Modern China is the heir to a remarkably inventive civilization that pioneered in the development of the abacus (the first mechanical calculating device), paper (and paper money), printing by movable type, gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and the rocket. Contact with the West during the 19th century revealed how technologically backward China had become, and it is only in recent decades that the nation has begun to catch up.
China detonated its first fission device in 1964 and its first hydrogen bomb in 1967; the nation now possesses a variety of nuclear weapons mounted on missiles, bombers, submarines, and other delivery systems. Its first satellite was launched in 1970. By 1992, the PRC had launched an INTELSAT satellite on a Chinese launch vehicle. Other priorities have been the development of high-energy physics, laser research, powerful computer memory chips, color television broadcasting technology, and laser infrared devices, although the PRC still relies heavily on outside investment and technology transfer. Major advances have also been claimed in rice hybridization, insecticides, fertilizers, biogas digesters for rural electrification, and pollution control technology.
Two scientific exchange agreements between the US and China were signed in January 1984 during Premier Zhao Ziyang's visit to Washington, D.C. China has proposed to several Western nations that it provide long-term storage facilities in remote provinces for radioactive waste—a proposal that Western observers believed would provide China not only with hard currency but also with nuclear materials for possible reprocessing.
China's principal technological handicap is lack of skilled personnel. Only 1% of the PRC's 127 million 22-year-olds receive a university degree. However, 37% of all Chinese degrees are in engineering, the highest ratio in Asia. Part of China's response to this shortage has been to send tens of thousands of students overseas for advanced study, especially in the US. In 1987–97, science and engineering students accounted for 43% of college and university enrollments. China had 454 scientists and engineers and 200 technicians per million people engaged in research and development during the same period. Scientific research is coordinated by the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, founded in 1949 and headquartered in Beijing. China in 1996 had 90 specialized learned societies in the fields of agriculture, medicine, science, and technology. Most are affiliated members of the China Association for Science and Technology, founded in 1958. International science and technology cooperation is also increasing. In 1998, high-technology exports were valued at $23.3 billion and accounted for 15% of manufactured exports. However, concerns over human rights issues have had the effect of cooling US-PRC science and technology exchanges. In 1996, China had 105 universities and colleges offering courses in basic and applied science.