scientific community.