Speaking to Chinese scientists in September 2020, President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China warned that the PRC is at the mercy of foreign countries that supply it with “chokepoint” technologies. “We rely on imports for some critical devices, components, and raw materials,” he said. PRC leadership concerns about strategic technologies are not new. Many Chinese policy documents issued in the last several years identify categories of technology with particular importance for PRC national security and economic competitiveness. And others, notably China’s 2016 National Innovation-Driven Development Strategy, fret that certain “key and core technologies are controlled by others,” a phrase that Xi also frequently uses. However, as a rule, these policies and other PRC state-run media content rarely go into detail about exactly which “key and core technologies” (关键核心技术) are “controlled by others” (受制于人), nor do they specify just who these “others” are.
This issue brief describes a notable exception to this rule: a series of detailed articles on “chokepoint” technologies that a PRC government-run newspaper, Science and Technology Daily (科技日报), published in 2018. The series, which has gone largely unnoticed in the non-Chinese-speaking world, speculates in detail about the effects— positive and negative, short- and long-term—on China if named foreign providers cut off the supply of specific “chokepoint” technologies. The articles also examine the reasons behind China’s import dependencies, and some of those they identify may surprise U.S. observers. Key points include:
- China’s most acute “chokepoints” are technologies—particularly high-end electronic components and specialized steel alloys—dominated by one or a handful of companies based in the United States or other like-minded democracies.
- Rather than playing for the “national team,” Chinese companies—both private and state-owned—often prioritize their brands and bottom lines over marching in lockstep with Beijing’s industrial policies. Many PRC firms choose to buy vital high-end components from trusted foreign suppliers because they harbor doubts about the quality of goods provided by domestic vendors.
- Technological breakthroughs made by Chinese universities and research institutes frequently fail to find commercial applications, leaving the PRC market dominated by foreign products.
- The articles assert that China is making progress on import substitutions for many of these technologies through a combination of strategies including homegrown innovation, reverse engineering, and corporate acquisitions.