Learning from China – Atta-Ur-Rahman

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On October 24, 2019, a very special function was held at the Hunan University of Chinese Medicine in the city of Changsha, in the Hunan province of China.

A beautiful and large six-storey research institute was named after me on the occasion of a major international conference. It is said to be probably the first building named after a Muslim scientist in China, which was a truly humbling experience. It is named the ‘Academician Professor Atta-ur-Rahman One Belt and One Road Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Research Center’. The function was attended by our Federal Minister of Science and Technology Fawad Hussain Chaudhary. It was heartwarming to see throngs of Pakistani students gather around the minister and raise slogans in favour of the PTI government.

The amazing developments in the field of science and technology, particularly in the last three decades, have forcefully demonstrated that nations investing in quality education, science, technology and innovation can spring forward rapidly and become world economic leaders. China is a good example to follow in this connection. China has drastically reduced the share of export of raw materials and natural resources, and given the highest priority to attract foreign direct investment for the joint production and export of high-technology products.

Since 1978, China has recorded a truly remarkable average real annual growth rate of its GDP that has ranged between 8 and 11 percent. This became possible through acquiring advanced technologies from abroad and training manpower in top foreign universities to a level that has grown to 600,000 per year. About 500,000 trained students are now returning to China each year and it is through them that China has become a world leader in many cutting edge technologies and it has set up many highly ranked universities.

In 1985 a ‘Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Concerning the Reform of the Science and Technology Management System’ was established in China. This was done to end the separation of R&D from industrial activity. It involved providing major additional funding to research institutes, exclusively directed at the development of high technology products. The scientists and engineers working in government institutes were encouraged to undertake their own private work and consulting services in their spare time. If they utilized the facilities of their parent institutes in terms of equipment and chemicals etc, then they were required to give the institutes part of the income from their income from work.

This approach induced the research institutes to establish their own commercial ventures, either on their own or in partnership with local industry, thereby strengthening the links between research and industry. As a result of this approach, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a public-sector institute, established a large number of spin-off enterprises in the 1990s.

The Torch Program started in 1988, provided massive funds to such enterprises and encouraged scientists working in institutes to start their own companies with government funding. It was in 1992 that the Chinese government, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, made special efforts to attract foreign direct investment into China with a focus on acquisition and absorption of advanced technologies. Two key ‘decisions’ taken by China to acquire advanced technologies in the 1990s were the 1995 ‘Decision on Accelerating Scienti c and Technology Progress’ and the 1999 ‘Decision on Strengthening Technological Innovation and Developing High-Technology and Realizing Industrialization’.

The 1995 decision recognized the key role of science and technology, as well as education, in socio-economic development and emphasized the improvement of ‘‘indigenous technology capability’’. Another historic ‘decision’ taken by the State Council of China in 1999 was a series of measures to encourage the development of high-tech industries. These included: (a) tax breaks to private enterprises investing in R&D; (b) tax exemption for all income derived from the transfer or development of new technologies; (c) a reduced six percent value-added tax rate for software products developed and produced in China; (d) complete VAT exemption and subsidised credit for high-tech exports and (e) the listing of new high-technology companies on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges.

In the subsequent Five Year Plans, the government has continued to emphasise the improvement of R&D capabilities and the development of its indigenous technology. This has successfully contributed to upgrading its industrial structure. The government’s R&D policy has been consistently directed at building an innovation-based knowledge economy by nurturing indigenous innovation capability; developing an enterprise-centred technology innovation system and promoting the innovation capabilities of Chinese rms.

This has contributed to the development of technology-intensive industries, and increasing exports of high-tech products. These include computers and telecommunications products which constitute the major share of the total high-tech exports of Special Economic Zones. These were later expanded into specialized High Technology Zones focused in specialized technologies.

Pakistan must realise that the emphasis on developing technology intensive industries in China was largely dependent on creating a critical mass of high-quality research manpower. It is only through this linkage did it become possible for China to make major headways in the manufacture and export of high-technology goods. It is imperative that the Higher Education Commission should send thousands of students for PhD and postdoctoral level training to top universities abroad each year so that we can reach a target of 100,000 well trained PhDs within a decade.

With about 1.5 million students enrolled in our higher education sector, there is a need for an additional 60,000 PhDs in the university sector alone today. The careful arrangements for absorption and provision of liberal research funding (up to $ 100,000 for each student) ensured a 97.5 percent return rate to students sent abroad on foreign scholarships during 2002-2008. Proper and sufficient trained manpower availability is an important prerequisite for the knowledge economy revolution to really occur.

The mushrooming of sub-standard universities in the past decade without heed to the availability of quality faculty has led to third-rate institutions, which should not even be called colleges. The present government is well advised to allocate at least Rs20 billion annually additionally to the HEC so that a significant foreign scholarship programme, on the pattern of that initiated by us when I was chairman HEC during 2002-2008, can be relaunched.