High-tech zones up the game
Updated: 2015-10-09 07:19
By Andrew Moody(China Daily Europe)
Many companies in the Xi'an High-tech Industries Development Zone have shifted from low-end to high-end manufacturing. Photos provided to China Daily
The Qingdao National High-tech Industrial Development Zone was given the go-ahead in 2006 by the Ministry of Science and Technology and has a total planned area of 63 sq km.
The coastal city, once a German treaty port and famous for its Tsingtao beer - one of China's few international brands - is home to nearly half of China's marine scientists and marine research institutes.
Working in the zone is Shi Xiaobo, an urbane 52-year-old who is vice-president of the Qingdao Academy of Intelligent Industries, a body set up by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the local government.
Although born in China, he spent 24 years in the US working in robotics and other areas and is therefore in a good position to judge China's technological progress.
"I think the US has traditionally been far ahead in fundamental research at places like Harvard and Yale. Also, companies like IBM and Google spend huge amounts of money on theoretical research and don't care whether there is a commercial return," he says.
"But in terms of application technologies, I don't think China is very far behind at all."
Shi says the actual role of his institution is not to catch up with the West but with the most technologically advanced parts of China.
"When you talk about high-tech and things like the Internet of Things, Qingdao is completely behind Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. That is why the government plows money into organizations like us."
Xiao Yanheng, director of the Bureau of Science and Technology at the Qingdao National High-tech Industrial Development Zone, has spent more than 15 years working in high-tech zones, having previously worked in another park in Qingdao.
He believes it is a huge challenge for China to catch up with the West in the technology race.
"Over recent years, we have run quickly but the West has not been standing still. I would say that the high-tech parks have played a role in actually narrowing that gap," he says.
"We are not exactly unaware of what is going on in Silicon Valley. I have been there many times. We have also had a number of exchanges with local incubators and enterprises there."
Xiao says that without the zones and their favorable policies, it would be difficult to attract inward investment, particularly from Chinese returning from overseas.
"I think if they decided to set up a business in China, they would choose the high-tech parks because it would give them the right environment."
Wang Qing, professor of marketing and innovation at Warwick Business School in the UK, believes this is the most important role the parks and zones play.
"You can have a debate about how efficient it is to spend all this money on building these facilities, but without them you won't attract the returnees with all the experience they have gained in the US and elsewhere. My own husband went back to start a business in Zhongguancun a few years ago," she says.
"The strategy throughout with the parks has to been to get the brains back from overseas because that is the only way you can do this leapfrogging. If you educated people just through your own system it would take years."
Apart from the national high-tech parks, there are now a number of other technology parks across China specializing in particular industries and technology.
Qingdao Sino-German Ecopark, which was set up in 2010, is one. It is a joint venture between the Chinese and German governments set up when Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the site on a state visit.
It is now home to a number of German and Chinese companies working in the environmental field.
Liu Wen, director of the general office of the park, believes environmental technology could be one of the areas where China takes a global lead.
"We are working toward it being an exportable technology and this was one of the main aims of the park when it was established: to make China an international leader."
Although the scale of China's technology zones and parks may be unique, the concept is certainly not.
South Korea set up such technology parks in the 1960s at the outset of what became its own "economic miracle" and a number of its leading companies were spun out of them.
France, too, adopted a statist approach with parks such as Sophia Antipolis, which opened in 1969 near Nice. It has attracted big names such as IBM and Siemens with scientists attracted to working on the Cote d'Azur.
There are also a number of government-sponsored science parks in the Middle East in countries like Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.
"They have not always been that successful. They have the money but have had scientists working in what I call a bell jar not really linked to anyone or anywhere else," adds Williamson at Judge Business School.
"Where they have had success is forming links with the petrochemical sector in the area rather than developing new industries."
Wang at Warwick Business School, however, believes that in China, the high-tech parks have largely been successful and have been worth the investment.
"Whether China's top-down approach or the bottom-up evolution of technology companies we have seen in the West is more effective is a good question. There haven't actually been any studies to compare. What I would say though is that in China it has worked and is continuing to do so."
Yang at the Xi'an high-tech zone believes much of the work of the zones has been under the radar but this will not be so for too much longer.
"Silicon Valley is actually one of my favorite places and it has created great companies like Apple and Microsoft. I do believe, however, it is possible that one day China's high-tech zone will be as famous as the district in California," he says.
Xie Chuanjiao, Lu Hongyan and Du Juan contributed to this story.