A little over two months ago, the Chinese government’s Ministry of Science & Technology released a document entitled “The Special Planning Document for Technical Standards during China’s 12th Five Year Plan.” For short, I’ll call this the “SPD.” This SPD is one of a series published in recent months by the Chinese government on standards and standardization.
A little background is necessary to understand why the Chinese government is emphasizing standards—especially technical standards. China first emerged as a powerful global economic force largely as a foundry nation. In other words, it produced manufactured goods based on others’ designs – the classic commodity provider. The keys to competitiveness in this area include price, scale and flexibility of manufacturing, and the availability of the right workforce.
Perhaps realizing that China could not become a major player in the international information and communications technology (ICT) arena solely as a foundry nation, Chinese government policy now appears aimed at moving the country up the value chain to become a designer and creator of its own ICT products. It has also come to realize that standards, in the era of the Internet and widely and massively connected systems, are essential to market success. The Chinese government examined the German use of standards after World War II to promote that country’s industrial export policy; at the use of standards by the EU to foster a single European market; and at the use of standards by United States companies to drive the direction and focus of the information and communications technology sector. In short, they have realized that standardization is an important element of national industrial policy. The investment in standardization education, the increased participation by Chinese companies in a wide spectrum of SDOs, and the creation of Chinese consortia all point to an understanding of the value of standards to set direction in an industry.
The SPD opens with a bold assertion – “Technical standards are the technical basis of social and economic activities, a strategic resource for national development and a core element for international competitiveness.” This statement is the key to understanding the remainder of the document – which sets forth how technical standards are to be used and considered in planning, R&D, Advanced Development, Testing and Certification, Intellectual Property, and a host of other areas that are typical of life cycle planning in technology companies. More importantly, the Chinese government sees standards as encouraging innovation by limiting duplication, encouraging sharing, and making innovative ideas and products more available to other developers. Standards are also seen as coordinative activities, allowing disparate groups to develop solutions – but with the added caveat that these solutions must/may be applied to social, legal, and economic issues more easily. In total, the document presents an ideal and optimistic vision of standards as a strategic planning mechanism that can be used to spur their economy and various industries, both new and established.
However, it must also be remembered that this is a formal governmental planning document. Planning documents – especially long-term documents – can change, not because the original plan was faulty or incomplete, but because the market conditions upon which the plan was predicated have changed. For the Chinese strategy to succeed, the government will have to be flexible and adaptive in implementing the strategy, as there is no longer a static landscape in the world of ICT standardization.
The Information and Communications Technology sector standards environment in the United States and Europe is highly dynamic – as illustrated by activities like the creation of WebKit and open source; the appearance of W3C community groups; the increase in different Intellectual Property Rights rules within Standards Setting Organizations; the constant creation of new consortia; and the appearance of ad hoc standardization (as shown by social media). Over the last five years, ICT standardization has changed dramatically. Because formal standards organizations (ISO, IEC, and the ITU-based) move slowly, the ICT sector often relies on consortia and ad-hoc groups (WebKit, WHAT WG, and the like) for innovation and leadership in standards development. Additionally, planning in a period of significant change is challenging – and planning for standards is a second derivative of ICT planning. It both leads and is led by technology and technological planning – but with a healthy dose of marketing and economic and social strategy thrown in.
With that said, the SPD is a fascinating statement of Chinese governmental policy. One only wishes that there were corresponding standards strategies from other countries, recognizing the criticality of standards for national competitiveness, with which to compare with that of the Chinese government. There is an old saying in the standards world: “If you don’t play, you can’t complain.” If this document serves the purpose of causing others to re-examine their approaches and seek consensus, then it has served not only China, but also the world.