‘Science Cities’ rise in Guangdong

The Greater Bay Area’s response to the need for high-quality basic research is to build it, with four clusters of scientific institutions coming out of the ground in Guangzhou’s Nansha, Shenzhen’s Guangming, Dongguan’s Songshan Lake, and Zhongshan’s Cuiheng.

When it comes to technology, Guangdong has no worries about designing, building, and selling stuff. But there is a step before all of that in the tech industry’s value chain, and it is a step in which the province has traditionally been lagging. Basic scientific research is where Beijing and Shanghai have long had an edge, given the prevalence of their leading universities focused on scientific research. 

It’s not as if the province lacks in academic spirit or ambition. There are some well-established innovation hubs in Guangdong, such as Guangzhou’s “Science City”, which has some of the world’s biggest R&D-focused corporate names established in its Huangpu district, or Shenzhen’s Nanshan Science and Technology Park, home to some of the country’s biggest tech brands. And the GBA masterplan has at its core the ambitious “10 hubs” plan to build China’s answer to Silicon Valley, known as the Science and Technology Innovation Corridor (STIC).

Yet it has also been clear that Guangdong needs to raise its game in basic research. That is why the regional masterplan has placed so much emphasis on collaboration between Hong Kong’s elite universities and their Guangdong counterparts, as well as research institutes such as Hong Kong’s Advanced Science and Technology Research Institute, based in the city’s Science and Technology Park. 

Guangdong being the dynamic province it is, however, there was always going to need to be more than one route to scientific achievement. And so is it that four major clusters of scientific excellence have been getting resources and attention from authorities not only at the local and provincial level, but also national.

Unsurprisingly, two of these clusters are located in the province’s tier-1 cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Perhaps surprisingly, however, they are not being built in or near the established tech zones. In Guangzhou, a brand-new “Science City” is rising in the southernmost Nansha district, one of the province’s three national-level New Areas (the two others being Shenzhen’s Qianhai and Zhuhai’s Hengqin). In Shenzhen, the northerly Guangming area has been chosen for the next stage of the city’s scientific development.

The choice of Dongguan and Zhongshan for the two other Science Cities is more intriguing. Both have grown over the past 20 years from rural backwaters to industrial powerhouses on the back of low-margin export-oriented manufacturing. Yet that is precisely why they were chosen for the next round of experiments in scientific progress: they have manufacturing bases that can be retooled for higher-technology outputs, and they have plenty of (cheaper) land available. In Dongguan, the Songshan Lake district has been the center of scientific development, while in Zhongshan it has been the Cuiheng district.  

Here follows a brief overview of each of these Science Cities. (We will be doing more in-depth research on each in the coming months.)  

Guangzhou Nansha Science City

It was only in May this year that the official establishment of the Nansha Science City took place, as the city government signed a formal agreement for its establishment with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the national scientific think tank and academic governing body.                        

Nansha Science City plans to accomplish three major goals: build on existing technological infrastructure, construct new platforms for fostering innovation, and work to attract “high-end innovative talent” from home and abroad. With an initial focus on advanced scientific research in data processing, life sciences and marine biology, it has already seen the launch of construction of the Marine Science and Engineering Laboratory on 600 acres of land with a total investment of over 8 billion yuan. 

The Nansha district, once a site of alluvial sand deposits at the mouth of the Pearl River, has big ambitions to become a regional finance and technology hub. Its status as a national-level New Area allows the district certain leeway and expedited approvals for innovative ideas. This has enabled it to build a tech park not far from massive ocean-going transport and logistics facilities at the Nansha Port, and a new business district is being constructed that has already attracted commitment from over 260,000 enterprises, with 79 large-scale headquarters planned for the area.  

Driving its scientific ambitions is the city government’s enviable tie-up with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), which has already set up no fewer than 44 national and provincial-level laboratories around the city. These will be integrated and housed together in Nansha, according to Nansha Party Secretary Cai Chaolin, quoted by southcn.com.

At the core of Nansha Science City is the Pearl Science Park, which covers an area of 3.1 sq km and will feature five relocated projects and nine newly-established projects from CAS. It has been scheduled to begin its first phase of construction this year and is expected to be completed by the end of 2022.

Among the CAS relocated projects are the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology currently located in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Guangzhou Institute of Energy Conversion and South China Botanical Garden’s research department in Tianhe district, and Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health in Huangpu district.

The Guangzhou college of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, the public university under the direct leadership of CAS that could accommodate 4200 postgraduate students in Tianhe district and 1800 in Huangpu district in its Guangzhou branch, is also expected to move to the Pearl Science Park.  

Established by Shenyang Institute of Automation of CAS, a new project named Guangzhou Intelligent Unmanned System Research Institute, focusing on developing underwater robotics system, was expected to start construction this September in the park. It has been given the role of an R&D base for China’s intelligent unmanned systems mainly utilised in deep ocean.

Shenzhen Guangming Science City

Unlike Nansha, Shenzhen’s Guangming Science City is still in its infancy. Its masterplan was approved only in April although the founding began in January. But its mission is no less important: to become the “core engine” of the tech-driven city’s basic scientific research effort.

Once home to dense residential zones and seven state-run production bases for dairy products, Guangming will now be divided into three major scientific clusters covering 99 sq km of land. The first and most important is focused on producing top-level scientific equipment, such as a neutron source (like Dongguan’s) and electric light. The other two are a cluster centered on Sun Yat-Sen University’s Shenzhen campus and one that contains research institutions and technology transformation platforms.

Xia Junze, senior engineer and director of the Chinese Institute of Electronics, compared the Guangming Science City to the “power supplier” that provides “oil and electricity” to move forward Shenzhen’s technology innovation.

In the first stage, six scientific infrastructure projects are being built, including: 1) a material genomics scientific device platform; 2) a space gravitational wave detection ground simulation device; 3) a synthetic biology research facility; 4) brain analysis and meningeal facilities; 5) space, environment, and material effects research facilities; and 6) precision medical imaging facilities. Among these, No. 3 and No. 4 are already under construction.  

The area is expected to forge strong links with Hong Kong’s academic institutions in basic research, including the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, although no details have been disclosed so far regarding the form of cooperation. 

Dongguan Neutron Science City 

We have already written a feature on this. Here are its basic details, for comparative sake.

The construction of the Dongguan Neutron Science City only began in March this year, but its most important components are already in operation after more than a decade of development: the Songshan Lake Materials Laboratory and China Spallation Neutron Source. Both have made use of high-level support and resources from CAS, as part of a strategic plan to turn Dongguan, once a low-cost manufacturing hub, into one of the top clusters for comprehensive material science research in China.   

The Neutron Science City covers a land area of 53.3 sq km and is building accommodation for universities, research enterprises and large enterprises to attract some 600 scientists from around the world carrying out scientific research of all disciplines.

One of the only four science devices of its kind – the other three in the UK, the US and Japan – China Spallation Neutron Source was formally established in 2011 by the Institute of High Energy Physics of CAS with an investment of 2.3 billion yuan. The device that produces neutrons based on a particle accelerator for basic research in particle physics, is dubbed by state media as the “first significant scientific device in southern China”.

Not far from CSNS is the Songshan Lake Material Laboratory, jointly established in 2017 by the Dongguan government as well as two CAS institutes with some 12 billion yuan of planned investment on a 4.85 sq km land area. As of June, the laboratory has 257 scientists working in it, with some attracted from overseas, according to southcn.com.

The Dongguan government has worked on plans to integrate the area with neighbouring Shenzhen’s Guangming Science City, which is seven kilometres away, into a “comprehensive national science city”, according to People’s Daily.

Among the four newly-planned science city projects, the Neutron Science City is the only one which is also part of the Science and Technology Innovation Corridor, the blueprint for China’s Silicon Valley within the overall masterplan of GBA, which includes Songshan Lake as one of its “ten cores” in Guangdong.

Zhongshan Cuiheng Science City 

Over on the western side of the Bay, Zhongshan’s Cuiheng Science City is smaller than the other three, covering just 18.27 sq km. Yet its ambitions are large. Its development plan was unveiled in May on a centre for “internationalization and modernization” that could accommodate up to 180,000 residents.

The planning of the area, released by the city government, didn’t include any specific names of the projects to be developed besides listing a few functional zones such as technology and innovation zone, medical city, biotech park, science and education cooperation zone, and wetland zone. But what is clear is the emphasis on fostering interaction with key regions across the Greater Bay Area, such as Shenzhen’s Qianhai, Shenzhen’s Airport New City and Ocean New City, Guangzhou’s Nansha, Zhuhai’s Hengqin, and Dongguan’s Binhaibay Area, several of which are also part of the masterplan of the Science and Technology Innovation Corridor in GBA. 

Sitting at the end of the Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge-Tunnel project, the cross-bay connection due to be completed in 2024, the city is planning to position itself as a key node in the region’s traffic network. According to its plan, the Cuiheng Science City will be within easy reach of the region’s major air and rail hubs in an hour and should therefore be attractive as a supporting role in a more affordable location. 

The plan has also listed a number of industry clusters, focusing on electronic information, smart manufacturing and biotechnology. No details regarding scientific research institutes have been specified yet.

Although these newly born science cities are being constructed separately, the intention to combine them into a powerhouse of scientific research for the technology-oriented Greater Bay Area seems clear. Only time will tell whether they succeed in attracting the necessary talent, and combine their resources in a world-class competitive way.

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