China’s “Great Leap Forward” in Science and Engineering

Richard B. Freeman
Jun 20, 2017



Between the 1990s and 2010s, China moved from a marginal contributor in scientific and engineering (S&E) to become the world’s largest source of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate graduates, second largest spender on research and development (R&D), leader/near leader in the number of scientific papers produced, and the top country in patenting. The only other developing economy to jump to the forefront of modern science and technology was Korea some two decades earlier. With approximately 1.3 billion people, China is transforming the world of knowledge in ways that Korea with its 51 million people or Switzerland or Sweden — small countries atop most country rankings of innovation — cannot compete.

This essay argues that because of its huge population, China’s Great Leap Forward in science and engineering has the magnitude (Freeman and Huang, 2015a) mindful of the United States’ post-World War II ascendance in global science. China’s economic impact should put to rest debates over whether a one-party state with a sometimes overweening government can be truly innovative (Wei, Xie, and Zhang, 2017). As long as China’s eye is on the prize of knowledge, it will be a global leader in innovation in the next decade.

Higher Education

China’s extraordinary trajectory in science and engineering began in the 1980s as it struggled to rebuild higher education after its destruction during the Cultural Revolution. At the turn of the twenty-first century, China had an operating university and research system but gave little hint that it would become a scientific super-power a mere fifteen years later. Around 2000, China enrolled 4 million university students, graduated only 4 percent as many science and engineering PhDs as did the United States, had only 10 universities in the world’ top 500 listing and none in the top 200(Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, 2003.), produced only 3.3 percent of international science papers and about 1.8 percent of citations, and had a barely functioning patent system.

Fast forward to today. In 2015, China enrolled over 30 million students in higher education and graduated 7 million people to the labor market, many of whom were in the fields of science and engineering. From 1990 to 2010, graduates with bachelor’s degrees increased ten-fold; master’s graduates increased fifteen-fold, and PhD graduates increased nearly twenty-fold to achieve rough numeric equality with the number of science and engineering PhDs in the United States. In 2016, forty-one Chinese universities were in Shanghai Jiao Tong’s top 500 listing; nine were in the top 200 listing and Tsinghua University and Beijing University were in the top 100. This improvement was propelled in part by a number of government programs: 1) The 985 project which sought to bring the 40 top Chinese universities to world-class status; 2) The 211 project which aimed to improve the top 100 universities; 3) The 863 program which funds technology; and 4) The 973 project which funds basic research.

Over the same fifteen-year period, China became the largest source of internationally-placed students.  In 2015, 523,700 Chinese completed their education overseas, a disproportionate number ended up in the United States. The 328,547 international students from China studying in the United States was nearly twice the number from the second largest supplier — India — and made up 32 percent of the international students population in the United States (Institute of International Education). At the PhD level, many students stayed in the United States post-graduation to further their plans 84.6 percent of Chinese PhDs from American universities in 2010–2013 planned to stay in the United States for several years (NSB, 2016, appendix table 3-21). It is important to note, however, that China became the third largest recipient of international students, which is a strong indicator of China’s rising importance as a center of education and science.

Scientific Papers

China also rapidly increased R&D expenditures and raised R&D/GDP and total R&D spending above the levels spent by the European Union despite China’s lower income per capita. In contrast to the old Soviet Union, whose R&D focused on its military with little spill-over to the broad economy, the Chinese government encouraged basic research and commercially relevant applied R&D projects.

With academic promotions and salaries dependent on scientific publications, the number of papers from researchers in China skyrocketed in international scientific journals. From 2000–2014, the Chinese share of papers rose from 3.3 percent to 18.2 percent. In 2000, China published one-third as many scientific papers as Japan; just thirteen years later China published 3.9 times more papers than Japan. By 2015, China closed the gap with the United States in the number of papers published, producing slightly more or less papers depending on whether one uses the Web of Science or SCOPUS databases and whether book chapters and conference presentations are counted as well as journal articles.

The number of citations per paper, which indicates the quality and impact of the research, shows Chinese papers currently below the world average but steadily improving. Between 1996 and 2012, Chinese paper citations rose from 0.46 to 0.87 relative to the global average (National Science Board, 2016, Appendix table 5-61). Part of the improved number of citations per paper comes from the increase in Chinese authored papers due to citation homophily the tendency of authors to cite papers written by persons like themselves. However, China’s share of the top 1 percent of cited papers also increased and papers do not get to the top 1 percent without attracting many citations from outside the country of publication.

China’s impact on science and engineering knowledge extends, however, beyond the share of Chinese sourced papers. Chinese researchers publish many papers outside of China. In 2008, 15 percent of American papers had Chinese-born authors persons with Chinese last names distinguished from American-born Chinese as distinguished by their first names/initials as in Xu Zheng vs John Zheng (Freeman and Huang, 2015a). Adding papers published outside of China and authored by Chinese-born persons substantially increases the impact of China’s Great Leap Forward in S&E on global knowledge.

Finally, many Chinese researchers publish in Chinese language journals that are not included in the international science literature databases but are in the China National Knowledge Inventory (CNKI), which Chinese researchers and students regularly use. Before looking at the data, I expected that the increase in articles appearing in international publications would be associated with a decline  in the number of CNKI scientific papers, but the data said otherwise. The number of papers appearing in CNKI declined in some fields and among researchers in top-ranked universities, but China’s Great Leap Forward in science and engineering was sufficiently massive that the number of CNKI articles increased over time (Freeman and Xie, 2017), adding to the global stock of S&E knowledge although presumably having less impact than publications appearing in international journals due to the likelihood of lower quality as well as the language barrier.

Research Collaborations

Scientific papers are increasingly collaborative efforts of coauthors from different countries (National Science Board, 2014). China’s main international collaborator is the United States, reflecting in part the education of so many Chinese international students in America. In 2012, the United States accounted for 47.5 percent of China’s international collaborations; while China surpassed the UK, Canada, and Germany in the number of coauthored papers to become the United States’ top international collaborator.

International collaborations boost citations and scientific quality. Papers in which Chinese researchers collaborate with researchers outside of China obtain more citations in the international scientific literature than papers written solely in China. Collaborations between American and Chinese coauthors boost citations more than collaborations between Chinese and scientists elsewhere in the world; papers with Chinese, American, and other international collaborators increase citations the most. Papers written in China gain more citations than their peers when the researchers have some international experience, reflecting the likely positive selectivity of researchers who travel overseas, advances in their skills from the experience, and the establishment of connections that produce greater international recognition.

Patents, Innovations, and Finding Solutions to Social Problems

The economic payoff from science and engineering comes via innovation new commercial products/services and/or new modes of production that raise total factor productivity. Absent micro-level measures of innovations, analysts use patents as an indicator of innovation. From 2000 to 2016, stimulated in part by China’s government encouraging patenting using financial incentives, China experienced explosive growth in patenting and surpassed Japan and the United States to become number one in patent applications and in patents granteds. While the quality of Chinese patents falls below the quality of patents from o countries with a longer patent history in terms of the number of claims made or citations received from the patents, econometric studies find that the stock of Chinese patents has had a similar effect on factor productivity in China as the stock of United States or European Union patent have in the United States or European Union (Fang, He, and Li). Chinese firms greatly increased the number of patents in the USPTO, where the quality of the patents are comparable to those of other countries (Freeman and Li, 2017).

Napoleon famously said, “when China awakens, she will shake the world.” In the fields of science and engineering and in R&D, China has now awoken. If China can deploy its new expertise to help solve the great problems facing China and the world environmental pollution, climate change, increased inequality, the rural–urban divide in China; bubbles and instability in financial markets; and an incipient artificial intelligence robotics revolution that threatens to disrupt labor markets the Great Leap Forward in S&E may have come just in the nick of time.

(Richard B. Freeman, Department of Economics, Harvard University.)


Freeman, Richard, and Wei Huang (2015), “Collaborating with People Like Me: Ethnic Coauthorship within the United States,” Journal of Labor Economics 33(S1): S289-S318.

Freeman, Richard, and Wei Huang (2015), “China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ in Science and Engineering.” In Global Mobility of Research Scientists, edited by Aldo Geuna. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.

Freeman, Richard, and Lintong Li (2017), “Does China’s Patent Explosion Signal Global Shift of Innovation?”, Working Paper.

Freeman, Richard, and Qingnan Xie (2017), “The Effects of Globalization of Science on China’s Chinese-language Science Articles,” Working Paper.

Fang , Jing , Hui He, and Nan Li (2016), “China’s Rising IQ (Innovation Quotient) and Growth: Firm-level Evidence,” International Monetary Fund Working Paper No. 16/249.

Wei, Shang-Jin, Zhuan Xie, and Xiaobo Zhang (2017), “From ‘Made in China’ to ‘Innovated in China’: Necessity, Prospect, and Challenges,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 31(1): 49-70.

Xie, Yu, Chunni Zhang, and Qing Lai (2014) “China’s Rise as a Major Contributor to Science and Technology,” PNAS 111(26): 9437-9442.

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