Quantum Leap (Part 1): China’s Advances in Quantum Information Science

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 18

Dr. Pan Jianwei (潘建伟) is at the forefront of much of China's advanced Quantum information science research.

This is the first in a series of two articles that examines and evaluates the ramifications of Chinese advances in quantum information science. While this initial article reviews China’s framework for and progress in this scientific domain, the subsequent article will evaluate the military and strategic implications of quantum technologies. 

In August 2016, the launch of the world’s first quantum satellite, Micius (墨子), drew international attention China’s rapid advances in quantum information science. These breakthroughs demonstrate the success of a long-term national research agenda that prioritized innovation in this critical technological domain. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, this high-level focus on quantum information science has intensified and been explicitly linked to both national security and economic competition. While it is difficult to evaluate the feasibility or timeframe within which China’s quantum ambitions may be realized, Chinese scientists’ consistent progress in quantum information science seems likely to continue. Looking forward, China could potentially leapfrog the U.S. in this critical technological domain to become the world’s first quantum power.

High-Level Prioritization of Quantum Science

In recent years, China has placed quantum information science at the center of its national security strategy. This research agenda took on increased importance after the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden’s revelations detailing the extent of U.S. intelligence capabilities intensified the Chinese leadership’s anxieties regarding China’s domestic information security and its susceptibility to advanced forms of espionage. In particular, the Snowden leaks were a wake-up call regarding the disparity between China’s offensive cyber capabilities and those of the United States. The result has been an intensified focus on quantum technologies with the potential to bridge these offensive and defensive gaps. In fact, the Snowden leaks were so central to Chinese motivations that Snowden has been characterized as one of the two greatest individuals contributing most to China’s subsequent advances in this technological domain (Xinhua, August 16). The second, Pan Jianwei (潘建伟), is typically lauded as generally regarded as the father of Chinese quantum information science. While quantum communications networks are much more secure against cyber espionage, future quantum computing has the potential to leapfrog U.S. cyber capabilities.

Consequently, quantum technology has attracted the attention of the Chinese leadership at the highest levels, and Xi himself has emphasized the strategic importance of quantum technologies to national security and particularly cyber security. In September 2013, Xi Jinping and other Politburo members visited Anhui Quantum Communication Technology Co. Ltd. for a collective learning session, meeting with Pan Jianwei and the company’s general manager, before viewing a demonstration of quantum communication technology (Quantum CTek, September 30, 2013). In November 2015, at the 18th Party Congress’ 5th Plenum, Xi Jinping included quantum communications in his list of science and technology projects that are prioritized for major breakthroughs by 2030, due to their importance to China’s long-term strategic requirements (Xinhua, November 3, 2015). In April, Xi visited the University of Science and Technology of China, where he met with Pan Jianwei and praised his progress (Xinhua, April 27). During the 36th Politburo study session on cyber security, Xi also emphasized the importance of advancing indigenous innovation in quantum communications and other critical cyber information technologies (Xinhua, October 9).

Property Explanation Advantage
Superposition Particles exist across all of the possible states simultaneously. The applications of superposition include the capability to generate “qubits,” quantum analogs of the bit that exist in a superposition of multiple states, which enable quantum computing capabilities that are vastly more powerful than classical computing.
Entanglement When multiple particles are generated such that their quantum states are linked even when separated at great differences, enabling what Einstein characterized as of “spooky action at a distance” Through entanglement, information can be exchanged between quantum systems, a process that enables technologies such as quantum key distribution, a cryptographic technique that involves the secure exchange of secret keys, as well as various forms of quantum sensing.

Through national research and development plans for science and technology, China has translated the high-level focus on quantum information science into action. The consistent funding of basic and applied research in this scientific domain, which dates back to the 1990s, has primarily occurred through programs including China’s National High-Technology Research and Development Plan (国家高技术研究发展计划) or “863 Plan” and the former National Key Basic Research and Development Plan (国家重点基础研究发展计划) or “973 Plan” (“863 Plan”; High Technology Correspondence, July 1996). In 2001, Guo Guangcan (郭光灿) founded the Key Laboratory of Quantum Information at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). At that point, his team received initial support through the 973 plan (CAS Key Laboratory of Quantum Information). Also in 2001, Pan Jianwei, at the age of 31, returned to China after receiving a PhD from Vienna University, where he had collaborated with leading quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger. At USTC, Pan was involved in the formation of the Quantum Information Laboratory (量子信息实验室) (Xinhua, August 16; USTC). The initial support and funding for their research enabled notable experimental advances throughout the early 2000s that further accelerated interest in and funding for their ambitious research agenda. In 2003, Pan’s team formulated the vision of an integrated world quantum communications network and the future creation of “experimental quantum science satellites” (Xinhua, August 16). Over a decade later, Guo and Pan remain dominant in the field, and their ambitious goals may be within reach.This high-level commitment has been reflected by the inclusion and promotion of quantum information science through China’s five-year plans. The 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) incorporated basic research on quantum communication as a key research direction, while launching a major research program on quantum control (MoST, October 25, 2006; Science and Technology Daily, November 16, 2006). In the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), the “Quantum Control Research National Major Scientific Research Plan” (量子调控研究国家重大科学研究计划) was introduced as a special topic (MoST, July 17, 2012). The 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), formulated in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, intensifies the prioritization of quantum information science, including “quantum control” in the category of “basic research related to national strategic requirements” (Xinhua, March 18). This is further reflected in the 13th Five-Year Plan’s National Science and Technology Innovation Plan (国家科技创新规划), which emphasized quantum control, quantum information, quantum communication, quantum computing, and quantum navigation (State Council, August 8).

In the years since the Snowden leaks, the high-level focus on and investments in quantum information science have only intensified. This year’s large-scale reorganization of China’s national-level research and development planning, including the consolidation of the 863 and 973 plans, has reinforced the focus on quantum information science and multiple quantum technologies. The new National Key R&D Plan (国家重点研发计划) included basic research on quantum control and quantum information among its prioritized projects (MoST, February 16). The available guidance for the project in 2016 and 2017 highlighted research tasks including quantum communications, quantum computing and simulations, related electronic systems, small quantum systems, and quantum precision measurement (MoST, February 5; MoST, August 1). This research agenda has become a national priority due not only to strategic and security concerns, but also the research successes achieved under the leadership of Guo Guangcan and Pan Jianwei.

China’s Quantum Breakthroughs

Within the past fifteen years, Chinese research in quantum information science has achieved unique and unexpected successes. In particular, China has progressed significantly in quantum cryptography, which enables quantum communications, and achieved concurrent advances in quantum computing. Quantum cryptography creates unbreakable, almost unhackable, protection for computer networks, based on the secure sharing of cryptographic keys for one-time pad (OTP) cryptography through the exchange of information via quantum entanglement. On the other hand, quantum computing, which uses “qubits” (i.e., a quantum analogue of the “bit,” which simultaneously exists in a superposition of the states of 0 and 1), will convey an extreme advantage in computing power, solving complex algorithms dramatically more quickly than classical computers. Based on “Shor’s algorithm,” a mathematical process to derive cryptographic keys, quantum computers would be able to defeat standard encryption methods (Youtube, [accessed November 22]).

Quantum Cryptography and Quantum Communications

China’s progress in quantum communications networks is best demonstrated by the launch of the world’s first quantum satellite, Micius (墨子), this past August (Xinhua, August 16; China Military Online, August 16). Micius established a quantum key distribution network with the transmission of quantum information between the satellite and multiple ground stations (Xinhua, August 16). This recent launch is a component of the project Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS), initiated in 2011, that has involved collaboration between a team led by Pan Jianwei from USTC, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. China plans to take this further. The Tiangong-2 space station, launched in September, will also engage in quantum key distribution experiments (People’s Daily, September 18).

The Micius satellite represents the culmination of nearly two decades of steady progress on free space quantum teleportation, which uses the transmission of quantum states through the air to exchange quantum cryptographic keys. Notably, in 2005, Pan Jianwei’s team first confirmed the feasibility of a quantum satellite in the world’s first “free space quantum communication experiment,” (Physical Review, April 22, 2005). Since then, Chinese scientists have progressively increased the distance at which free space quantum communications can be operationalized, breaking several world records in the process. In 2010, a team of researchers achieved quantum teleportation across 16 kilometers of free space (China Brief, August 19, 2010; Nature Photonics, May 16, 2010). Then, in 2012, Pan Jianwei and his colleagues demonstrated successful quantum teleportation and entanglement across 100-kilometer free space channels (Nature, August 8, 2012). These experimental achievements have since extended beyond the laboratory, with the launch of Micius.

Additionally, ground-based fiber-optic quantum communication networks, which are more secure and reliable, have reached a much more advanced stage than their free space counterparts. Chinese government authorities have begun a massive effort toward operationalizing these technologies to secure their most sensitive networks. In 2009, USTC’s CAS Key Laboratory of Quantum Information (量子信息重点实验室) established the world’s first “quantum government network” (量子政务网) in Wuhu, Anhui (Guangming Daily, May 20, 2009). Most notably, in 2012, for the 18th Party Congress, Pan led a team of researchers to create quantum communications networks that securely connected the venue hosting the meeting, the delegates’ hotel rooms, and the central leadership compound Zhongnanhai (Caixin, February 6, 2015). At a larger scale, China has been building and will soon complete the world’s largest ground quantum optical fiber communications system. The “Quantum Beijing-Shanghai Trunk” (量子京沪干线) will stretch approximately 1,240 miles between Shanghai and Beijing (Xinhua, March 3; Xinhua, August 16). According to Pan Jianwei, this quantum communications network will be used for the secure transmission of information in government, finance, and other sensitive domains (Xinhua, March 3).

Quantum Computing

While Chinese advances in quantum cryptography have achieved multiple world records and seemingly outpaced parallel global efforts, Chinese quantum computing efforts remain relatively nascent. Nonetheless, known experimental advances in quantum computing indicate that China has increasingly kept pace with international advances in quantum computing and also accomplished notable breakthroughs (CAS, 2010). As Guo Guangcan has emphasized, “Chinese scientists have been going all out to win the worldwide race to develop a quantum computer” (China Daily, August 20, 2016). In August, USTC scientists reported their successful development of a semiconductor quantum chip, which could enable quantum operations and information processing (CAS, August 12). Later that month, other researchers from USTC announced a breakthrough in the preparation and measurement of six hundred pairs of entangled quantum particles (CAS, August 26). In October, USTC researchers revealed significant progress in quantum control that could enable future advances in quantum computing based on more precise quantum logic gates (Xinhua, October 26). As Pan Jianwei has noted, looking forward, the eventual development of a quantum computer with 50 qubits could achieve “quantum supremacy” (量子称霸) overcoming the conventional encryption capabilities of any computer in the world (People’s Daily, November 6). However, Pan anticipates that the creation of a “truly programmable, universal” quantum computer might ultimately require between 30 and 50 years.

Relative to quantum communication, China’s quantum computing efforts have a much greater degree of private sector involvement and investment. This phenomenon is mirrored in Western nations where, at least according to public sources, advances in quantum computing are being primarily led through private sector research efforts. In China, the most visible and mature effort has occurred at the Alibaba Quantum Computing Lab, a collaboration between Alibaba’s cloud computing arm, Aliyun, and CAS that was established in 2015. According to Pan Jianwei, who also serves as its chief scientist, the team will “undertake frontier research on systems that appear the most promising in realizing the practical applications of quantum computing.” Their pursuit of quantum computing will take advantage of “the combination of the technical advantages of Aliyun in classical calculation algorithms, structures and cloud computing with those of CAS in quantum computing, quantum analogue computing and quantum artificial intelligence, so as to break the bottlenecks of Moore’s Law and classical computing” (Alibaba, July 3, 2015).

Pan’s explanation reflects the underlying rationale for the high level of investment and private sector involvement in quantum computing relative to quantum communications. While quantum encryption is useful, its commercial applications are limited, since newer, more advanced forms of cryptography can offer comparable security. Thus, quantum encryption probably will be primarily employed in particularly sensitive areas in which extra security is justified and cost isn’t necessarily a factor, particularly government, military, and financial networks. On the other hand, quantum computing has a wide range of commercial applications. Once operationalized, quantum computing capabilities can be applied to any area in which raw computing power and analytics are required, conveying a unique advantage that classical computing cannot match. As the world becomes ever-more data-rich, the relevance and value of quantum computing will only increase. If Chinese scientists succeeded in creating the world’s first quantum computer companies, its commercialization would also confer staggering economic dividends, enabling nearly intractable market dominance.

China’s Future Quantum Trajectory

Looking forward, China has articulated an ambitious quantum agenda, which may prove feasible in light of Chinese scientists’ consistent successes, as well as the high-level plans and funding. Xi Jinping himself has announced the intention for China to achieve major breakthroughs in quantum communications by 2030 (Xinhua, November 3, 2015). Within the next several years, the “Beijing-Shanghai Trunk” is on track to be expanded nationwide and linked with multiple metropolitan-level quantum communications networks (CCTV, August 17). A 712-kilometer portion of the line linking Hefei and Shanghai, opened in late November, and the line in its entirety is expected to be completed by the end of 2016 (Xinhua, November 20). China also intends to create a quantum communications network between Asia and Europe by 2020 and ultimately a global network by 2030 (Xinhua, November 2, 2014; PLA Daily, August 16). These future quantum communications networks could involve both terrestrial wide area networks and multiple quantum satellites linked with ground stations (Xinhua, August 16). In quantum computing, the Alibaba Quantum Computing Lab has articulated equally ambitious goals. Their team seeks to achieve the coherent manipulation of 30 qubits by 2020, to develop quantum simulation with calculation speeds that match those of today’s fastest supercomputers by 2025, and to succeed in the “comprehensive realization of common-use quantum computing functions” through a quantum computer prototype with 50 to 100 qubits by 2030 (Xinhua, July 31, 2015; People’s Daily, August 3, 2015; CAS, September 2, 2015; Xinhua, July 31, 2015). Pan Jianwei has anticipated that quantum technologies will come into use by the government agencies within the five years, reach millions of households within ten years, and become almost ubiquitous within fifteen (Xinhua, August 16).


Today, China is hurtling headlong toward the quantum era, placing its bets on the disruptive, even revolutionary potential of quantum technologies. These recent breakthroughs have been preceded and enabled by long-term efforts and investments in quantum information science, all enthusiastically backed at the highest levels of the Chinese leadership. As a result, China has made major progress toward the operationalization and commercialization of unhackable quantum communications, while seeking supremacy in quantum computing. Pan Jianwei has predicted the advent of a “revolution in quantum physics” and hopes to see the birth of a “quantum Internet” in his lifetime, even within the next fifteen years (SCMP, January 8; People’s Daily, November 6).

If successful in leapfrogging the U.S. through these advances in quantum technology, China would achieve a decisive advantage in future peacetime and wartime competition alike. Although such exuberance about the future of quantum technology could prove premature, the strategic implications of these disruptive technological trends must be taken into account. China’s focus on the military applications of quantum information science and the resulting strategic implications will be examined in part 2 of this series.

Elsa Kania is a recent graduate of Harvard College and currently works as an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group. John Costello is a Senior Analyst for Cyber and East Asia at Flashpoint. He is a Cybersecurity Fellow for New America and former Congressional Innovation Fellow for majority staff in the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. John is also a US Navy veteran, former NSA Analyst, and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.