In June 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping outlined his vision for China to become the leading player in science and technology globally. Speaking at the national congress of the China Association for Science and Technology, he said the country must be on course to being a leading innovator worldwide by 2030.
According to a post on the Chinese Academy of Science website, Xi said: "Great scientific and technological capacity is a must for China to be strong and for people's lives to improve," adding that the country and even humankind "won't do without innovation, nor will it do if the innovation is carried out slowly."
Fast forward to 2020 and it's clear that the country is making technology innovation a major, major priority – having become a leader in quantum research, boldly challenging the USA in the supercomputer arms race, and creating its own successful space programmes. Zhejiang province, where internet giant Alibaba is located, just pledged a $17 billion commitment to driving technology over the next five years. And the country's startups scene is thriving.
Here are just some of the most amazing projects that have emerged from China in recent years.
Drone and robotic COVID-19 response
The COVID-19 response across China saw a massive uptick in the use of unmanned, remote technologies like drones and robotics to provide services to residents.
China's CloudMinds introduced its robotics into a hospital in Wuhan – the capital city in Hubei province thought to be at the centre of the country's outbreak – to help staff a ward by delivering food and medicine to isolated patients, while also keeping the space clean. The robots are powered by people, controlling them remotely using a 5G connection.
The BBC quoted CloudMinds CEO Bill Huang as saying: "This is China's first-ever entirely robot-led ward and an opportunity to test the capability of the technology and how we work together."
Agricultural drones typically used for spraying pesticide from agritech firm XAG, meanwhile, were repurposed for disinfecting public spaces.
Elsewhere, drones were used to transport medical samples in Zhejiang Province, cutting the 20 minute journey by road to six minutes by air, according to WEF.
Plasma drives for green aircraft
The Institute of Technological Science at Wuhan recently published a paper announcing the creation of a prototype 'plasma drive' that could lift a small steel ball across a one-inch quartz tube – the same level of thrust required to power a commercial aircraft engine, according to South China Morning Post.
While this is only a prototype, the hope is that a larger version could pave a route forwards for a green alternative to the fossil-fuel hungry engines that power aircraft today. Unlike the ion thrusters that have been used in space travel which use propellants such as hydrogen, this concept uses air – a potentially unlimited source.
This design, says SCMP, uses pressurised air injected to a chamber where it's then subjected to extremely high temperatures at over 1,000 degrees Celsius, as well as microwaves, creating an ionised plasma in the process – which is then expelled for the propulsion.
"There is no need for fossil fuel with our design, and therefore, there is no carbon emission to cause a greenhouse effect or global warming," lead author on the report at Wuhan University, professor Jau Tang, told the paper.
Permanent space station set for 2022 completion
Chinese officials have said the country intends to have its own permanent space station completed as soon as 2022, following the launch of the Long March-5B rocket, which carried an experimental unmanned spacecraft with it.
China hopes to complete at least 10 missions over the next three years to finish the construction of the new, T-shaped space station, which will have a core module at its centre and lab capsules on each side, according to Xinhua.
Living space in the core module would account for about 50 cubic meters, and 110 cubic meters in total, with the two lab capsules included.
China's Global Times newspaper reported that the Long March-5B rocket launch from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan Province, south China, was a success – signalling the beginning of the permanent space station. Launch missions of the core 'Tianhe' space station cabin and the lab capsules, Wentian and Mengtian, are to follow.
However, debris from China's Long March-5B rocket – the "largest piece of space junk to fall uncontrolled in nearly 30 years", according to popular mechanics – re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and landed in the Atlantic off the west coast of Africa. Ars Technica said that the debris narrowly missed New York City.
China lands Chang'e-4 probe on dark side of the moon
China became the first nation to successfully land a discovery probe on the far side of the moon.
The Chang'e-4 lander touched base on the 115-mile Von Karman crater on the moon's far side on 2 January, 2019. Scientists hope that they will learn more about the moon's mineral composition and its surface, as well as the layer just beneath the surface, the moon's mantle.
As the dark side of the moon never faces Earth, Chang'e-4 will not be able to beam data directly back to the Earth. Instead, it communicates by bouncing data from the Queqiiao relay satellite which was launched in May 2018.
Components of Chang'e-4 were jointly developed by scientists from Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and China, reports CGTN.
The probe, which launched 8 December 2018 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China, will also test numerous types of recording and measuring equipment including cameras and a spectrometer for low-frequency observations that scientists believe will be useful for conducting experiments without the interference of radio noise from Earth.
Previously China had launched the Chang'e 1 and Chang'2 orbiters in 2007 and 2010 respectively, notes Space.com, while the Chang'e 3 mission for a near-side landing was a success in December 2013.
ChengDu artificial moon
Chengdu in southwest China might well have an 'artificial moon' launched in 2020 to complement the real one, according to chairman of Chengdu Aerospace Science and Technology Microelectronics System Research Institute, Wu Chungfeng.
He announced the plans at a national innovation conference held in Chengdu in October 2018. The moon would be bright enough to replace street lights entirely, and could be eight times as bright as the real moon.
It would be able to light an area up to 80 kilometers in diameter, but the illumination range could be narrowed down to "within a few dozen meters," reported the People's Daily.
Wu's satellite has already been tested, said the paper, but critics claim that the project could negatively impact animal habitats as well as cause issues for astronomical observation.
Hongyun Project satellite launches to provide rural broadband
On 22 December China successfully launched the first satellite for the 'Hongyun Project' - an initiative to provide stable internet access to the country's rural regions through low-orbit satellites.
It was attached to the Long March-11 rocket that launched from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, successfully reaching the orbit after launch, according to the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.
According to SpaceDaily, Hongyun will see China launching 156 communication satellites into the low Earth orbit by 2025. Two variations of the satellite will be launched, a basic model that can carry up to 500 kilograms and an advanced payload that can carry up to 600 kilograms.
9,500 new electric buses every five weeks
China is adding 9,500 electric buses - the equivalent of a London fleet - to its roads every five weeks according to a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
It makes China far and away the leader in electronic public transit - with 99 percent of the world's 385,000 electric buses operating in the country.
The buses are helping clean up the air quality of dense urban populations, as well as reducing the country's reliance on oil.
As the World Economic Forum notes, many of China's cities are new - meaning that sustainable infrastructure can be built into city planning from the start. But even long-established urban centres like Shanghai have put a stop to buying fossil fuel buses and are only buying electric vehicles now.
The country also hopes to become the top exporter of the electric vehicles, and is currently leading the way globally in terms of volume manufactured.
Super solar expressway that charges electric vehicles as they drive
China is planning to build a solar expressway for self-driving cars and electric vehicles that will be able to charge them as they drive, according to the Chinese newspaper Hangzhou Daily.
Sputnik reports that the highway will be 161 kilometres in length between Hangzhou in the east of the country to the port and industrial hub of Ningbo just south east.
Automatic tolls will also feature on the proposed six-lane expressway, which is designed to increase the average traffic speed by 20 to 30 percent using smart vehicle management and relieve traffic along the Yangtze River Delta.
The lanes will be embedded with photovoltaic cells that the designers say will power cars as they drive, including self-driving vehicles.
According to the Global Times, the highway will also be fitted with sensing and monitoring equipment to reduce traffic congestion.
A shorter, one-kilometre solar expressway in China previously opened as a pilot in December 2017 in Jinan province using similar technology, but had to be closed down when it emerged thieves had stolen a large section of panelling. The first solar roadway in the company was opened in Jinan in September 2016.
Floating solar power plant
The world's largest floating solar power plant was completed and connected to the local power grid in China's Anhui province in May 2015.
This 40-megawatt solar facility is built on top of a flooded coal mining region. It is part of a vast shift in China's use of fossil fuels. China increased its solar power output by 80 percent in the first three months of 2017, according to The Guardian.
China also completed the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, a 10-square-mile, land-based solar power plant in 2015. It is allegedly the largest solar facility on the planet.
Shenzhen East Waste-to-Energy Plant
Over in the industrial hub of Shenzhen, Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects has proposed the planet’s biggest waste to energy plant, designed to transform 5,000 tonnes of waste every day into power. The plant is due to open in 2020, and it will be almost a mile wide.
Transit Elevated Bus
This concept called Transit Elevated Bus was first revealed at the 19th China Beijing International High-Tech Expo, last month. It’s designed to accommodate as many as 1,200 people at any time, and would trundle along highways straddling normal road traffic, that passes by beneath. It’s just a model at the moment, but its creator, Ben Zhiming, claims the cost of its construction is less than a fifth of a subway, and a trial will reportedly begin in Qinhuangdao City in the second half of this year.
Quantum Science Satellite
The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ head scientist, Pan Jianwei, recently announced that the country will undertake its first experiments with a ‘quantum satellite’ – to establish a quantum communications link between earth and space. It’s believed that, if the experiment is a success, such a satellite could greatly improve the security of data transmissions around the world.
Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST)
In September this year, the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope – FAST for short – is set to open its doors and become operational. First proposed in the early 90s, it will become the biggest single-aperture radio telescope on the planet, with 4,600 triangular panels. The telescope is situated in a natural basin in Pingtang County, Guizhou Province, to protect the project from unwanted magnetic disruptions.
Although 3D printing is by no means new (nor is it emerging in China alone), in 2014 a Chinese company called WinSun Decoration Design Engineering managed to create a 10-house 3D-printed village in under one day.
After printing out each of the prefabricated modules, the components were lifted into place by a crane and were then ready to use. And in 2015, the same company created the world’s tallest 3D-printed building at the time.
The Tianhe-2 is a 33.86-petaflop supercomputer which has topped the world’s most powerful high powered computing lists for years. Developed as part of the Chinese government’s 863 High Technology Program, the monstrous computer was built by China’s National University of Defense Technology. It boasts 32,000 Intel Xeon E5-2692 12C processors and has more than 1,300 TiB of memory. Although it’s by far the most powerful in terms of calculation capacity, critics say that it’s not as functionally useful as other supercomputers in the US and Japan.
Customised server chips with Qualcomm
Mobile chip giant Qualcomm will begin to make server chips specifically designed for the Chinese market this year, through a business owned by the Chinese government. The Guizhou province-Qualcomm collaboration was initiated because server demand in the country is expected to eventually outpace that of the US – and for political reasons, China is beginning to clamp down on technology produced from outside its borders. According to the Wall Street Journal, Qualcomm president Derek Aberle has said the project will address security concerns with a solution that’s “very specific to China”.