Global Science Park

/ by Mara Hvistendahl /

The Chinese are rolling out science as a tool for foreign policy.

When Zhangjiang High-Tech Park was established in 1992 at the end of Shanghai’s subway line, it embodied China’s scientific ambitions. With its world-class labs along new, tree-lined streets and offices designed to attract foreign companies, Zhangjiang was conceived as a concentrated center of global intellectual exchange — a scientific counterpart to China’s capitalist Special Economic Zones of the 1980s and 90s. 

The intellectual exchange took off with a bang: Fifteen years later, there are now 52 science parks just like Zhangjiang throughout China. And as China surpasses Japan to become, in terms of percentage of GDP, the world’s second-largest investor in research and development, many of these science parks are vying for the title of “China’s Silicon Valley.” Following from its domestic success, China is deploying its science-park model abroad, building on existing international scientific relationships while forging new ones, in an aggressive form of science diplomacy. The country has funded five foreign Zhangjiang spinoffs in as many years — in Russia, Singapore, the UK, and in one American state, Maryland.

While such initiatives promote scientific cooperation, they also serve China’s crucial foreign-policy aims. As it endeavors to increase its “soft power” — emphasizing its economic and cultural strengths over its military might in its quest for global influence — Beijing is underwriting public-works projects and opening cultural and linguistic Confucius Institutes throughout the world. The new scientific diplomacy builds on efforts such as these by using China’s research strengths to cultivate allies abroad. “There is a very conscious and considered approach to international cooperation [in China],” says Richard Suttmeier, an expert in Chinese science policy at the University of Oregon’s Center for Asian and Pacific Studies. “It ranges from using international cooperation to enhance Chinese science to using Chinese science to serve foreign policy.”

Science diplomacy once played an important role in American foreign policy, helping ease relations with the Soviet Union and, in the 1970s, with China. The level of China’s commitment to scientific diplomacy is evidenced by the extent of the initiative’s organization: It has an entire infrastructure devoted to building scientific connections overseas, with the foreign science-park scheme, for example, overseen by a dedicated international cooperation bureau under the Ministry of Science and Technology. Some regional divisions are headed by former diplomats. “In the US, you can find a few people in technical agencies who have been active in [scientific diplomacy],” Suttmeier says. “But that’s not the same as the specialized staff you have in China.”

In keeping with China’s foreign-policy aims, the most ambitious initiatives involve “South-South” cooperation with developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In Brazil, China is collaborating on satellite construction, while in Africa, it is funding trials on artemisin-based drugs as part of a $37.5 million project to fight malaria. When African leaders came to Beijing last November for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, China pledged to build 10 agricultural-research centers throughout Africa and double the number of African students on scholarship in China to 4,000 a year by 2009.

China’s flagship foreign science park is also in a developing country: Moscow’s Sino-Russian Friendship Science and Technology Park. Since its unveiling in 2003, the two countries have collaborated on energy, chemical industry, and the environment. And this year’s elaborate Chinese-backed program for the “Year of China in Russia” includes dozens of science events showcasing Chinese work in areas like biotechnology, energy efficiency, and drug development.

Just as China is making headway in its soft-power campaign — more people in the world now view the country more favorably than the US, according to a recent poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes — so, too, it is succeeding in science diplomacy. Mohammed Hassan, a Sudanese physicist and chairman of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, says China’s attention to developing-world issues is a boon to research communities that are trying to tackle mounting problems with limited resources. “This new interest of China in Africa is very encouraging to African scientists,” he says. “China is moving very strongly in its contribution to knowledge.”
Such a reaction is precisely what China’s leaders, as they evaluate the success of the science-park program, would like to hear — meaning that going forward, China’s scientific development could increasingly carry geopolitical implications.

Originally published August 13, 2007

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