Is China screwed in the long run

Research and innovation: Flashes of inspiration according to plan

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Gradually it emerges from the morning mist: Kexue Dao, the science island. Bushes grow on the bank, trees and a few palm trees obstruct the view; it is already hot, oppressive, birds are chirping. Only up close can concrete buildings be made out between all the green, classic socialist style.

Strictly speaking, Kexue Dao is just a peninsula, located in Shushan Lake in Hefei; The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has housed five physics institutes here. More than a thousand scientists and technicians do research in the seclusion, the last bus from town leaves at half past seven in the evening. Hefei is a typical Chinese city from the second tier, but the science of the 5 million city is in China's premier league. Almost a dozen universities are located here, three of which the government has selected for its excellence programs. There are also three national research laboratories, there are only more in Beijing.

From the western point of view, Chinese research sometimes seems as isolated and nebulous as Kexue Dao. That is about to change: China wants to become the "leading scientific power in the world" by 2050, the government has stipulated in a national directive. President Hu Jintao has issued a slogan for this: zizhu chuangxin - "independent innovation". Since 1999, the country has increased its investment in research by 20 percent each year; In 2008 it was already in third place worldwide, only the USA and Japan spent more on science. In relation to the gross domestic product, the budget is still small: it made up 1.5 percent in 2007, in the USA it was 2.6 percent, in Germany 2.5 percent. China wants to catch up by 2020.

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Kexue Dao is currently working on the pride of the Institute for Plasma Physics. Technicians in socks are sneaking around an eleven-meter-high steel egg, on top of which is the Chinese flag. If the colossus were in operation, nobody would be able to set foot in it, and it would be over 100 million degrees in temperature. The steel egg is a fusion reactor. The physicists want to use it to generate inexhaustible, clean energy in the same way as the sun does. The Chinese called their reactor "Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak" - that can be abbreviated: East.

"We are very proud of our technology," said Luo Guang-Nan, deputy chief of the tokamak department. Luo wears jeans and a purple striped shirt; He wrote his doctoral thesis in Japan and has also worked as a visiting scholar in Germany. "We use superconducting coils, so the reactor can run longer," he explains. The international test reactor Iter, which will be built in France from this year on, will also receive such frozen, energy-saving wire coils. "We are the most important test location for the Iter project," says Luo. It's still a bit of an exaggeration, but he and his colleagues want to expand the reactor further. "Then East will actually become world class," says Joachim Roth from the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Garching.

Roth has been working with the researchers in Hefei for a long time. "It's unbelievable what happened there," he says. When he first visited Science Island in 2002, East's predecessor, a discarded Russian device, was still in use. "That was a pretty old box, but good for learning," recalls the plasma physicist. Since then, the budget of the Chinese laboratory has doubled, says Roth a little jealously and laughs: "We can only dream of such growth."

Chinese researchers already publish more articles in journals than their counterparts in any other country except the United States. "Science can be like the Olympics," said Rao Zihe, then director of the CAS Institute for Biophysics in 2005. "Twenty years ago China won very few medals. But in Athens we won 32 gold medals, the USA 35. Who knows what we will achieve in 2008? And what is true on the sports field also applies in the laboratory." In fact, the Chinese athletes won 51 gold medals in Beijing, the American only 36.