China raising the ante on standards setting

In a joint statement issued in October 2021, China published directives on how it will advance its goal of becoming an influencer in international technological standards setting, thus contributing to the nation’s standing as a forerunner in next-generation technologies—including quantum technologies.

Quantum computing received a notable mention in the October statement. China’s focus is presented in a broader context (including food, transportation, healthcare, technology, etc.) but will inevitably affect standards setting for quantum technology.

Latest in a series

The declaration of the “National Standardization Development Program (NSDP)” is the latest in a series of incremental actions taken by China—since 2017—that reflect the importance its leadership places on the standards setting process. The publication of the NSDP represents top-level, national support of the recommendations put forth by the China Standards 2035 study project, which completed its work early in 2021. The project studied the current standards-setting landscape, globally and domestically, and identified specific and actionable steps for improvement to both structure and processes within China. Moreover, the project studied ways to refine its approach to engagement with international standards-setting bodies.

National priority

The publication of the NSDP establishes standards setting as a national priority and lays out clear directives for the government, organizations, scientists, academics, and even individuals throughout China. The directives provide inspiration and political support for citizens to engage in and incorporate standards setting in their regular work plans, when appropriate. According to the NSDP, researchers and scientists will now be required to allocate a portion of their attention to standards setting as part of their project work.

Standards setting is trending

The focus on standards setting in China parallels increasing attention to the domain by other nations. An example is the American COMPETE Act of September 2020, which requires a federal study of the standards-setting ecosystem related to next-generation technologies—including quantum computing. Similarly, the European Union completed a public feedback period in August 2021 on its roadmap for global standards setting.

Projecting geopolitical power

Indeed, technological standards setting has found its place as a conceivable conduit for projecting geopolitical power and, perhaps, gaining geopolitical preeminence. Of course, many countries aim to promote influence on the world and China is focused on increasing its stature among nations in a mosaic of ways. There will likely be many more national actions to come pertaining to standards setting. While there are 165 countries engaged in standards setting through their International Standards Organization (ISO) membership, these initiatives coming from national governments directly suggest that standards setting is “in play” within the geopolitical universe.

Notable takeaways for the quantum industry

The NSDP addresses numerous aspects of standards setting in both China’s domestic and international contexts. Members of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C®) should keep in mind that there are roughly 200,000 standards documents in China, and none are yet known to involve quantum technologies, even when widely scoped. Nevertheless, we can expect follow the procedures and expectations of this broader standards setting regime in China. The NSDP presents numerous specific directives for the nation to follow for the foreseeable future as quantum technologies develop. Below are several key takeaways gleaned from the outline that are of some relevance to QED-C members and the broader quantum ecosystem:

  1. Consequence on the quantum ecosystem: While the term “quantum technology” is specifically stated in the NSDP document (once), this strategy is for all types and dimensions of standards setting throughout society, from high technology to food safety. Thus, for the QED-C community, much remains to be seen as to what impact this strategy has, not just on the broad spectrum of societal standards, but specifically on how it will filter to quantum technologies. Of course, we must concede that quantum technologies are really a very small part of the technological and high-tech landscape at present. Chinese nationals are directly engaged in international quantum standards setting, but the number of individuals involved in the activity is less than one score globally. Moreover, of the approximately 200,000 documented domestic standards in China, at present, none of these are known to be particular to quantum technologies.
  2. China Standards 2035 project has concluded: The publication of the NSDP marks the conclusion of the often-misconstrued China Standards 2035 project. It was an academicians’ study initiated in 2018, at the request of party and government leaders, to recommend a strategy. The resultant confidential report was delivered in January 2020 and was rumored to call for the development of a comprehensive national standardization strategy that would further deepen existing standards-setting reforms. It featured a focus on reducing the complexity of the current domestic system for setting standards and addressing other inefficiencies domestically, including those related to international engagement. As the NSDP has emerged, the 2035 project report is believed to have been accepted in its entirety by China’s leadership.
  3. Directive from the top: The NSDP outline is published jointly by the senior leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese government, which places these directives at the top level of import, second only to direct wording from Xi Jinping. In China, directives of this stature permit any entity in the country to act, either grandly or humbly, in any manner that follows and supports the strategy. Actors throughout the country—organizations, groups, or individuals—can use the NSDP as a supportive reference when requesting authorization for action or as justification for taking related actions. In China, individuals participating in standards-setting activities are paid by the government—usually very handsomely—for their engagement. (This is in high contrast to all other countries, which rely on employment contracts or volunteerism to support standards-setting work.)
  4. Much is domestic facing: Observers should be aware that much of the focus of the strategy pertains to domestic standards setting, although international standards setting is a clear and considerable priority. The NSDP instructs the dismantlement of the highly complex five-level domestic standards-setting system (i.e., national-, sector-, local-, association-, and enterprise-level standards setting) and reconfigures it with just two levels (i.e., national- and association-level standards setting). Of note, we can expect much of the attention by standards-setting actors in the immediate and near term will be focused on the likely upheaval in the internal politics of those engaged in standards setting; individual- and organization-level power will undoubtedly be shifting within the country. Domestically, there will be winners and losers in the new configuration; existing actors will be focused on self-preservation. All this internal turmoil may be at the expense of near-term attention to international-facing initiatives being spelled out in the NSDP. China will incorporate standardization into the government and political performance evaluations, which will essentially guarantee adherence to the targets and strategy.
  5. Embedded in research projects: The country will establish a mechanism for linking standards setting and major science and technology projects. The NSDP directive specifies that there will be coordinated, simultaneous development of standards research and innovation. In this process, standards will be required to be in digital form—an expectation that has no clarifying description in the document.
  6. Adoption of international standards will increase: By 2025, the conversion rate of international standards to domestic standards will grow to 85%. Standards put forward by international Standards Developing Organizations (SDOs) are not automatically adopted in China (which is also true in most other countries), so an internal review and possibly modifications to the standard take place within the country. The least of such requires that the international standard (in English) be expertly translated into Mandarin. This clearly described attention to engaging with international standards-setting processes runs counter to the present unambiguous posture China is taking in most other areas of international interaction; of late, China has been trending towards a lesser degree of interaction with those beyond its borders.
  7. Reduce time to completion: While many technology-oriented international standards-setting projects have a three-year timetable, China is speeding up its process to expecting completion in just 18 months. This underlines an obvious sense of urgency the country is placing on the process and the importance it sees in realizing the outcomes and benefits of an efficient standards setting process. China considers standards setting not only a geopolitical tool and an economic tool, but also a tool to benefit its society—a paramount priority of the CCP.

It remains to be seen exactly how this drastically increased devotion to standards setting in China will transpire over time. Implementation of such declarations is a highly dynamic and unpredictable process. Predicting the precise what, when and to what degree individual items within such declarations garner attention is unpracticable. The directions in the NSDP pertain to multiple and diverse actors; thus, any individual or collective actions are significantly interdependent. It is unknown as to which specific details of this strategy will come to fruition, but rest assured that there will be a continuous level of high activity in standards setting by China—domestically and internationally. While the specifics are unclear, there will be even greater engagement by Chinese actors in the age of high technology standards internationally and, by association, in quantum technologies.

Access the NSDP (in Mandarin) at:

Terrill Frantz is a professor at Harrisburg University and is engaged in several quantum technologies standards processes globally, including serving as the Vice Chair of the US Mirror Committee for Quantum Technologies, the group that represents the USA for ANSI, for which he is also an editor of ISO/IEC JTC 1 WG 14 projects. He also serves as the Vice Chair of the QED-C Workforce TAC. Prior to returning to the USA in 2018, Terrill was a professor at HSBC Business School of Peking University in China, where he lived and worked for 15 years.