Tech superpower? Moi?

China seems to be realizing that not all publicity is good publicity, at least when it comes to technological advances:

China is fooling only itself if it thinks it will soon overtake the United States as a world leader in science and technology, according to the boss of a state-owned publication dedicated to the subject.

With the world’s two largest economies embroiled in an escalating trade dispute, the comments made by Liu Yadong, editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily, which comes under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology, were unexpected.

“The large gap in science and technology between China and developed countries in the West, including the US, should be common knowledge, and not a problem.” Liu said.

“But it became problematic when the people who hype [China’s achievements] … fooled the leadership, the public and even themselves.”

On the one hand, it’s definitely true that China has sometimes oversold its achievements:

One example of the “hype” to which Liu was referring is an article by Xinhua that was widely circulated last autumn hailing China’s “four new great inventions”, namely high-speed rail, electronic payments, bike sharing and online shopping – even though none of them actually originated in the country.

See also here.

On the other hand, I don’t find it altogether persuasive that China is lagging far behind the US. In fact, China has already surpassed the US in at least one crucial area, as David Goldman noted more than a year ago:

For the first time, China has demonstrated that it is far ahead of the United States in a critical new technology, namely quantum communications. A Chinese satellite succeeded in transmitting so-called entangled photons to earth stations. […]

China has the world’s fast supercomputers built entirely out of Chinese components. It has the world’s largest radio telescope. It has thousands of surface-to-ship missiles that can hail down on American aircraft carriers from the stratosphere, and it has ultra-quiet diesel electric submarines that can lurk on battery power for weeks. It has satellite killer missiles. China might spend barely over $1,000 to equip foot soldiers, about 1/100th of what America spends, but it has invested massively in high-tech defense.

Does the US have the overall edge in science/tech? Yes. Could that change sooner than most people think? I believe so.

Deng Xiaoping was fond of saying that the country should hide its strength and bide its time. It appears China is starting to worry that its much-vaunted progress is attracting the wrong kind of attention from the US, and is toggling back to “hide” mode.

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