China is spending billions on a national computing network. Its data chief says why

“Frontier technologies and future industries represented by new materials, biopharmaceuticals, gene technology, and deep sea, air and space exploration, have created an unprecedented demand for computing power infrastructure.

“A unified computing system would optimize resources, lower costs and help the country to achieve breakthroughs in cutting-edge technology such as quantum information.”

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AI chip maker ordered by US government to halt exports to China

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Beijing has put computing power front and center in its efforts to narrow the gap with the United States in technology, particularly in artificial intelligence.

To that end, it set up the NDA in October last year as both a promoter of the digital economy and a regulator of the booming data management sector.

The authorities have also signaled that it will be more tolerant of failure in science and technology to overcome its risk-averse culture and give younger researchers more room to explore ways to realize the national goals.

China is second only to the US in aggregated computing power, and aims to scale up its capacity by half by 2025.

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The incentive to do so is clear. In a report released in August last year, Tsinghua University, International Data Corporation and Chinese big data provider Inspur said that for every percentage point gain a country made in the trio’s computing power index, the country’s digital economy grew by 0.36 per cent and its gross domestic product by 0.17 per cent.

The index is compiled to track the development of overall computing power, computing efficiency, applications and infrastructure in 15 sample countries.

China’s plan is to build eight national computing power hubs and 10 national data center clusters, a mega project called “Eastern Data and Western Computing”, which is expected to drive around 400 billion yuan in investment each year.

It is designed to unite computing centers throughout the country to create a pool of general-purpose, intelligent and supercomputing power, and will be up and running by next year.

China is in heavy competition with the US on technology, but external such as US sanctions and internal ones like a risk-averse academic culture threaten to hold it back. Photo: Shutterstock

The project was launched in 2022 and is in part intended to address regional imbalances in digital resources – between the more prosperous areas of eastern China and the energy-rich west.

Liu said the project would also narrow the economic gaps between regions and attract more professionals to inland areas.

Local governments have started pouring money into the field.

Work began in Shenzhen in January to build a computing center estimated to cost 466 million yuan in its first phase.

When completed, the center will be able to process 1.6 billion images and 1.9 million hours of voice translation in one hour, making it the most advanced – and most expensive – operation of its kind in the Pearl River Delta region.

China must ‘tolerate failure’ in science and technology to close the gap with the US

To improve the network’s efficiency, Liu warned that local governments should “avoid hazardous construction”.

Computing clusters throughout the country should be integrated to accelerate economies of scale, improve efficiency and cut costs.

And while concentrating computing power would make better use of resources, it would also raise security challenges, he said.

“There is an urgency to strengthen the coordination of security systems of national hubs. We also have to prevent risks from regional network failures, power outages and extreme situations,” he said.

In addition, industry and academia should work together to advance electronics, communications and computer
science, he said.