Director believes robotics is one area where China is capable of taking an international lead
Shang Liqun believes China's high-tech zones have a major role to play in the country emerging as a future global leader in innovation.
The 52-year-old, who is acting leader of Qingdao National High-tech Industrial Zone, one of more than 100 such designated areas across the country, insists they also carry an important responsibility.
Shang Liqun, acting leader of Qingdao National High-tech Industrial Zone, says the zone aims to build itself into a blue high-tech zone. Xie Chuanjiao / China Daily
"I think high-tech zones will shoulder a very important responsibility in the transformation of China's industry in the future," he says.
"They represent clusters not just of technology but also of talent and capital. Among the high-tech zones around the country, there is a clear common feature and vision, and that is to focus on the development of high-end and emerging industries."
Shang, a charismatic and ebullient figure, was speaking in an anteroom of the Bauhinia Garden Hotel within the Qingdao zone.
He has been deputy director of the zone since 2012 but took over as acting director in April this year when the former director, Chen Fei, was promoted to be mayor of Dezhou, a dynamic city in western Shandong.
He has the role of steering the Qingdao zone, which was set up in 1992 and has a total planned area of 63 sq km with a ranking of ninth in the country's state-level high-tech zones, through the leadership transition.
One of the main aims of the zone is to build on the city's natural strengths as one of China's, and also the world's, leading maritime ports (Qingdao was the world's seventh-largest container port and China's fifth biggest, according to the World Shipping Council in 2013).
One key focus is to specialize in blue high-tech industries such as marine bio-medicine, which is involved in bringing oceanic discoveries into medical practice, and marine engineering equipment research and development.
Almost half of China's marine scientists and marine research institutes are based in Qingdao as well as 70 percent of the total academicians in the marine field at both the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.
"The zone aims to build itself into a blue high-tech zone, leveraging the advantage of the marine industry in the Shandong Peninsula and seizing the opportunity to build a national demonstration zone in this area," he says.
Qingdao, which was host to the 2008 Olympics sailing regatta, is one of the Chinese mainland's famous holiday resorts with millions of people flocking there every year.
A former German treaty port, it is also where some of China's leading brands are located, including Tsingtao, one of the world's top-10 breweries, and two consumer electronics giants, Haier and Hisense.
One of the main aims of the zone is to bring new specializations to the city.
As well as high-end marine technology, this includes software and information technology, new materials such as graphene, new-energy cars (and other energy-saving technologies) and robotics. Qingdao has been designated one of China's first National Robot High-tech Technology industrial centers.
Shang believes robotics is one area where China is capable of taking an international lead, particularly in high-end applications.
"There is a process of accumulation of knowledge and expertise you have to go through in developing any technology. I think in industrial robotics, there are still some gaps that China has to fill such as in servo motors (the motor control of robots) and some other key parts.
"I think, however, in advanced-level specialized robots such as those used underwater or in small drone aircraft, there is little difference between where China is and what has been achieved internationally."
Shang says China faces the same issues the West faces in the development of new-energy cars.
"It is not just about technology but also about getting people to adapt to using new-energy vehicles. The major problem is solving the recharging issue and this is something that exists in the West also."
Shang, who was born in Qingdao and majored in economic management at university, was deputy director of the Qingdao's economic and information technology committee for more than 10 years before moving to the high-tech zone.
His key areas of responsibility at the zone are largely operational but have also included inward investment, statistics management, securing projects and providing of investment services.
"My previous work on the committee was looking at areas the high-tech zone was looking to develop such as in emerging industries like software and information technology.
"This included the plan to build a software science and technology town in the high-tech zone so there was some planning and repositioning work to do here."
Shang believes it would have been difficult for China to develop some of the technologies at the speed it has without the contribution of the high-tech zones since the 1980s.
"Developing technology anywhere is a very complex and systematic process. It requires a lot of elements. It is not just about developing technology. There has also got to be a market for it. You have also got to make it commercial which means you have to combine technological advances and capital with commercial enterprises. Technology can't enter the market otherwise."
Shang insists one of the strengths of the zones has been the ability to adapt and adjust to the needs of the Chinese economy over time.
"In the initial phase after reform and opening up, the focus was on the absorption of technologies and essentially re-innovation and to bring technology into our production processes.
"We then went into a continuous development phase. I think we have moved into a new phase where the economy has achieved a certain scale but we need to focus on the quality of development and not the quantity. This is where the new technologies will play a role. The challenge for the high-tech zones is to adjust and improve in accordance with the development stage and requirements of the nation."
Shang says it is also important for the high-tech zones to continue to provide incentives so that they attract those wanting to set up technology-related businesses in the zone, many of who may be returnees from overseas.
"I think this is very important. We ensure here in Qingdao that we have a lot of preferential policies. We provide rent subsidies and a variety of other incentives. We also encourage enterprises in the zone to invest in talent training and there are subsidies available for this also. We have also special policies targeted at projects we consider outstanding."
One of the main responsibilities of the zones remains to align themselves with central government strategies and goals such as Internet Plus, aimed at developing Internet technologies and the Made in China 2025 plan, to ensure China retains its place as a leading manufacturer.
As part of this, Qingdao is currently building a 30 sq km software, scientific and technology town at a cost of 59.6 billion yuan ($9.37 billion; 8.33 billion euros).
"This investment is part of the responsibility we have to not just transform and upgrade the industrial base of this city but play a role in the development of that of the country as well. This is the central purpose of high-tech zones."