While the process of including the private sector in military procurement on a large scale started in 2013, it is only recently that the People’s Liberation Army has sourced sensitive next-generation technology such as drones and artificial intelligence from start-ups.
The new strategy has been pioneered by Xi Jinping, China’s president, who this year created a Military-Civil Integration Development Commission with himself as head.
The fruits of the strategy were on display last week at Beijing’s Civil-Military Integration Expo, where private companies’ military hardware — from autonomous armed boats to virtual reality goggles — were on display.
Some private companies say that being allowed to compete for military contracts is partly an effort to cut hardware costs: private groups can produce equipment for a fraction of the cost of their state-run counterparts.
Private companies and start-ups are also widely judged to be better at some types of innovation and offer cutting-edge technology in areas such as facial recognition and batteries.
A representative of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation , one of the state-owned companies with a booth at the expo, said the reason for allowing competition with the private sector was simple: “This is what everyone is doing now, especially the US. That is why we must do this as well.“
He said this had even spurred reforms in the state companies aimed at cost-cutting in order to compete with private peers.
“Most of our clients are Chinese military,“ said Cai Songlin, a marketing manager at Hikvision, a Shanghai-listed video surveillance company. “Among the world’s video surveillance companies, Chinese ones are some of the strongest.“
One of the most imposing items at the expo was an unmanned boat mounted with a machine gun turret, designed by Yunzhou Tech Corporation, based in the southern city of Zhuhai.
本届博览会最具魅力的展品之一是装备机枪塔的无人驾驶小艇，由总部位于珠海的云洲智能科技公司 (Yunzhou Tech Corporation)设计。
The technology resembled an experimental unmanned robot boat fielded by the US Office of Naval Research in 2014. “We’re behind the US now, but give us three to four years and we’ll have caught up,“ said a company representative, adding that he was confident it would soon be making the boats for the PLA.
该技术类似于美国海军研究办公室(Office of Naval Research)在2014年推出的无人驾驶机器人实验艇。“我们现在落后于美国，但给我们三、四年，我们会赶上，“一位公司代表说道。他补充称，他有信心认为，该公司很快将为解放军制造这些无人驾驶小艇。
Asked what advantages his company had over a state defence conglomerate, he said: “We’re faster, and we’re cheaper. We don’t have a lot of retired people who need pensions, and our salaries are not very high.“