Perhaps as soon as October, a Long March rocket will thrust a spaceship into Earth orbit carrying two Chinese astronauts for a five-day mission.
The launch will mark the latest feat for China’s space program, which first shot a man into brief orbit in 2003, and will highlight the country’s newfound technological prowess.
It is a far cry from the common global image of China as low-cost factory to the world. Others invent technologies, such as the DVD player. China churns them out for as low as $29 each. Yet that image is a little stale.
A look around China shows a handful of surprising advances in scientific niches, such as gene research, biomedicine and certain aspects of electronics. China’s technological capacity is beginning to climb.
Whether, and how quickly, China scales the technological ladder is no small matter for the United States, which holds a quantum lead in matters of science and engineering. If China were to gain ground, that would have a major impact on consumer products it can make as well as the ways in which its huge military could conduct modern warfare.
China has almost no companies with global name recognition, but observers say some Chinese firms are moving significantly faster than neighboring Japan and South Korea did.
“The speed at which this is happening is catching other companies off-guard,” said Joe Abelson, the vice president of emerging markets at iSuppli, a global market-research firm in El Segundo. He noted rapid advances in mobile-telephone, network and appliance engineering as well as semiconductor design.
At a showroom in its landscaped headquarters in the southern coastal city of Shenzhen, a representative for Huawei Technologies shows off streaming video on a tiny cellular handset. The networking company, which makes routers and telecom gear, is taking on global giants, competing with Cisco, Alcatel and Lucent.
“We have recruited a lot of young talent,” said Edward Deng, the vice president for global marketing. “We’ve applied for over 6,500 patents worldwide.”
Much hampers China’s technological development, though. The government meddles incessantly in private business. Research links between universities and private companies, such as those that gave birth to Silicon Valley, are feeble. Many companies rely on low-cost labor and razor-thin margins to survive. They have few incentives to spend on research when they can pirate technology and operate sweatshops.