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The City of Hefei: A Hub of Innovation

By Liang Peiyun and Zhang Chunlin Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-05-12

If you walk along the banks of the Chaohu Lake in the Yangtze River Delta, you will find that the charm of Hefei's innovation is bursting forth in all its splendor. In 2021, the city played host to a number of major scientific and technological breakthroughs: the quantum computer prototype Jiuzhang 2.0 was developed; Zuchongzhi 2.1, a 66-qubit programmable superconducting quantum computing system, was built; scientists broke the world record when they extended the storage time of light to one hour; China's artificial sun set a new world record by running for over 1,000 seconds at high plasma temperature; and mathematicians proved the core conjectures of Keller's geometry. 

"Hefei (capital of China's eastern Anhui Province) is a place that nourishes talent. It has produced a lot of high-caliber personnel and is a hub of innovation." "For Hefei to embed itself in the integrated development of the Yangtze River Delta more rapidly and make a leap forward in development, it must rely on innovation." Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, President Xi Jinping has toured Anhui Province twice. On both occasions, he set important requirements for scientific and technological innovation, thus helping to chart the course of Anhui's development. Keeping the President's words in mind, Anhui has blazed a new path toward innovation-driven development.


The experimental advanced superconducting tokamak (EAST), also known as China's artificial sun. PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT OF THE CPC HEFEI MUNICIPAL COMMITTEE / PHOTO BY ZHANG DAGANG 

China has already gone from zero to one in some important fields. 

As long as 1,056 seconds—this was the new record for high temperature tokamak plasma, set on December 30, 2021 by the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) at the Hefei Institutes of Physical Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Known as China's artificial sun, EAST aims to create nuclear fusion that will operate like the sun, so as to develop controllable nuclear fusion power plants capable of providing humanity with an infinite supply of clean energy. This newest world record is another step on the road toward that vision. 

In addition to the debut of EAST, Hefei has in recent years seen a steady stream of other original innovations that are leading the world in their respective fields. In such areas as quantum communications and dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) chips, the city is either running in the leading pack or moving into the lead. Major achievements, such as the Dark Matter Particle Explorer Wukong and the Mozi quantum satellite, have captured world attention. The use of tocilizumab as a treatment for Covid-19 and the development of recombinant protein vaccines have also assisted China's fight against the epidemic. 

A tree requires deep roots to flourish. In a similar vein, China's drive to be self-reliant and strong in science and technology must be underpinned by solid foundations in basic research and original innovation. It requires a lasting commitment to painstaking research and a willingness to wait years for projects to bear fruit. Basic research projects like China's artificial sun and Mozi began receiving the full support of Hefei municipal government and Anhui provincial government decades ago. Viewing sci-tech innovation as a tree-planting project that requires time to reap rewards, they assembled first-rate personnel from in and outside China to collaborate on research projects. It was those years of hard work away from the spotlight that have produced the major results of so many research projects today. 

The blossoming of innovation has also yielded new progress for industry. 

The mission of sci-tech innovation is to take China from zero to one, that is to produce wholly original innovations. But even more crucial is connecting the "island of innovation" with the industrial sector to enable the application of advances in science and technology. 

Born in 1988, Jiang Ruhai, the founder of Hefei CAS-Juche Technology Co., Ltd., has been exploring the vast opportunities of driverless vehicles for a long time. A number of years ago, Jiang had already led his team in accumulating over a decade of experience in driverless technologies, but he was unable to achieve commercial application because of a lack of funding. At the crucial moment, the CAS (Hefei) Institute of Technology Innovation (HFITI) stepped in to provide a platform and seed funding for Jiang's team and an equity incentive plan of more than 70% of the shares. In just over a year, Juche managed to achieve mass production and profit. There are already 30 collaborative platforms involving city government bodies, universities, institutes, and enterprises similar to the HFITI platform. Using such platforms as a support, Hefei has created a highly efficient way of accelerating industrial innovation. 

The numbers tell their own story. Every day in 2021, 3.4 national-level high- and new-tech enterprises were established in Hefei. In the period up to January 24, 2022, Hefei was home to 69 A-share listed companies, ranking it seventh among provincial capitals. Of the companies, 13 are listed on the Science and Technology Innovation Board, placing Hefei second among provincial capitals and sixth among all cities nationwide. Among cities with GDP exceeding one trillion yuan, Hefei ranks 14th nationally and 6th among provincial capitals in terms of the number of "little giant enterprises," or specialized and sophisticated technology enterprises producing unique and novel products. Hefei National High-tech Industry Development Zone is ranked 8th of 169 such zones across the country, while Hefei Economic and Technological Development Area ranks 10th of 217 such zones. 

Today, Hefei's landmark industries, represented by chips, flat panel displays, equipment manufacturing, and industrial robotics, are growing and expanding. There is deep integration among the chains of innovation, industry, talent, policy, and capital, and countless market entities are engaged in free and vigorous competition. 

Stimulating creativity through institutional innovation is important. 

Scientific research, especially basic research, is characterized by a lengthy process and a high level of difficulty. What is the best way to motivate scientific researchers in the fields of basic and long-term research? Many researchers feel deeply that Hefei offers an excellent environment and good conditions for producing research outcomes. 

Zhang Douguo is a professor in the School of Physical Sciences at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). The strong academic atmosphere at USTC and the good scientific research support policies of Hefei have enabled Zhang to devote himself to research in the field of optics for more than ten years with fruitful results. Hefei City has implemented a lump-sum funding system for scientific research, and fully delegated decision-making power over the use of research funds, thus allowing researchers to manage funds independently. This has not only improved the efficiency with which funds are used, but also motivated researchers to increase income and reduce expenses. 

If science and technology innovation is the new engine of development, then institutional reform is the ignition system for this engine. With the goal of fully unlocking the creativity of researchers and scientists, Hefei was one of the first places in China to pilot the scheme of SOE equity and dividend incentives. It adopted a variety of methods to support innovation and entrepreneurship of various forms, setting up a municipal science and technology innovation committee, introducing science and technology innovation regulations, and establishing Hefei Science and Technology Innovation Group. Through such actions, institutional innovation has helped promote scientific and technological innovation, which in turn is driving innovation in industry. 

As fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurship, Hefei is fast becoming a place where the dreams of high-caliber personnel in all sectors are born, built, and transformed into reality. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 5, 2022)