Is China a Leader in Quantum Technologies?

Is China a Leader in Quantum Technologies?
Is China a Leader in Quantum Technologies?
Is China a Leader in Quantum Technologies? Top

    Under Xi Jinping, China is redoubling its efforts to compete and lead in cutting-edge strategic technologies. China is investing heavily in the emerging field of quantum technologies, which exploit properties of quantum mechanics to enable breakthroughs in sensing, communication, and computing. Many of these technologies are still developmental, but Chinese researchers are making rapid progress and have become major players in quantum technologies. In some areas—especially quantum communication—China has positioned itself as the global leader.

    Quantum Technologies Explained

    Quantum technologies are a loose set of nascent technologies that harness the principles of quantum mechanics to enable revolutionary breakthroughs across various fields. Quantum technologies can be grouped into three main areas—sensing, communication, and computing.

    • Quantum Sensing: In the field of quantum sensing, researchers are pushing to develop ultra-sensitive devices capable of measuring minute changes in motion and electromagnetic fields. As these technologies advance, they could lend unprecedented levels of precision to medical imaging and diagnosis, navigation, radar, geophysics, and more.
    • Quantum Communication: Quantum communication promises to enable ultra-fast and highly secure data transmissions. With conventional electronics, data is typically encrypted and then sent as bits representing 1s and 0s. However, quantum bits—or qubits—can be transmitted in a state of superposition in which they can represent combinations of 1 and 0 simultaneously. This allows for virtually un-hackable communications—a highly sought after capability for governments, militaries, financial firms, and others.  
    • Quantum Computing: The third area of quantum technologies—quantum computing—has garnered the most attention globally and promises to be the most transformative of the three. Like quantum communication devices, quantum computers exploit the properties of superposition, which enables many calculations simultaneously. Theoretically, quantum computers equipped with enough qubits can perform complex calculations at speeds exponentially faster than even the most advanced supercomputers in use today.  

    While quantum technologies are immensely promising, many of the more advanced capabilities still remain largely confined to research and development work. Most quantum devices require complex and precise engineering in order to work. Some quantum computers, for example, must be chilled to extremely low temperatures to avoid disturbances and information loss.1 As a result of these limitations, certain quantum technologies face major obstacles to commercialization and are unlikely to see widescale adoption for years or even decades.

    China’s Quantum Ambitions

    Despite the nascent status of quantum technologies, their potentially revolutionary qualities have caught the attention of Chinese policymakers. In 2021, the Chinese government enshrined quantum technology into its latest national economic blueprint, the 14th Five Year Plan, listing it along with six other cutting-edge fields that should be prioritized in the coming years.2    

    China’s focus on quantum technologies is part of a broader push for global technological leadership that has intensified under Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Xi has repeatedly called for transforming China into a global “science and technology power” (科技强国). Beijing’s technology ambitions have taken on new urgency amid growing U.S.-China tension over strategic technologies. In March 2023, during a key annual political gathering in Beijing, Xi stressed that China needs to focus on scientific and technological “self-reliance and self-strengthening” in the face of “fierce international competition.”  

    Toward this end, China is investing heavily in scaling up research and development (R&D). Chinese spending on R&D has more than doubled since Xi came to power in 2012. This is not merely a byproduct of economic growth, but also higher prioritization. In 2012, Chinese R&D spending amounted to 1.91 percent of its GDP, and by 2022 that figure had climbed to 2.55 percent of GDP. 

    However, China’s interests in quantum go well beyond abstract notions of global leadership. Policymakers hope that quantum technologies will have tangible economic and security benefits.  

    Quantum computing, for example, could have force-multiplying impacts on Beijing’s other key focus areas, like artificial intelligence. In a seminal 2017 report, the “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan,” the Chinese government laid out hopes that quantum computing could advance AI capabilities by enhancing the performance of machine learning algorithms.  

    There are also hopes that advanced quantum computers could revolutionize scientists’ ability to model complex systems to achieve breakthroughs in areas like materials sciences and biomedicine. If these capabilities materialize, they could have transformative effects and reap enormous economic dividends.  

    Chinese scientists and strategists are also well aware that quantum technologies have major security and military applications. The 13th Five Year Special Plan for Science and Technology Military-Civil Fusion Development, issued in 2017, includes quantum communication and computing among a list of priority strategic technologies. More pointedly, a researcher at China's Academy of Military Sciences described quantum technologies as a “bolting dark horse” that is “poised to change the mechanisms of future military victories.” 

    A key area of concern is encryption. Armed with unparalleled computing power, an advanced quantum computer could break through existing conventional encryption methods that are used by individuals, banks, internet companies, governments, and militaries to secure data. Some experts worry that such a “Q-Day” scenario is not far away and could bring unprecedented challenges.  

    Chinese researchers claim to have already developed an algorithm that can be run on a small quantum computer that can decipher an advanced encryption system commonly used by governments and financial institutions. However, scientists outside of China have viewed these claims with deep skepticism.  

    “Quantum, as a 'bolting dark horse,' has made a significant impact on the information age… and is poised to change the mechanisms of future military victories."

    Col. Gao Dongguang, Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Sciences

    In the United States, the Biden administration has taken moves to prepare for quantum’s potential threats to data security and to shore up the country’s own quantum capabilities. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology identified four new encryption algorithms to be integrated into the department’s security standards that should be resilient to potential hacking from quantum computers.

    Other quantum technologies could have additional applications in the military domain. Quantum sensing can potentially improve lidar and radar for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and also provide positioning and navigational capabilities in the absence of satellite-based systems. Such capabilities remain in development, but China is making progress. Chinese researchers are reportedly developing a quantum radar device that could improve the Chinese military’s ability to detect stealth aircraft.  

    China is not alone in pursuing quantum technologies for military and security ends. Both the U.S. Navy and Air Force have created quantum research centers, with the goal of building quantum-equipped forces capable of faster threat detection and response. Although mature quantum technology is not yet ready for major military integration, NATO has already identified quantum as one of its key emerging and disruptive technologies. 

    China’s State-Led Approach 

    China has taken a characteristic state-led approach to funding and conducting R&D of quantum technologies. This stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by the United States and other leading quantum technology players, where the private sector has typically led.  

    The Chinese government has invested impressive amounts into developing quantum technologies. Exact figures are not available, but existing studies suggest China leads by a wide margin in government spending. McKinsey estimates that as of 2022, the Chinese government has announced a total of $15.3 billion in funding, which is almost double that of the European Union ($8.4 billion) and more than triple that of the United States ($3.7 billion). However, these figures are not uniformly accepted. Studies by Quantum Insider have put the range of Chinese government investment between $4 billion and $17 billion.  

    Conversely, China lags in private sector investment. According to McKinsey’s estimates, between 2001 and 2022, Chinese quantum startups received only $482 million from the private sector. That is a fraction of private sector investment in the United States, which led the world with an estimated $3.3 billion from non-government sources. Even Canada and the United Kingdom were well ahead of China, with both at roughly $1.1 billion of investment.  

    Unsurprisingly, state-linked institutions drive much of China’s quantum R&D. The National University of Defense Technology has been an important player, conducting research on quantum communication technology since the 1990s. In 2001, China established the Key Laboratory of Quantum Information at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), which serves as the country’s most important institution dedicated to the quantum field.

    However, these trends are not set in stone. As the United States has geared up for competition with China in areas of key technology, government-led initiatives and funding to promote R&D for quantum have grown. In 2018, Congress passed the National Quantum Initiative Act to “accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security of the United States.” Since 2019, the U.S. federal budget on quantum for various national laboratories and universities has more than doubled, from over $400 million in 2019 to an estimated $900 million in 2022.  

    Other economies are stepping up investments as well. In 2018, the European Union initiated the Quantum Flagship, which will pump some €1 billion into quantum research over the next decade. It also aims to build up a network of 5,000 quantum-related researchers across the EU. Similarly, in 2023, Canada launched the National Quantum Strategy for government investment in quantum research ($141 million), talent ($45 million), and commercialization ($169 million). The Japanese government developed its Quantum Technology and Innovation Strategy in 2020, which created eight new R&D centers. Japan followed this up in 2022 with its Vision of Quantum Future Society strategy, which aims to leverage quantum technologies to strengthen the country’s economic and societal resilience.  

    Evaluating China’s Quantum Progress 

    China has made impressive advances in quantum technologies in recent years. While China has not particularly distinguished itself in quantum sensing, it is widely viewed as the global leader in quantum communication. When it comes to quantum computing, China is behind the United States—the global leader—in some aspects, but its scientists have made eye-catching achievements and are progressing rapidly.  

    In recent years, China has not publicly demonstrated world-leading breakthroughs in quantum sensing. There has been some reporting suggesting China is working on quantum sensors for submarine detection, and in 2021, researchers at the prestigious Tsinghua University claimed they made advances in a quantum radar that could detect stealth aircraft by generating a small “electromagnetic storm.” In 2022, a research group at USTC published findings showing that they used diamonds to improve the capabilities of a developmental quantum radar.

    Although Chinese researchers have published notable research on quantum sensing, especially on quantum radar, these findings (which have been questioned) appear largely constrained to laboratories. Pan Jianwei—sometimes hailed as China’s “father of quantum”—wrote in 2020 that China “started late” in the field and was working to close the gaps.

    “[China] started late in the field of quantum precision measurement, and there is a certain gap compared with developed countries as a whole, but in recent years, the gap has been rapidly narrowed, and in some directions it is equivalent to the highest international level publicly reported.”

    Pan Jianwei, Executive Vice President, University of Science and Technology of China

    In comparison, Chinese quantum researchers have achieved several high-profile successes in the field of quantum communication. In 2016, China made a historic breakthrough with the successful launch of Micius, the world’s first quantum-enabled satellite. Developed by Pan Jianwei and a team of scientists at USTC, Micius made groundbreaking strides toward an un-hackable satellite-based communication system. Chinese researchers are reportedly developing a constellation of quantum-enabled satellites.  

    In another major quantum communication breakthrough, a team of researchers also led by Pan Jianwei developed a 2,000 kilometer quantum-secured communication link connecting Beijing and Shanghai. This was later expanded to become an integrated quantum network of four quantum metropolitan-area networks and two ground-satellite links.  

    China has also pushed to become a leader in quantum computing. In 2021, China became the third country—after Canada and the United States—to develop a complete domestically-built quantum computer. The device was created by Origin Computing, a powerful driver of China’s quantum successes. 

    Since then, China has developed new quantum computers and processors. In May 2023, China’s 176-qubit processor, Zuchongzhi, went online, making it China’s quantum processor with the largest number of qubits. Developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Zuchongzhi is already capable of processing tasks millions of times faster than a traditional supercomputer can. However, this still lags behind the world’s fastest processor, IBM’s 433-qubit processor which was revealed in 2022.  

    Despite the already high number of qubits in these processors, quantum computers will likely require thousands of qubits to perform tasks at the complexity and caliber that scientists are looking to reach. IBM aims to debut a quantum computer with 1,121 qubits in 2023 and a quantum computer with more than 4,000 qubits by 2025.

    Patents are a key measure of a country's innovation. Explore our feature to learn about trends in China's patent applications.

    While these feats are impressive, they do not allow for a comprehensive comparison across countries. Patents, however, serve as one useful indicator of which countries or firms are leading in certain areas.  

    According to one study, the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) received 1,554 applications for quantum communication patents between 2010 and 2022. This is nearly twice the number of applications to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and four times the number of applications to Japan’s patent office.  

    A different picture emerges when looking at applications for quantum computing. CNIPA received just over 900 quantum computing patent applications from 2010 to 2022—less than half as many applications to the USPTO. Still, China’s office received twice as many quantum computing applications as Japan’s and far more than other patent offices.3

    Yet fully understanding the state of play requires looking at certain kinds of patents. International patents—those filed in patent offices across multiple countries—are harder to acquire, and they are typically reserved for more high-quality and high-value patents. When it comes to these international patent families, Chinese companies lag.  

    According to a 2023 study by the European Patent Office, only one Chinese company, Alibaba, ranked among the top-20 entities in terms of international patents in quantum computing. By comparison, U.S. companies and universities took up half of the top-20 list, with IBM taking the top spot with 401 international patent families. Japan had an impressive five companies in the top-20, with Toshiba/Nuflare Technologies taking the number-two spot.  

    Even patents do not tell the whole story. Some analysts have criticized China’s large number of patent filings as an inaccurate representation of the country’s true output, arguing that Chinese patent figures are inflated by the filing of patents with marginal technological differences from existing patents.  

    An alternative metric for comparing countries is the publication of research papers. China has published the largest volume of academic papers across all three areas of quantum technology. Between 2011 and 2020, China published more than 14,000 publications on quantum technology. While quantity is important, it is also crucial to assess the quality of publications. The Hirsch Index (H-index) is often used to help with this. It measures both the total number of research papers published by an entity and the number of citations the research receives. 

    Between 2018 and 2022, China ranked first globally in the field of quantum communication, with an H-index score of 48.4 The United States followed closely behind with an H-index of 43. However, China falls slightly behind in quantum sensing research and further behind in quantum computing research. The United States was ranked the highest in quantum computing with an H-index of 91, nearly double China’s H-index of 52. 

    Overall, China’s quantum capabilities have been steadily developing, yet China’s future progress will not be without challenges. The Biden administration has taken several moves to limit China’s development of certain technologies that are deemed a threat to U.S. national security. In October 2022, the United States imposed on China a suite of landmark export controls on advanced semiconductors and chip-making equipment, and Washington has successfully pushed for key allies—namely Japan and the Netherlands—to join in restricting China’s access to key chip technologies. 

    Quantum technologies have emerged as another key front in intensifying U.S.-China technological competition. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed three Chinese companies specializing in quantum technology on the Department’s Entity List, restricting exports to these firms. More recently, in August 2023, the Biden administration announced new restrictions on U.S. investments into China related to quantum technologies (as well as semiconductors and artificial intelligence). Once in effect, the rules are poised to prohibit U.S. persons from investing in all three areas of quantum technologies in China. The most painful impact of these restrictions may not be financial, but may instead result from limiting the transfer of knowledge and expertise into China. ChinaPower 

    Brian Hart, Bonny Lin, Samantha Lu, Hannah Price, Yu-jie (Grace) Liao, Matthew Slade