Can China become a hi-tech economy?

The BBC's John Sudworth talks to the director of the world's biggest genome mapping company

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Inside a former shoe factory in China's southern city of Shenzhen, the noise of hammering and stitching has long gone.

In its place is something much quieter - the hum of laboratory machinery and the click of computer keyboards.

But listen extra carefully and you might just pick up another sound: the deep, seismic creaking of the world's second-largest economy moving forward.

At least, that is what this country's economic planners would like to hope.

BGI has grown from nothing a little more than a decade ago to become the world's biggest genetic sequencing company.

Almost 3,000 people work at the plant in Shenzhen, decoding DNA data on behalf of global clients in healthcare and agriculture.

Gone are the low-skill, low-wage shoemakers. In their place high-skilled, hi-tech brainpower.

BGI has just decoded all of the varieties of the chickpea and is now attempting to determine the genetic components of human intelligence, to give just two examples of the sort of work being done here.

"You have to have more young people, crazy people, who can work day and night to figure out what the data represents," one of the company founders, Wang Jian, said.

"We have thousands of people working in this field, so lots of countries ask us for help. We charge them a reasonable fee and we get the money to feed ourselves."

The company, which came into being as part of the international collaboration to map the human genome, has quickly made use of one key resource: China's abundant supply of cheap graduates.

In some ways, genome sequencing - producing the complete DNA sequence of a particular organism - is the easy bit. You need some very expensive sequencing machines and a lot of computing power.

The hard bit though is decoding or mapping the genome.

For that, you need a lot of careful analysis, looking for similar patterns and sequences in the long strings of letters, so that you can then identify the parts of the genome responsible for particular biological functions.

And that is where the cheap graduates come in.

'More creative'

Start Quote

We need a more challenging, more creative education system - otherwise we still, for most Chinese companies, are followers - following the UK and the States to try to catch up”

End Quote Wang Jian Chinese scientist

The floors of the old shoe factory are now divided into hundreds of small cubicles, and inside each one sits a technician at a computer terminal, poring over data from the labs.

BGI can do this kind of work on a bigger scale than anyone else because elsewhere in the world, it would cost much more to hire all this brainpower.

So China now finds itself at the forefront of the important effort to find genetic components to things like autism and obesity, both projects that BGI is working on, for international clients.

The country currently has a glut of unemployed graduates - part of the reason, of course, that they are cheap to employ.

Could BGI therefore offer a glimpse of the next stage of China's remarkable economic transformation, with more companies drawing on this army of educated workers to become world leaders?

Before those aforementioned economic planners get too carried away and toast the arrival of the future, BGI's founder has a warning for them.

"Our education system has to be changed fast," Mr Wang said.

"We need a more challenging, more creative education system. Otherwise we still, for most Chinese companies, are followers - following the UK and the States to try to catch up."

'Own way'

In fact, so unhappy was BGI with the quality of the Chinese education system that it set up its own college, in the hope of replacing the traditional learning methods with more creativity and innovation.

File photo: Factory workers in China China has many low-skilled, low-wage workers

But the college has not been allowed to award its own diplomas and now Mr Wang is appealing directly to the government.

"Give people more chance to build up their own schools. We don't want to change the whole system, but give us a chance to try our own way."

"That's what I need to go through you to say. Please do not cut this," he added.

Some outsiders have suggested that, rather than a break with the past, BGI is simply following a tried and tested model.

A bit like China's giant computer assembly plants, only this time producing DNA sequences rather than gadgets.

The trick is the same; do the job just as well but cheaper than it can be done elsewhere.

Mr Wang's concern is for the next phase, for BGI to move beyond data processing and analysis to become a real innovator and leader in biotechnology.

He is certainly not the first person to criticise China's education system as not being fit for that purpose.

The rote learning and cramming approach has long been identified as producing students who are better at studying than they are at learning.

But as one of China's most successful scientists, his is a powerful voice.

And in the story of his company, the country's economic planners may find not so much a model of China's future, but more a warning about how far off that future still is.

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