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Cross-strait Academic Cooperation

Building the Bell Labs of the Chinese World

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Building the Bell Labs of the Chinese World

Source:CW

Two prestigious engineering universities with the same name, one in Taiwan and one in China, are embarking on an ambitious joint project that may place Taiwanese technology at the center of international R&D.

Building the Bell Labs of the Chinese World

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 432 )

On Sept. 13 the historical Shanghai Library in the city’s Xuhui District became the venue for an important meeting. Even former Acer boss Stan Shih, who had not visited Shanghai in two years, took the train from Nanjing to be part of it.

Among those who gathered were Wu Chung-yu, president of Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University (NCTU) accompanied by other top officials from his school, as well as Ma Dexiu, Chinese Communist Party secretary for Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJTU), and Zheng Jie, president of Shanghai Mobile (a China Mobile subsidiary). 

The participants from both sides of the Taiwan Strait all had one thing in common: they were alumni of the twin universities NCTU and SJTU. (“Chiao Tung” and “Jiaotong” are two different spellings of the same Chinese name.)

The two universities share the same predecessor: Nanyang Public College in Shanghai. They still use the same school emblem and embrace the same objectives, and for the first time since they split in 1949 (at the end of the Chinese Civil War), they are embarking on a large-scale joint venture.

Both sides will jointly establish laboratories to research advanced technologies, exchange professors and research fellows, share royalties for jointly developed patents and even work on product development. The project also amounts to a breakthrough in cross-strait academic cooperation.

Big Tech Dream

What brought together the NCTU and SJTU alumni was their desire to explore how the Chinese-speaking world could realize its big dream of becoming a major player in global technological development.

During a visit to Taiwan in August, Wang Jianzhou, chairman of China Mobile, triggered debate when he announced that his company is planning to introduce a TD-LTE network for so-called 4G mobile broadband technology in 2012.

With assets worth 800 billion renminbi and 450 million subscribers, China Mobile is the world’s largest mobile carrier.

When briefing the alumni at the Shanghai Library, Wang Xiaoyun, vice president of the China Mobile Research Institute, could hardly conceal his excitement over his company’s plans, declaring that China Mobile is actively promoting the TD-LTE standard.

Originally, private enterprises on both sides of the Taiwan Strait were the first to conceive of cross-strait technological cooperation. But it was NCTU president Wu who realized what role the universities could play in this scenario and the opportunities that lay ahead if industry and academia joined forces.

A portly gent with the nickname of “Smiling Peter,” Wu Chung-yu is an NCTU man through and through. He received his entire professional education at the university, completing his studies with a Ph.D. in electronics engineering. Under his leadership the 307 Laboratory at the Department of Electronics Engineering has churned out a considerable number of IC designers for wireless and radio frequency applications.

But lately Wu has observed with much concern that the international high-tech industry has begun to bypass Taiwanese enterprises in favor of directly cooperating with Chinese universities.

Virtually all globally known companies from Japanese carmaker Nissan to South Korean consumer electronics giants Samsung and LG and U.S. carmaker GM are seeking cooperation with top-notch universities in China to cultivate talent and conduct technological R&D.

Taiwanese electronics contract manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Industry has donated a nanotechnology research center building to Tsinghua University in Beijing. In further cooperation with the Chinese university the company provides internships at its plant in Longhua, Shenzhen, to students of industrial engineering and other engineering disciplines. Taiwanese IC design house MediaTek, which has been hugely successful designing chipsets for Chinese knock-offs of branded handsets, has also begun to cooperate with Chinese university laboratories.

Not Ready to Do China’s Bidding

As the international situation shifts, China is increasingly calling the shots, while others are forced to do its bidding. Given that Taiwan faces the risk of being marginalized, Wu hopes to turn crisis into opportunity.

Wu took advantage of his connections with industry insiders to float his ideas. He called MediaTek boss Tsai Ming-kai and the former president of the Institute of Information Industry (III) Huang Ho-ming, and suggested pooling the technological talent, capital and R&D capabilities of NCTU’s various research labs. He also contacted Ma Dexiu at SJTU, asking her to negotiate cooperation with China Mobile.

Wu believes that “Taiwan’s competitive edge in the fields of microchips and modem cards combined with a research platform formed by the two universities could serve as base for ethnic Chinese companies to expand globally.”

Industry readily supported this strategy. MediaTek, Taiwan’s largest telecom services provider Chunghwa Telecom, and computer maker ASUS were among those who decided to join the NCTU research platform and participate in the advanced research project along with China Mobile and SJTU.

However, given that Taiwan’s Education Ministry does not yet recognize Chinese university degrees, NCTU is rushing ahead of government policy.

Over the decades NCTU has played an important role in developing Taiwan's high-tech industry with its pioneering research. The university’s Institute of Electronics was established in 1958. In 1970 the Semiconductor Research Center was established, followed by the Institute of Electro-Optical Engineering in 1980. They have made major contributions to Taiwan's high-tech industry, in such areas as personal computers, semiconductors, plasma displays and optoelectronics. Around 30 percent of executives in Taiwanese high-tech companies are NCTU graduates.

However, with the growing horizontal and vertical integration of the science and technology chain across the Taiwan Strait, NCTU increasingly feels that it is losing room to maneuver.

National Tsing Hua University professor Chuan-Yi Tang has the same feeling and bemoans that although there are plenty of job opportunities for Taiwanese students in China, current law stands in the way of cross-strait university cooperation. “I can easily help students build relations with Sweden or other European Union members, but when it comes to interaction between universities across the Strait, everyone does their own thing, everyone’s on their own, since there is no standard we could refer to,” Tang points out.

As one of the leading institutions among Taiwan’s 171 universities and colleges (including 15 vocational-technical colleges), NCTU has drawn the government’s attention with its strategy and its attempt to create more opportunities for Taiwanese research talent, because there is also deep concern that Taiwan will lose its cutting-edge R&D talent to China.

Opting In or Opting Out

But the example of NCTU demonstrates how Taiwanese universities are fighting for survival and trying to get a foothold amid growing cross-strait competition.

For the time being, the standard of scientific research and internationalization in China’s higher education still lags behind Taiwan. But given that for the past ten years, higher education has received a double-digit share of China’s annual government budget, there is imminent danger that Taiwan’s lead in cross-strait competition could be reversed any time, be it in terms of budget, human capital or organization.

SJTU, for instance, has twice as many students as NCTU, but the Shanghai university’s NT$18.5 billion budget (excluding the budget for its affiliated 12 hospitals) is three times higher than that of its counterpart in Hsinchu.

While the Taiwanese university has 653 professors and lecturers and more than 100 fulltime research personnel, the Shanghai school boasts 2,700 professors and around 200 researchers.

And when it comes to organizational structure, China’s universities are more flexible.

Over the past years NCTU has tried to merge several hospitals to help develop biotechnology, but that mission proved very difficult. In contrast, SJTU merged 12 top-class hospitals under its roof for a total of more than 12,000 beds. Together the hospitals handle 16.57 million outpatients and emergency patients and conduct 243,000 surgeries per year.

Way Kuo, president of the City University of Hong Kong, believes that Taiwan has too many universities and that their research lacks focus. Kuo, who is also a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, argues, “In theory, top-notch universities should be focusing on the most advanced research, but for the sake of survival Taiwanese universities have to rub shoulders with industry to gain R&D funding. They have no other choice.”

For its part, SJTU is looking to bring in Taiwanese R&D talent, as well as the money and capabilities of the island’s corporations. Moreover, it hopes to replicate Taiwan’s successful example of technology transfer and enterprise incubation through cooperation between universities, the Hsinchu Science Park and the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI).

SJTU president Zhang Jie notes that for the past three decades China's development depended on its huge market and its role as the world’s factory, which have allowed it to turn mass output into profits. But now Chinese enterprises and the state need R&D assistance from the universities for an advanced technology revolution.

“We hope in the coming decade to establish an industrial technology institute like the one in Taiwan, and transform technology into something that can be applied by industry.” Zhang says. “That’s why we’re cooperating with Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu.”

While Taiwan’s Education Ministry has not yet fired the starting gun, the two universities have already made full preparations for their joint project. Both sides are eying their respective opportunities, but also pursuing a common dream.

The grand plan that Ma Dexiu has in mind is that within five to ten years Chinese companies will be able to take the lead in global core technologies and specifications to establish worldwide standards.

Acer’s Shih believes that the cooperation between the two universities has historic significance. “AT&T and Bell Labs in the United States don’t make the grade anymore. We need to grab the baton. The two sides of the Strait need to assume this role. It might take a ten-year effort, but we won’t yield to anyone.”

Throughout their history the two engineering hotbeds of NCTU and SJTU have been emphasizing practical studies and a pragmatic approach to business. It remains to be seen whether their alumni succeed in building the Bell Labs of the ethnic-Chinese world.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz 


Chinese Version: 交大幫 打造華人貝爾實驗室

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