Lexicon: Indigenous Innovation or Independent Innovation (自主创新, Zìzhǔ Chuàngxīn)

Understanding and translating a key strategy of Chinese science and technology policy


March 7, 2022

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March 7, 2022

Understanding the Role and Meaning of Zìzhǔ Chuàngxīn

The term 自主创新 (zìzhǔ chuàngxīn, hereafter ZZCX), typically translated as "indigenous innovation," or sometimes "independent innovation," has become a central strategic concept in Chinese government rhetoric during the Xi Jinping era, building on a long-standing tradition of emphasizing self-reliance in industry and technology. The 14th Five-Year Plan, released March 2021, further underscored the importance of science and technology (S&T) in the party’s plans for China’s economic future. To underscore the importance of S&T in Xi’s thinking, the Communist Party’s top theory journal Qiushi published the full text of Xi’s capstone S&T speech, which heavily utilized the term ZZCX to outline his strategic vision for China’s future.  

For Xi, ZZCX is not just a matter of pride, but of national security. In 2018, in response to a wave of technology-focused sanctions from the United States, Xi Jinping gave a series of speeches emphasizing the need for China to decrease its reliance on foreign technology and chart a more independent path. According to Xi's speech, unless China cultivates ZZCX, there will be a persistent gap between China and other leading economies. Reliance on foreign economies means that core technologies “may not be available when needed, cannot be purchased when needed, and are not always available on demand,” he said. In the wake of U.S. efforts to hobble Chinese tech companies such as ZTE and Huawei, Xi urged China to “cast aside illusions and rely on ourselves.”

A Slogan’s Lineage

Although the term ZZCX did not first appear until the mid-1990s, it draws on a long history of the CCP responding to external challenges with drive for internal independence. During the early Cold War era, the fear of external threats, particularly after the 1959 Sino-Soviet split, left China virtually surrounded by hostile powers, leading Chairman Mao Zedong to undertake a massive drive to cultivate “self-reliance” (自立自强, zìlìzìqiáng). Following Mao’s direction, the country engaged in the enormous industrial undertaking of moving key industries from the coast to the country’s interior, which the country’s leadership believed would make China more resilient in case of a U.S. or Soviet attack. 

China also embarked on a series of large-scale scientific projects that led to notable breakthroughs such as atomic and hydrogen bombs, China’s first satellite, and a malaria treatment. These achievements continue to be a source of national pride and a template for what China can achieve by itself. In one of Xi’s speeches in 2018 promoting ZZCX, Xi called upon China to harness the spirit  of “two bombs, one satellite” (两弹一星, liǎngdàn yīxīng) to close the technology gap with the west. 

Following Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping's push for “reform and opening” (改革开放, gǎigé kāifàng) meant that self-reliance took a backseat to efforts to stimulate economic growth and learn from developed countries.  Years of upheaval devastated the Chinese economy and left Chinese industry in tatters. The contrast between Japan and China, which began from relatively similar positions in reconstructing their economies after WWII, presented a sobering image. China’s leadership, therefore, vowed to climb the global value chain by integrating into global industry and assimilating knowledge from other countries. 

Yet the emphasis on “self-reliance” and ZZCX did not fade with China’s reform and opening. Rather, it developed a second life as China’s leadership attempted to simultaneously assimilate foreign technical knowledge and climb the global value chain while cultivating a domestic technological base. Hu Jintao, China's top leader from 2002–2012, sought to help elevate China’s position in the global supply chain and released The National Medium- and Long-term Program for Science and Technology Development (2006-2020) as an effort to promote ZZCX. Hu’s plan focused on top-down supply side government intervention to help champion the growth of high-tech industries in China.

Translating Zìzhǔ Chuàngxīn

“Innovation” is clear. The latter half of ZZCX, chuàngxīn (创新), has been consistently and unproblematically translated as “innovation” in almost all English texts. From the context of Xi’s use of ZZCX, the emphasis on innovation is clear. Phrases such as “daring to take the road no one has traveled,” “achieve breakthroughs,” and “taking the initiative to innovate and the initiative in development” make it apparent that Xi is not seeking to emulate peers, but rather a path of original developments that will transform China into a premier global innovator. 

What is less clear is how to understand the first half of ZZCX, zìzhǔ (自主). English translations of ZZCX are split between the use of “independent” and “indigenous.” The case for each translation is outlined here. 

The case for “independent innovation.” Proponents of the “independent” translation emphasize Xi’s focus on breaking Chinese dependence on outside technologies. The goal of ZZCX, in Xi’s words, is for China to “stand on its own among the nations of the world.” In this regard, "independent" reflects Xi’s ultimate ambition. However, emphasizing this aspect of Xi’s statements introduces a tension with how Hu used ZZCX. Hu used ZZCX to underscore China’s ambitions to move up the value chain—which is different from Xi’s emphasis on breaking dependence on, or problematic integration with, global supply chains. “Independent,” therefore, suggests a stark vision of China’s technological development, one in tension with globalization, where China’s advancement into the top tiers of global innovators comes hand-in-hand with developing autonomy from external pressures. 

The case for “indigenous innovation.” Proponents of "indigenous" have inertia on their side. China’s long history of emphasizing greater domestic production is not only typical for the CCP, but reflects a common desire among nations to develop higher value-added industries within national borders. Translating zìzhǔ as “indigenous” can soften Xi’s rhetoric and downplay fears that China is attempting to create maneuvering room to challenge the current global order. Proponents of this translation are not just doves and wishful thinkers. Xi’s 2018 keynote speech situates ZZCX within the context of global cooperation, albeit on China’s terms: China must “strive to promote the construction of a community of common destiny for humankind” (one of the top CCP foreign policy buzzwords of the Xi era), “have a global outlook,” “bring together winds from the four seas, and borrow strengths from the eight directions,” as well as “deepen international S&T exchange and cooperation.” This context is important and may be better captured by “indigenous” over “independent.”  However,  the "indigenous" option does not address the often present theme of lessening dependence on foreign supply chains.  

Which way to go? Which flavor of ZZCX Chinese sources may be appealing to is difficult to determine and makes selecting an authoritative translation challenging. A definitive answer may not be possible. However, highlighting the differences between the two translations is important, because it allows the English translation to serve as an analytic point of departure from a more ambiguous (or definitionally flexible) Chinese text. Understanding that Xi Jinping and the CCP may be pursuing a new type of ZZCX from what was practiced in the past, or may simply be continuing a long and relatively benign form of domestic economic improvement, is an important distinction that observers must grapple with. Absent more clarity from Xi Jinping, the final place to look to understand the meaning of ZZCX is its usage in the Chinese government, media, and society.  

Usage in Specific Contexts

Government use. ZZCX has been picked up in national economic and military policy. So far, the primary way in which this centralized push for ZZCX has been carried out is through the establishment of “innovation zones” where favorable tax structures and government investments are paired together to entice companies to invest in research and development. Official media outlets controlled by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have also become enthusiastic supporters of ZZCX. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the PLA interpretation of ZZCX emphasizes the “independent” aspects of the phrase with a focus on bringing innovation into defense production, while the economic innovation zones are more neutral in tone.

Popular use. Despite the strategic nature of ZZCX, businesses and individuals have adopted the slogan to signal their alignment with Xi’s ideology and to promote their own interests. In these non-government spaces, however, the publicized examples of ZZCX range from celebrating the number of patents a company has to the “innovation” of providing a 10-year warranty on consumer electronics. Considering the self-serving nature of this usage, alongside Xi’s direction to avoid reliance on measures like patents to assess innovation, it seems that some of the intended meaning of ZZCX is lost as the slogan is deployed throughout society.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or any part thereof.