A year after India launched its ‘Make in India’ programme to turn the country into a global manufacturing hub, Beijing unveiled a different and more ambitious plan. Its ‘Made in China 2025’ (MIC 2025) plan aimed to turn the country into a world leader in cutting edge technology. While recession hit India has stopped talking about its grand plan, China’s ambition has come under an increasingly hostile glare. Ironically, it is a different “made in China” item – the novel coronavirus – and Beijing’s aggressive campaign to deny responsibility for it that has intensified the world scrutiny of its plan.

China’s ambition to control next generation 5G communication technology had already caused great concern. The US has been locked in a bitter fight to block tech giant Huawei from establishing world 5G hegemony. While the daughter of Huawei’s founder has been in custody in Canada awaiting deportation to the US on various charges, the US government has just hammered the last nail into the coffin of Huawei’s manufacturing ambition. Under the detailed guidance issued by the commerce department, hundreds of American and foreign companies have been barred from selling to Huawei any product that could have been produced with the help of US technology or software. Try finding a company that does not use any Microsoft Office products.

In the months since Covid-19 was unleashed upon the world, taking nearly 8,00,000 lives, China’s aggressive efforts to dominate have come under heightened scrutiny. Dozens of cases of technology theft in the West have been identified, with agents of economic espionage caught and expelled. A famous Harvard professor was apprehended in February. The US shut down a major Chinese consulate ostensibly to prevent technology theft. US Congress and law enforcement agencies have ramped up investigations into systematic Chinese efforts to steal cutting edge tech that would form the core of MIC 2025.

MIC 2025 identified ten key tech areas in which China would be self-sufficient to the tune of 70% by 2025. In order to achieve this goal, China forced foreign investors to share their proprietary technology as part of the price of entry. This was one of the major fronts in the Trump administration’s trade war with China.

Although conducted openly, the scale and purpose of China’s aggressive technology acquisition programme wasn’t understood for what it was: A vast effort to secure tech secrets via coordinated party, government and private action. A recent report by an Australian government thinktank, ‘Hunting the phoenix: The Chinese Communist Party’s global search for technology and talent,’ reveals the organisation that lies behind MIC 2025. In 2008, China launched its Thousand Talents plan, designed to lure Chinese scientists abroad to bring their research back to China. It has since been expanded to include other nationals willing to share their research openly or secretly with China. According to the report, a network of 600 talent recruitment stations operate worldwide – from the US to Germany and Singapore, working in close coordination with Chinese party and government agencies. The operation is lavishly funded. In a 2013 speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping openly hinted, “If you stay abroad, we will support you serving the country through various means.”

There is nothing illegal about funding research by foreigners. The problem lies in the method and use of the research. “The widespread misconduct associated with CCP talent recruitment programmes,” the report says, “sets them apart from efforts by other nations.” The “misconduct” cited includes many unearthed cases of economic espionage and technology theft.

Aggressive behaviour at the border may also put a spanner in tech cooperation. In 2016, a BJP government minister inaugurated Huawei’s largest Global Service Center in Bengaluru, congratulating the company for partnering with Make in India. The horizon has since darkened for Huawei’s role in bringing 5G to India. Although no formal announcement has been made, following the Galwan clash, Chinese companies have been effectively barred from investing in India.

MIC 2025 and Make in India may never meet after all.

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