China invests in tech innovation

BEIJING -- Nothing symbolizes this country's drive to be a dominant player in the tech world more than the giant technology park in the capital city that covers 90 square miles and has given rise to some of China's biggest tech companies. Zhongguancun Science Park, which includes more than 20,000 companies, is considered the world's largest government-backed technology innovation zone. It has been replicated on a smaller scale dozens of times across the country in an effort by China to create its own Silicon Valley.

"We hope that in some IT fields, we can dominate," said Yang Jianhua, deputy director general of the People's Government of Beijing Municipal Administrative Committee of Zhongguancun Science Park, also known simply as Z Park.

Last year alone, about 4,000 tech startups were launched in Zhongguancun, dubbed "electronics avenue" because of its link to technology and a massive cluster of high-rise gadget malls in the area. The park offers everything from tax and rent subsidies to venture funding to ignite Chinese innovation. And like Silicon Valley, Z Park includes two of the nation's top-rated universities, Peking and Tsinghua, as well as the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"There is nothing like it in the world," marveled Richard Suttmeier, a University of Oregon expert on Chinese science policy. Yet Z Park deputy director Yang concedes there remains "a great distance between Zhongguancun Park and Silicon Valley. It is very difficult for us to catch up." China's efforts on that front do not end with industrial parks, however. 

Last year, China surpassed Japan as the second-highest funder of research and development. Though it still lags behind the United States, it is gaining ground. The United States is forecast to spend $436 billion in R&D this year, versus $199 billion for China, according to the Battelle Memorial Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, research organization.

China has the world's second most powerful supercomputer, behind Japan and ahead of the United States. Of the world's top 500 supercomputers -- machines that can make trillions of calculations every second -- 74 are in China, up from just 10 in 2007. Dieter Ernst, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based East-West Center, an education and research nonprofit funded by the U.S. government, told a congressional commission last summer that China had surpassed South Korea and Europe in total patents and was closing in on the United States and Japan. Still, China's most successful companies to date have proved to be more adept at mimicking an existing technology or business model than creating breakthrough innovations.


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