Growth Challenges

Next-Gen Innovative Shenzhen


In late 1996 Tony Blair as then UK Opposition leader famously said, “Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you education, education, education”. In more visionary an echo of that call, speaking at the biennial conference of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) in June 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for China’s science and technology development to be directed to  “Innovation, Innovation and Innovation”. A fresh glance at newly and first-ever citywide innovation zone Shenzhen suggests China’s ability to respond to Xi’s call is more advanced than most outside of China realise.  

Lying on the border of now Chinese-administered Hong Kong, Shenzhen was a fishing village in the late 1970s. Thirty years on the frontier of a trial-by-error process of economic reforms thereafter, and not only is Shenzhen transformed into a modern high-rise prosperous hub, but increasingly incrementally in its footsteps so too is the rest of China.

With that modern track record in mind, surprisingly little attention has been paid to this month’s anointing of Shenzhen to the frontier of China’s ‘Next Gen’ reform agenda. China’s Central Government that is has this week granted Shenzhen officials permission to make Shenzhen China’s first national independent citywide innovation demonstration zone. As compared to its earlier role in economic transfer – copying – this time Shenzhen’s role is to serve as a lighthouse for the transformation of China into a globally competitive and relevant indigenous innovation hub.

Beyond Next Gen Shenzhen being able to newly offer tax breaks, access to relevant finance and subsidies, Shenzhen’s evolving role in China’s broader innovation drive runs deeper, especially in the area of higher education reforms. This is relevant since higher education will be the main source of talent for that intended innovation-friendly future. Universities are also critical hubs that determine a nation’s research and development capacities. In the capacity of assisting existing Chinese universities to experiment to develop new and more innovation-friendly approaches, both to teaching and research, Shenzhen has for some years served as a site for experimental satellite campuses of some of China’s most elite universities, including the twin ivory towers of Tsinghua University and Peking University (PKU).

In the case of Tsinghua, it agreed a research institute, the Research Institute of the Tsinghua University in Shenzhen back in 1996 with Shenzhen officials. Like the main campus in Beijing, the Shenzhen campus has science at its core, but is for graduate studies only. It operates in more of market style, rather than through central directives, and akin to a Stanford-type model is active in fostering a rotating door with industry. For example, together with Beike Biotechnology Company and with help from a public grant, Tsinghua’s Graduate School in Shenzhen runs a commercially oriented lab for stem cell applications for medical treatment. The world’s largest centre of genetics research, Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), which from its some 180 DNA-decoding machines produces at least one quarter of all the world’s genomic data – more than any other single institution on earth – is down the road, also at home in Shenzhen. And if there’s any trouble in communicating the scale of this new frontier, the world’s new telecommunications equipment giant, Huawei, has its headquarters in Shenzhen also.  

Beyond the chance for elite universities to adjust the systems, new university models entirely are also being tested in Shenzhen. The South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) is at the frontier of such experimentation, having been opened ostensibly heretically by a former President of the elite Anhui-based University of Science and Technology University of China, molecular spectroscopy expert Professor Zhu Qingshi, in 2010. Unique for its Oxbridge-style low teacher-student undergraduate ratios, candidates uniquely apply through personal application instead of via the infamous national gaokao university entrance exam process. Students attending the school must have sat gaokao, as one rather than the only criteria, and moreover accepted students’ gaokao results are not made public. SUSTC students also enjoy some flexibility in deciding course content and graduation requirements. SUSTC has also established some frontier international student exchange partnerships, including and for example with Ghana’s Central University College.

National innovation-oriented initiatives in support of Shenzhen’s new role on China’s innovation frontier include the relaxation of the rules for non-Chinese to obtain a Chinese ‘green card’, allowing them to become permanent residents of China. Among foreigners most likely to qualify are those with the ability and willingness to contribute to China’s intended innovation revolution. The city of Beijing alone plans to recruit some 677 such foreign scientific talents in 2014. The law is similarly being changed to protect innovators in China. A June 6 proposal seeks to amend China’s fines for copyright infringement, increasing the highest fine to Rmb250,000 (US$40,000) from Rmb100,000 (US$16,000).

The contrast of rising confidence and leadership calls of vision could hardly contrast more to the commencement address to nearly 1,000 cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs this month US Vice President Joe Biden. Defensive instead of inspirational in challenging students, he called for them to “Name me one innovative project, one innovative change, one innovative product that has come out of China.”

Biden might also remind Americans that some attribute the origins of the word “yankee” to the Dutch word for “pirate” – owing to the belief in Europe then that earlier Americans were the pirates of Europe’s best inventions. It is might be a good time in fact for the call for a new global challenge-solving era of collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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