Doctoral student writing

The analysis of China’s NEV policies and technologies: Imitation or innovation?

  • School: Nottingham Business School
  • Starting: 2018
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Self-funded


China became the world’s largest car market in 2009, overtaking the United States. China’s vehicle stock grew from 16 million in 2000 to 154 million in 2014, registering an annual growth rate of 17.5%. The rapid growth of vehicle ownership in China in recent years raises such concerns as urban traffic congestion, energy security, air pollution and climate change. In big cities like Beijing, vehicles are responsible for 31.1% of PM2.5 emission from local sources, topping any other single source (Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, 2014; Zhao, Hao and Zhang, 2015).

Following the French and UK government initiatives to ban sales of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, the Chinese government is also considering seeing a deadline to end the manufacturing of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICEs) (Financial Times 2017). The formulation of such a policy is underscored by a previous government policy promoting alternative energy mixes and technologies to design and produce new energy vehicles (NEVs). In the “Industry Development Plan for Energy Saving and New Energy Vehicles”, the accumulated sales of battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles were projected to reach 5 million in 2020 (Chinese State Council, 2012; Zhao, Hao and Zhang, 2015). Actual sales of NEVs reached 507,000 including buses and commercial vehicles in 2016, accounting for 45 percent of the world total (China Association of Automobile Manufacturers).

The process of decarbonising transport is multi-dimensional, but the specific focus of this project is the critical analysis of specific business strategies in response to the Chinese government’s NEV policies. Decarbonisation efforts can be split into two types – changes to the fuel used, and changes to the powertrain unit, the engine. Both strategies have been tried and implemented in many developed economies in recent years, with various degrees of success and failure. Given the nature of the Chinese economy as an emerging economy, we are motivated to understand the underlying rationale for the Chinese government, and businesses, embarking on a technological transition to decarbonise the transport sector in general and the car industry in particular.

From this we derive three key research questions:

  1. What are the key factors underlying China’s recent developments of NEV policies and technologies?
  2. Are the developments of China’s NEV policies and technologies to be regarded as imitation or innovation?
  3. What will be the lessons from the Chinese experiments in policy and technology changes in developing NEVs?

In recent years, a growing volume of research has been published on the drivers and consequences of the ‘Biofuels Frenzy’ (Ackrill and Kay, 2012; 2014) since the start of the 21st century. Within this, however, there has been relatively little attention paid by the social science research community to the role of the automotive industry, despite its centrality to technological innovation and implementation. The Journal of Sustainable Mobility, launched in 2014 and edited by one of the supervisors, has only just begun to correct this (Zhang, 2014; 2015; Zhang and Yazdani, 2014; Zhao et al., 2015). The focus of this project, however, extends beyond this gap in the literature, to explore the challenges faced by companies who must respond to policy by making choices between different existing and possible future technologies. Moreover, with policy evolving over time, carmakers and fuel companies must try to ‘get ahead of the curve’, and be ready to accommodate future, tighter, emissions and efficiency goals, rather than simply catch up with existing policy targets.

This project is conceived of as multi-disciplinary, involving inputs from management science (in particular strategy and innovation studies), institutional economics, and policy science. The research will involve extensive use of fieldwork interviews with policy-makers and representatives of the automotive and fuel industries in China.

The proposed research method for this particular project is a mixed method. The successful candidate will engage in both quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis. The project will explore co-evolution and the nature of links between the car industry, the fuel industry and policymakers in China. A grounded theory approach, via these specific instruments, will allow for novel theoretical contributions in this under-researched area.


Ackrill, R. and A. Kay (2012) Sweetness and Power – Public Policies and the ‘Biofuels Frenzy’. EuroChoices, 11(3), 23-28.
Ackrill, R. and A. Kay. (2014) The Growth of Biofuels in the 21st Century: Policy Drivers and Market Challenges. London: Palgrave.
Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, 2014. PM2.5 Source Apportionment in Beijing, Beijing.
Chinese State Council, 2012. Industry Development Plan for Energy Saving and New Energy Vehicles, Beijing.
Financial Times (2017) “China eyes eventual ban petrol and diesel cars.” September 10, 2017.
Zhang, M. (2014) Sustainable Mobility: Conceptualization and Contextualization. Journal of Sustainable Mobility, 1(2), 3-5.
Zhang, M. (2015) Sustainable Mobility in China from a Global Perspective. Journal of Sustainable Mobility, 2(1), Special Issue, 3-5.
Zhang, M. and Yazdani, B. (2014) Paradigm Change of Mobility in the Twenty-first Century. Journal of Sustainable Mobility, 1(1), 9-18.
Zhao, F., Hao, H. and Zhang, M. (2015) Sustainable Mobility in China and its Implications for Emerging Economies. Journal of Sustainable Mobility, 2(1), Special Issue, 6-10.


Dr Michael Zhang

Professor Rob Ackrill

Entry qualifications

An applicant for admission to read for a PhD should normally hold a first or upper second class honours degree of a UK university or an equivalent qualification, or a lower second class honours degree with a Master's degree at Merit level of a UK university or an equivalent qualification.

International students will also need to meet the English language requirements - IELTS 6.5 (with minimum sub-scores of 6.0). Applicants who have taken a higher degree at a UK university are normally exempt from the English language requirements. A research proposal (between 1,000 and a maximum of 2,000 words) must be submitted as part of the application.

For more information please visit the NTU Doctoral School – Research Degrees webpages.

How to apply

How to apply

Applications are accepted all year round.

Download an application form here.
Please make sure you take a look at our application guidance notes before making your application.

Further information on how to apply can be found on this page.

Fees and funding

This is a self-funded PhD opportunity.

Guidance and support

Further information on guidance and support can be found on this page.

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Michael Zhang