2020, China’s Big Decade: Lessons for Nigeria, Africa

Geoffrey Onyeama

Samuel J. Samuel


Over the past few decades, China has experienced exponential growth over the past few, breaching the fences of a closed economy to evolve into a manufacturing and exporting hub of the world. Going by its huge manufacturing and export base, it is often referred to as the “world’s factory”. According to the Economic Complexity Index (ECI), China is the largest export economy in the world and the 33rd most complex economy. In 2019, in terms of GDP (PPP), the Chinese economy was measured at $25.27 trillion and it is expected to stay above 6% in 2020 (China Press). It is, therefore, based on the aforementioned that the below listed factors could suggest that 2020 might be a decade for China’s further global economic expansion.   

1) Tech Manufacturing: In October 2019, China’s manufacturing sector, which is the backbone of its economy, grew at an annual rate of 4.7%. High-tech manufacturing centres on technology. High-tech manufacturing creates the technologies that are indispensable to the nations. As innovation and new technology increasingly drives this industry more than others in the manufacturing sector, the Chinese government has set up a $21 billion state-backed fund to boost its manufacturing industry. The new fund will be invested in corporations working on various areas of technology, especially next-generation information technology and electrical equipment. These are part of the 10 priority sectors highlighted by “Made in China 2025”, a government-led industrial initiative designed to dominate high-tech industries, including robotics, aerospace and computer chips, amidst the US-China “trade war”. The Trump administration has frowned at China’s initiative, criticising Xi Jinping for using the plan to give its country’s tech companies undue advantage over foreign rivals.

Being the world’s largest importer and consumer of semiconductors, China has made its ambition known to dominate the global technology market such as artificial intelligence and 5G, which is expected to further build up demand for high-end chips. Currently, the country produces just 16% of the semiconductors, fuelling its tech boom. However it has plans to produce 40% of all semiconductors it uses by 2020, and 70% by 2025, an ambitious plan that is unconnected to the trade dispute with the US.

2) Scientific Research and Discovery: China’s new political leadership has placed science, technology and innovation at the frontrunner of the reform of its economic system (UNESCO Science Report). China has set itself the target of devoting 2.5% of GDP to research and development (R&D) by 2020. Over the past two decades, the Chinese government has been massively investing in science. In 2000 the number of Chinese graduates in science and engineering courses increased from 359,000 to 1.65 million in 2014.

In fact, a UNESCO report showed that nearly one in five of the world’s researchers resides in China. Between 2007 and 2013, the country saw a meteoric rise in research and development (R&D) and thereby overtook the U.S in terms of the number of researchers of any country in the world. The UNESCO Science Report asserted that China increased its global share of research spending by 42%, a development which contributes marginally to global research expenditure (19.6%), even above the global population (19.3%). China’s researcher density has scaled-up by 11%, near to the world average in 2013 (1 073) to 1 206 whole-time corresponding researchers per million inhabitants in 2016 (UNESCO Institute for Statistics).

At the beginning of the last decade in 2011, Chinese engineers and scientists have recorded some unprecedented feats. In December 2013, China’s Chang’e 3 became the first robotic landing on the Moon. Chang’e 3 is a robotic lunar exploration mission operated by the China National Space Administration, incorporating a robotic lander and China’s first lunar rover. In September 2014, China’s State Council disclosed an Energy Development Strategy Action Plan to 2020 that fixes some strict targets for the development of modern infrastructure. James C. C. Chan won the 2018 IEEE Transportation Technologies Award for his contributions to the advancement of electric vehicle technologies. Likewise, in 2017, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China honoured Pan Jianwei for his work on quantum optical technology. Equally, toward reaching sustainable global food safety, Chinese researchers have found a growth-regulating transcription factor GRF4 that has the opposite effect of a growth-inhibiting protein called DELLA in crops. GRF4 and DELLA existed in a balance that regulated plant growth and nitrogen metabolism.

In 2017, the Chinese government spent US$279 billion just on research and development, a development that showed 70% increase in comparison to its 2012 spending. In the same vein, in 2017, a report by the US National Science Foundation revealed that China had outshined the US in the number of science publications. Likewise, Nature Index rated China’s leading scientific institution, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as the institution with the most research outputs for the same year, ahead of America’s Harvard University and Germany’s Max Planck Society.

3) Number of Registered Patents: Innovation remains a fundamental source of national and global power. A country’s aptitude to develop new products and fashion new procedures or approaches of production automatically enables it to produce and create the desired goods needed by other countries. Hence innovation promotes technological advancement creates wealth in divers ways. China’s fast growing global influence is not unconnected to its innovation. One major way to measure innovation is through intellectual property (IP) protection in the form of patents. Patents secure exclusive rights to an invention, and thus offer insight into key areas of innovation. This feature evaluates the relationship between patents and innovation by exploring trends in patent applications.

In 2016, China’s National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) processed 42.8 % of all patent applications in the world. With over 1.3 million total applications, China processed 121 % more applications than the U.S. China has been the main driver of global growth and the main source of growth in worldwide IP filings in 2018. In 2017, China became one of the top five US patent recipients for the first time, leaving behind US, Japan, South Korea and Germany. In 2018, China’s National Intellectual Property Administration received the highest number of patent applications—a record 1.54 million. The development amounted to the combined total of the IP offices of other countries ranked from 2nd to 11th place. According to World Intellectual Property Organization (Oct 2019), China’s patent applications accounted for almost half of the global total.

The number of patents filed in China has sustained a high growth rate throughout much of the last two decades. A large percentage of this growth in patent applications stems from a flood of domestic applications, which corresponded with Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025”. The development aims to upgrade key domestic industries in order to compete with advanced economies in high-tech sectors. The result of this strategy can be seen by comparing corporate patents from a global perspective. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the two Chinese telecom giants, Huawei and ZTE, have been the top PCT applicants since 2015, followed by Intel, Mitsubishi, and Qualcomm.

4) Tech Skills: “For a country like China, with a population of more than 1.3 billion and a labor force of over 800 million, the issues of employment and human resources development are ones of important strategic significance,”—Wang Xiaochu, Vice Chairman, Foreign Affairs Committee, National People’s Congress & Former Vice Minister of Human Resources and Social Security. Likewise, in 2016, at the World Economic Forum, Fan Gang, Director of the National Economic Research Institute & Chairman of the China Reform Foundation, told the audience of some 250 business leaders that China must not only improve the overall abilities of its people so that they are equipped with knowledge and skills, but also the ability to adapt to new technologies.

In 2015, China’s State Council added Artificial Intelligence (AI) to its Internet Plus Initiative, a programme designed to modernise and transform traditional industries. In 2017, Chinese government unveiled the details of a three-stage road map designed to make China a world leader in AI by 2030. It is obvious that the Chinese government is determined to reshape the national skills development system in order to reduce the skills discrepancy, encourage waged and self-employment for young people and mobilise different ways of learning in order to cope with the need for highly skilled workers.

5) Vocational Skill Capacity: One of the reasons that makes China a manufacturing superpower is its aggressive policy on Vocational Education and Training (VET) system. China has various laws that encourage VET.  The Vocational Educational Law of 1996, which mandates nine years of compulsory education, lays out a clear design for implementation of VET.

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) is mainly provided for in the Vocational Education Law of the People’s Republic of China adopted in 1996. It contains regulations on vocational school education at various levels and on vocational education in various forms. Also, Private Education Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China (adopted in 2002) establishes non-public schools that mainly provide vocational skills, including training for vocational qualifications. National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development of the People’s Republic of China (2010-2020): outlines development priorities in all forms of education including TVET. Decision of the State Council on Accelerating the Development of Modern Vocational Education (issued in 2014): the government should guide the transformation of a batch of general undergraduate education institutes towards applied technology higher education institutes, improve enterprise participation mechanisms, and require teachers to possess both teaching qualification and vocational qualification. Equally, Planning for Building Modern Vocational Education System (2014-2020) sets the strategic short-term and long-term goals of establishing a modern vocational education system, including improvement on the legal system and standardization system of Chinese vocational education. In addition, as stated in the Vocational Education Law of the People’s Republic of China an enterprise shall, in light of its actual conditions, provide systematic vocational education and training for its own employees and for persons to be employed

6) Military Mind: It is not uncommon that China and the US are rivals in many ways, especially the quest for global dominant. As the two countries are in races to develop and commercialise deep learning and other Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, it appears that China is not taking it slow to surpass the US.  China is on the fast track to increase its capacities in AI and autonomy to military weapons systems.

China has set a goal of 2020 as the date to achieve what its terms “mechanisation” and “informisation”. Quite what China means by this is latter term is unclear, but Beijing has been watching the developing role of information in warfare and seeking to adapt this to its own particular circumstances. Chinese weapons manufacturers already are selling armed drones with significant amounts of combat autonomy.” From ultra-long-range conventional ballistic missiles to fifth generation fighter jets, China’s progress and technical abilities are outstanding. 

In April 2017, China launched its first domestically built aircraft carrier. China is developing a very long-range air-to-air missile designed specifically to strike at tanker and command and control aircraft that now orbit out of harm’s way. The development is known as “fifth generation fighter”. It incorporates stealth technology and has a supersonic cruising speed; it is highly integrated avionics.

It has been reported that China’s air-to-air missile developments by 2020 will likely force the US and its regional allies to re-examine not only their tactics, but also techniques, procedures and the direction of their own combat-aerospace development programmes.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS, London) Military Balance once reported that China has sold its armed UAVs to a number of countries, including Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Myanmar, among others. The US and Western arms exporters see China as a growing commercial threat. China is, however, willing to enter markets which many Western manufacturers, or their governments.

China is also trying to develop weaponry tailor-made to specifically for African countries, whose roads and infrastructural deficits would not be able to cope with many of the heavier models offered by others.

7) Innovation: In June 2016, speaking at the national congress of the China Association for Science and Technology, Chinese president Xi Jinping outlined his vision for China to become the leading global leader in innovation, especially in science and technology by 2030. According to him “Great scientific and technological capacity is a must for China to be strong and for people’s lives to improve. China and, even humankind, won’t do without innovation nor will it do if the innovation is carried out slowly.” 

In agriculture, Crop science is an essential component of agricultural science and also the key to ensuring world food security, stimulating sustainable utilisation of agricultural resources, and effectively protecting agricultural environments. Statistics has shown that China now produces 25% of the world’s food, feeding about 22% of the world’s population with 9% of the world’s arable land, and has completed the transition from a food-aid recipient country to a food-aid donor.

Furthermore, China is poised not just to lead in autonomous vehicles but to dominate this emerging global market in the decades ahead. According to an annual report on the nation’s innovation economy by the South China Morning Post, China is likely to emerge as the world’s largest market for autonomous vehicles and mobility services, worth more than $500 billion by 2030. 

In July 2017, China’s State Council issued the “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan,” outlining an ambitious roadmap for China to lead the artificial intelligence sector, with a priority on the development of AVs as a “strategic frontier.” Five months later, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) enhanced the roadmap by announcing the Three-Year Plan for Promoting Development of a New Generation Artificial Intelligence Industry (2018–2020). The action plan includes plans to develop key technological components of AVs, such as automotive smart chips, vehicle intelligence algorithms, and advanced driver assistant systems.

In 2018, China sold more electric cars than in the rest of the world combined. The Chinese government has spent nearly $60 billion in the last decade to create an industry that builds electric cars, while also reducing the number of licenses available for gasoline-powered cars to increase demand for electric cars. China now has more than 100 electric-car makers, along with hundreds of additional companies that supply components for electric cars. Also, in 2018, China set an economic-policy designed to have half the new cars on China’s roads be partially or fully autonomous by the end of 2020.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are revving up in China. Companies in China and around the world want to tap into the lucrative autonomous technology market that could reach $2.3 trillion by 2030. More than 30 key standards that are critical to advanced driver-assistance systems and low-level autonomous driving will be defined by 2020 and a system of over 100 standards for higher level autonomous driving will be set by 2025.

In addition, China is now the world’s No. 1 investor in renewable energy, and the largest-ever floating solar plant. The $151 million Three Gorges project can power 94,000 homes at full capacity, located on an old coal mine in the eastern province of Anhui. Also, in February 2018, China launched the world’s first autonomous passenger drone took in Lianyungang. The Ehang 284 is capable of flying at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. In the same vein, China is set to launch the world’s largest Waste-to-Energy Plant when it becomes operational in 2020. The plant will burn a third of the sprawling city’s waste and power up to 100,000 homes.

In April 2018, researchers at Tongji University announced the world’s first lung regeneration therapy, a great medical feat that could transform the lives of people living with lung disease; the stem-cell treatment uses mice cells to regenerate damaged lung tissue. China is also the first country in the world to create the first forest city designed to curb the challenge of global air pollution. The verdant urban area in Guangxi Province will boast 40,000 trees capable of absorbing 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year.

8) Quantum Physics: Quantum physics is a world-changer technology. A technology called quantum encryption is the dream of perfectly secure communication, which is increasingly becoming a reality. In other words, quantum encryption is a technology that makes it impossible to hack or overhear communications. The phenomenal technology could help free the world from online scam, cyber-attacks and electronic eavesdropping. In a world of unbreakable encryption, all human electronic communication could become entirely private.

On September 29, 2017, a team of cryptographers and physicists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences held a half-hour video call with their counterparts in Vienna, using quantum encryption. While experts’ reports say that the major technical innovations in quantum technology are still being produced in such Western institutions as IBM in Armonk, New York, the University of California and the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, China appears to be the only country that is ahead of others in terms of implementation. So, it is not a happenstance that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the U.S. Department of Defense are the biggest investors in quantum encryption. According to reports, at least 600 top Chinese ministers and military officials use quantum-encrypted links for all confidential communications.

A Chinese manned space station, planned for 2022, is scheduled to carry an experimental quantum-communications payload that human operators can maintain and upgrade. The ultimate goal is a set of geostationary satellites that span the world. So far, only China has invested the billions of dollars needed to bring quantum encryption to real-world use. It is clear that any country in the world that is serious about establishing fully secure communications would need to commit huge sums to the development. “Whoever controls information controls the world”—Artur Ekert, a professor at the University of Oxford and inventor of the model on which the Chinese based their system. Based on that saying, it appears the future of quantum physics belong to China.

9) Mass Transportation Technology: The US President, Donald Trump, once admitted that China is beating the US on everything. If Trump’s admission of China’s superiority is something to go by, one of the areas where China is actually beating the US is in the area of resilient transportation systems. Resilient transportation can be fueled by multiple energy sources. The system can run on electricity powered by the sun or the wind. Thus it uses fossil fuels sparingly, which helps to lessen climate change, reduce future disasters that may threaten transportation infrastructure or fuel sources. 

China’s Five-Year Plan calls for five million electric and hybrid cars on the road by 2020. In 2015, the Chinese bought 188,000 electric vehicles (EVs). China’s EV market is growing faster than in other countries. Equally, electric buses are on the rise. Converting buses to electric power reduces particulate matter thereby providing health benefits to global population. More than 100,000 electric buses, which equates one-fifth of the country’s total, are on China’s roads. At this rate, China’s entire bus fleet could be electric by 2025. With new models that can charge in just 10 seconds and run for 5 km on a single charge, it is clear that China is ahead of the innovation on the bus technology.

Also, in China, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems moves over 4.3 million people every day in comparison to less than 500,000 in the U.S. In Changzhou, 25% of commuters use BRT. The Bus Rapid Transit is much cheaper to construct than light rail or metro rail, and can offer the same level of service. The most successful BRT systems use designated centre lanes, so buses can move smoothly from station to station without having to compete with automobile traffic.

In today’s interconnected world, easy transportation within and outside cities cannot be overemphasised. High-Speed Rail (HSR) systems are capable of covering distances that cannot be covered by city buses or metro lines. Also, HSR contributes to urban resilience and it can help people’s movement in times of disaster or out of harm’s way. By designing integrated transit systems, China’s high-speed rail network and its inter-city transit systems are connected in almost every city. By 2020, over 50% of new vehicles produced in China will have Driver Assistance (DA), Partial Automation (PA), or Conditional Automation (CA) systems, with over 10% connected to an Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS).

China provides great success stories on how to develop and scale resilient transportation systems. The commercial use of 5G wireless technologies will accelerate its industrial application. China is building a floating train (new magnetic levitation, MAGLEV) that could be faster than air travel. China’s fastest bullet trains currently travel at speeds of over 600 km/h is new high-speed train designed to carry passengers at a speed of 600 to 800kp kilometers per hour. The super-fast train is set to roll off the production line in 2020 while it is set to go into commercial production in 2021. There are also plans for maglev trains to halve the journey time from Tokyo to Osaka by 2045. It is important African leaders, particularly Nigeria, should take a cue from China and mobilise Nigerians’ ingenuity to build our own resilient transportation systems for the 21st century.

10) Urban Development: Going by the speed of economic development in China, it is clear that urbanisation is one of the driving forces that is fostering the Chinese economy in recent time. There is no doubt that economic activities in the cities will invariably have huge impact on the economic well-being of the entire country. Recently, China indicated that urbanisation would be a priority in its agenda in the next decade.

Historically, statistics has showed that there is a strong relationship between the percentage of the population that is engaged in agriculture and the country’s per capita GDP. In other words, what happens in Chinese cities is critical to the country’s economic development in terms of environmental sustainability.

By 2010, the urban share of the population had grown to 45% and it is projected to reach 70% by 2030. According to reports, “By 2030, up to 70% of the Chinese population will be living in cities”—“Urban China: Toward Efficient, Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization”, Klaus Rohland, World Bank Country Director for China. The Urban China: Toward Efficient, Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization, includes six priority areas for a new model of urbanisation:

•Reforming land management and institutions

•Reforming the hukou household-registration system to provide equal access to quality services for all citizens and create a more mobile and versatile labor force

•Placing urban finances on a more sustainable footing, while creating financial discipline for local governments

•Reforming urban planning and design

•Managing environmental pressures

•Improving local governance

•Samuel is a Senior Partner, Sensale Research Limited