China is spending a fortune on science—and is getting robbed blind by corrupt scientists

China’s surging R&D investment doesn’t always go where it’s supposed to.
China’s surging R&D investment doesn’t always go where it’s supposed to.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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China is piling huge sums of money into research and development (R&D), and it’s freaking some people out. “We face being buried under an avalanche of Chinese science,” lamented The Guardian, referring to the Chinese state’s role in the funding. “It’s Official: China Is Becoming a New Innovation Powerhouse,” chimed in Foreign Policy.

But it’s not what you put in that matters: it’s what you get out. A sweeping corruption crackdown now underway on the crème de la crème of Chinese scientists is a reminder those alarmist headlines might be jumping the gun just a bit.

It’s true that Chinese R&D is growing crazy fast. Spending will hit $284 billion this year (pdf, p.7), a 22% increase from 2012—much more than the 4% increase in the US over the same period. Some analysts project that China will surpass the US as the world’s leading science producer by 2020 (paywall)—it not earlier.


But it turns out a good chunk of that has been lining the pockets of the most prominent science officials, at least in wealthy Guangdong province. More than 50 of the leading scientists have been implicated in a scheme to embezzle as much as hundreds of millions of yuan from state R&D projects.

It’s a scandal that goes all the way to the top of Guangdong’s government. In January, the Communist Party sacked Li Xinghua, director of the provincial Communist Party science and technology department. Then on Feb. 14, news broke that Wang Kewei, former deputy director of that same department, was accused of skimming funds off the province’s light-emitting diode (LED) industry development project, to which Guangdong had allocated 450 million yuan ($74 million), reports the South China Morning Post (paywall).

This might explain some of the mystery of why China has little to show for its surging spending, says Cao Cong, an expert on Chinese science policy at the University of Nottingham.

“If China spends so much money, why haven’t we achieved more significant accomplishments?” Cao told Science Magazine. “Part of the reason may be that much of the money is stolen.”

There’s reason to suspect the problem isn’t just in Guangdong. In Oct. 2013, Quartz reported that only 40% of China’s $163-billion budget for national experimental research actually went toward research. The rest was spent on business expenses.