Beijing’s call for foreign R&D investment ‘a signal’ to West

US is the ‘elephant in the room’ in a policy that seeks to attract overseas talent and money, says academic

February 6, 2023
Lab science
Source: iStock

Universities in the West should read between the lines on China’s recent message welcoming foreign investment into its research, academics have said.

Last month Beijing released a notice to “further encourage foreign investment to establish R&D centres” in China. The move is meant to “help to introduce cutting-edge technologies and high-end talents” from around the world, an official at the Ministry of Commerce told media.

Under the policy, China’s government would provide tax incentives for foreign entities to support innovation and back Chinese localities in “optimising the approval procedures, simplifying application materials, and providing more convenience for qualified foreign-funded R&D centres”. Overseas researchers would be offered five-year visas to work in China.

But some academics believe the move may be more symbolic than practical. 

Da Hsuan Feng, an honorary dean of Hainan University Belt and Road Research Institute, said that China seeking outside funding for its research and development was “unusual”, particularly given the huge sums of money required for research. He was sceptical that funding was the true aim of the message. 

“This is a token of how China is enthusiastic about foreign participation, rather than a dollar amount. Because the amount is bound to be peanuts,” he said.

While Beijing’s announcement didn’t mention which countries it seeks to attract funding or talent from, it was clear that the US is the “elephant in the room”, said Professor Feng, noting tension between the two countries.

But even if US universities were interested in funding any activities in China, current laws do not allow for it, he said.

“Any dollar exchange between universities from China and the US would be dimly viewed by the US Congress. However, other universities in Singapore and southeast Asia…and countries the US may not consider as friends, such as Iran…could be interested.”

Fei Shu, a research service consultant at the University of Calgary, was sceptical that many universities or businesses in Western countries would want to invest in China’s research and development, even if this were allowed.

“We know that the Sino-Western relationship is very cool,” he said, noting underlying trust issues, with Western governments wary of Chinese espionage.

Dr Shu believed that the message was still targeted at the West, but intended “for foreign scholars – to show they’re welcome” after China’s zero-Covid policy brought travel into the country to a standstill, crippling research collaborations.

The document mentions strengthening protections for intellectual property, something scholars believe is meant to reassure Western readers.

David Zweig, director of the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, was more optimistic about the prospect of Western investment in Chinese research. Still, potential investors would have to be assured of the right conditions, he noted.  

“China needs to protect the IP of these R&D centres and of the people who work there, many of whom will be returnees who have foreign passports and talented people who want to return,” he said.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles