Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on December 7, 2006
Do the Chinese really spend more than the Japanese on R&D? That’s a question that I’ve been asking myself following the startling news from the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) that China’s total spending on R&D for the year will top $136 billion, surpassing Japan’s $130 billion and second only to the U.S.’s $330 billion. (Here’s the OECD press release from Dec. 4.)
I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. I’ve reported a lot about R&D in China (for instance, see this BusinessWeek story on China’s innovation drive) and I’ve never met anybody in China who thinks that the country is remotely close to the Japanese, let alone ahead of them, when it comes to investment in R&D. Indeed, measured as a percentage of GDP, China’s spending on R&D is much smaller – about 1.3% for China versus 3.15% for Japan.* Hawk Jia, who reports for SciDev.net, is another reporter who’s puzzled by the OECD report. Jia yesterday wrote a skeptical story questioning the OECD’s conclusion. The headline: “China’s R&D budget overrated, warns official.” Jia points out that China’s National Bureau of Statistics had R&D spending for last year at $30 billion. How do you get from $30 billion to $136 billion in one year? You tinker with the numbers. Jia cites Dirk Plat, head of OECD’s science, technology and industry division, saying that OECD’s $136 billion figure is based on the “real purchasing power” of the Chinese currency. Since OECD has that real purchasing power at nearly four times the current exchange rate, the OECD seems to have simply multiplied the official stats by four. Hence a modest $30-plus billion R&D spend becomes an enormous $136 billion one.
I’m sure there are many economists who would argue that this is fair. But Zeng Guoping, a Tsinghua University professor and science expert whom Jia interviews, doesn’t think it is. According to SciDev, Zeng “warned that basing calculations on real purchasing power could overvalue the currency, as much research equipment is purchased internationally.” Zeng’s got a good point. Visit any Chinese lab and you see all sorts of imported equipment, very pricey imported equipment. The companies selling those machines want dollars or euro or yen, not yuan that’s been artificially inflated, OECD-style.
* Corrected on Dec. 12