China’s “Standards 2035” project gained headlines in April 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. October 2021 saw the release of the National Standardization Development (NSD) outline document as the first official document detailing China’s ambitions in the coming decade in the realm of technical standardization processes. The NSD visualizes a standardized system that promotes high-tech innovation and “opening up” of the technology sector, while also leading to high-quality development. The core points covered in the document provide a glimpse into the Chinese state’s strategic approach toward technical standards.
Why is the Chinese government pulling out all the stops on its standardization program in the current political climate? An analysis of the outline document provides an insight into the State Council’s aspirations in the standard-setting domain and the current objectives of the national technical standardization strategy.
Standards and Tech Innovation
The NSD outline delves into the interaction between the process of developing technical standards and driving forward technological innovation. China views standardization as a way to strengthen its research and development in critical and emerging technology areas like artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and biotechnology. The NSD outline offers a clear objective for Chinese companies to improve their technical capabilities to raise the level of technical standards in the respective sectors.
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With the development of critical and emerging technologies, there is a definitive need for the upskilling of technology ecosystems across the world. China feels the need to remain relevant and updated on the usage and creation of applications related to critical technologies. Significant investments in advancing emerging technologies remain one of China’s priorities. The Chinese government now is banking on technical standards to achieve technical competence and excellence in critical technologies that will remain integral to the global economy in the coming decades. Gaining technical expertise would in turn help in influencing the standard-setting process, allowing China to dictate the terms of technological innovation in certain critical technologies. China, as a technically adept state, feels that it is the ripe time for them to mutually support technological growth as well the ability of Chinese companies to set standards in the domain.
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Improving Industrial Standards’ Level
China’s pursuit of effective standardization processes is an extension of its Made in China 2025 plan, which aims to strengthen its manufacturing industry and advance industrial development as a whole. As per the NSD outline document, the Chinese state views technical standards as a mechanism for the promotion of industry optimization and upgrades. This is critical for Chinese companies involved in setting norms in the manufacturing processes of high-end equipment. Moreover, the Chinese government also aims to utilize technical standards for the integration of big data and industry to promote the industrial digitization process in the country.
The focus on technical standards helps China in the rapid development of new industrial products. This can in turn help in the improvement of scientific and effective regulatory mechanisms. With China striving for the optimization of the industrial supply chains (production, distribution, circulation, and consumption), the government believes technical standards will play an important role in raising the competitiveness of industries and helping key industrial sectors in establishing efficient industrial supply chains.
Though a manufacturing powerhouse, China’s exports as a share of GDP have halved over the past decade. This has made the Chinese government understand the importance of establishing norms that govern the systems according to which goods are produced and the flow of these products or services. This is the critical aspect of technical standards, which can provide better economic gains in the form of licenses and royalties for the already established manufacturing sector in the country. The Chinese government believes that the strategic and geopolitical game is no longer limited to market domination and is inherently influenced by system design and rulemaking. The standardization process is essentially making global rules according to which industries function. This can facilitate the country’s industrial transformation by acquiring the first-mover advantage in key sectors.
A Base for ‘Green’ Development
China also views technical standards through the lens of green and sustainable development. The NSD outline document mentions carbon-neutral standards, which are instrumental in energy-saving processes, regulating large-scale energy consumption, and maintaining the energy efficiency of different types of equipment. This is in line with other greenhouse gas emission standards and carbon footprint standards that indicate China’s support for renewable energy and sustainable development practices.
The Chinese government also aspires to conserve and protect natural resources by bringing the processes of registration, evaluation, and monitoring of the use of natural resources under regulation using specific standards. The NSD outline document details China’s commitment toward reducing pollution, regulating industrial discharge, and protecting biodiversity while advocating for sustainable development at the same time.
Climate goals remain integral to the country’s commitment to following certain sustainable development models. China’s focus on creating climate-specific standards for local companies to adhere to dovetails with its pursuit to tap into the renewable energy sector. With a significant head start compared to other countries, China has successfully captured the renewable energy market being the global leader in solar power and EV batteries. Technical standards are a way of controlling the extremely lucrative renewable energy markets. China sees the 2020s as an opportune time for driving a robust green energy infrastructure-led growth model, which would eventually help them capture market space in the domain. Technical standards related to climate both reinforce China’s commitment toward green development as well as use that development as leverage for geoeconomic gains.
Taking Local Standards Global
Another key objective for China in its pursuit of reforming the standardization process in the country lies in its attempt to open standardization to the outside world. The NSD outline document clearly underlines the scope of China’s role in the international technical standards ecosystem with an expressed commitment to deep exchanges and cooperation on standards. Active participation in international standards organizations such as the ISO and initiating technical standards dialogues at multilateral institutions like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization remain China’s priorities in relation to its standardization program.
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There is now a global competition for leadership positions at international standards development organizations. The rapidly rising influence of Chinese firms, especially Huawei, has seen the affiliates of these firms compete for leadership positions at key working groups. Individuals are appointed to these positions solely based on their experience and qualifications. Increasing representation from Chinese firms at these technical committees and working groups buttresses the objective of the government to ensure global presence in the standardization domain.
The timing of the project can be linked to China’s recent successes in the standards domain with Huawei dominating the 5G standards and with China exporting standards through Belt and Road projects in regions like Central Asia and Africa. China, with its economic advantage, has kickstarted the timeline to increase its presence in international technical standards organizations. The ultimate goal is to influence the all-important standard-setting processes at international forums to help domestic standards attain global status.
Furthermore, the government believes in the need to improve consistency between Chinese and international standards, which help in the bulk trade of commodities and securing contracts for projects in foreign countries. China, as per the NSD outline document, envisions a global role for itself in coordinating the development of domestic and international standards.