When researchers from Beijing Genomics Institute and Chongqing’s Southwest University sequenced the silkworm genome and splashed their discovery across the pages of Science in 2004, few in the West were surprised that the discovery came from China. The country was emerging as a major player in genomics research. Scientists at BGI had helped sequence the human genome in 2001, following it up the next year with a draft sequence of the rice genome. But Chongqing? Why Chongqing?
This sprawling, grimy metropolis at the mouth of the Yangtze River, has long been known — when it is known as anything at all — as the Detroit of China, turning out cars for rich cities in the East. But now, Chongqing is evolving into a center of research and innovation. By 2020, local officials say, science will account for 2.5 percent of the municipal GDP — up from the current 1 percent — and 60 percent of economic growth. This year, the city will complete construction on China’s largest science zone — a vast mega-park designed to supplant Beijing’s Zhongguancun, China’s answer to Silicon Valley.
When China plunged into development in the 1980s, its leaders followed a targeted strategy: Overhaul select cities on the eastern seaboard and watch them grow. Science was part of that plan. Beijing and Shanghai unveiled shining high-tech zones to attract foreign R&D and bolster local research — and these cities flourished accordingly.
But they flourished a little too much. Along with the delta area near Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai are now responsible for 45 percent of China’s GDP. As their brightest graduates are lured East, parts of the countryside are now at risk of stagnation. And so the Chinese government launched an ambitious initiative, drawing on 19th-century American patterns of settlement: “Go West.”
While the American frontier was settled by farmers and gold-seekers, however, the Chinese push rests on science and technology. “The grand goal is to create a stronger economy China-wide,” says Richard Brubaker, director of Shanghai consulting firm China Strategic Development Partners, which advises foreign companies looking to invest or outsource in second-tier Chinese cities. The government realizes, Brubaker adds, that “the higher the level of innovation in these cities, the stronger their economies are going to be.”
Along with Chongqing, the western cities of Kunming and Chengdu are emerging as centers for science and technology. Together, these cities are buoyed by strong university systems and low overhead costs. And while Shanghai and Beijing are tightening their tax codes and regulatory frameworks, inland cities provide tax and rent breaks, conduct job fairs, and handle logistical issues for foreign firms interested in investing in R&D.
Chinese science has always emphasized issues of local or developing world importance. The western cities are thus learning to play up their individual strengths. Chengdu, for instance, a pleasant, historic city with an international airport linking it to Europe and other parts of Asia, is becoming a high-tech leader. Its science parks already house the research arms of 18 Fortune 500 companies. Kunming, a semi-tropical provincial capital once primarily seen as a tourism hub, is leveraging its proximity to medicinal herbs, emerging as a hotbed of pharmaceutical research. And Chongqing, an independent municipality that encompasses large swaths of farmland, is encouraging investment in biotech and agricultural science.
With the infrastructure in place, the challenge for these cities now is attracting qualified scientists. Once, “West” meant only one thing in Chinese science: San Jose and Cambridge. But through incentives and blatant campaigns — the headline of one early People’s Daily article declares “Scientists Go West to Help Farmers” — the Chinese government is encouraging scientists educated in the East to relocate to the interior. At the same time, European- and American-educated scientists are returning to help jumpstart the Chinese science frontier. Chengdu is being remade, in part, with Silicon Valley money from these returnees.
If things go well in the provincial capitals, the plan is to take science to smaller cities throughout western China. Cities like Sichuan province’s Mianyang, which is responsible for much of China’s nuclear research, already show promise.
For Chongqing, meanwhile, the initiative could signal an end to its days of car production. “China is moving toward the high end of the supply chain,” says Shirley Dong, China specialist and global location strategy manager for Deloitte & Touche in Chicago. “They are moving upstream. Research and development is the priority now.”
Originally published December 13, 2007