Since the early 1980s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has built a system of State Key Labs charged with driving innovation in the defense and commercial sectors. Over time, SKLs have become an increasingly important component of China’s larger innovation base—conducting cutting-edge basic and applied research, attracting and training domestic and foreign talent, and promoting global academic exchanges. China’s oversight of SKLs and the opaqueness of its laboratory system pose national security challenges for the United States and its allies, especially for policymakers, academics, and industry leaders interested in collaborating with Chinese counterparts. Understanding China’s SKL system and the role these laboratories play within China’s broader innovation ecosystem is critical for navigating and managing risks from technology transfer and global technology competition.
This report assesses a CSET-curated dataset of 469 SKLs. Our findings include:
- China maintains at least 184 enterprise SKLs and 285 government-run SKLs housed at different state ministries, including the Ministry of Education, which oversees more than half of the government SKLs in our dataset.
- SKLs focus on a variety of science and technology (S&T) fields including biology, chemistry, earth science, engineering, information and communications technology (ICT), materials science, and physics. The largest concentration of SKLs in the dataset is in the field of biology.
- Human capital is an essential element of SKL development, and SKLs benefit from China’s talent recruitment plans. At least 20 percent of the government SKLs in the dataset explicitly identified the number of employees that were talent program beneficiaries. SKLs pull talent from domestic and international sources via talent programs, such as Thousand Talents, as well as through exchanges and visiting scholar programs.
- While Chinese state media sources claim that China had 515 SKLs as of 2019 and aimed to reach 700 by 2020, this data brief finds no evidence that China reached its 700 SKL goal.
SKLs, and the broader system behind them, are constantly changing as the PRC continues to update its S&T policies. Beijing has and will likely continue to update and modernize SKL requirements, guidance, and policies as leadership works toward achieving indigenous innovation capabilities, particularly in strategically significant industries identified in Five-Year Plans and other relevant policy documents.