Daily Archives: September 7, 2006

Can China be Innovative?

Reading the economist last month, I encountered a number of articles related to China, which is not unusual, but one was entitled Something new: Getting Serious About Innovation (membership required for full article). Considering most of us still equate China with the tail-end of Low Cost Country Sourcing, factories, and knock-offs, the two words seem to be a juxtaposition on first read.

According to the article “innovation” has become a national buzzword, and Chinese leaders have been tossing it into their speeches since the beginning of the year when President Hu Jintao started an ambitious campaign to drive China’s economy further up the value chain.

In launching their “National Medium- and Long-Term Programme for Scientific and Technological Development (2006-20)”, Mr Hu, the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, and other top officials have vowed to spend more on science and technology, and to insist on business reforms. Their goal is to move China beyond its dependence on natural resources and cheap labour, and stake its place among the economies that depend on education and information technology.

The following quote is also very interesting. According to Denis Simon of the State University of New York’s Levin Institute, who advises the Chinese government on science policy, this move comes just in time. “If China doesn’t do this right,” he says, “it risks becoming a good 20th-century industrial economy just when it needs to figure out how to be a 21st-century knowledge-based economy.” This sums up where I see China headed – it takes more than funding, stemming the “internal brain drain”, and a protection of intellectual property rights to build a knowledge-based economy. It takes a culture. The culture that North America was built on and a culture that’s been lacking in China for much of its history.

As the article points out, a huge obstacle is the nature of China’s educational system, which stresses conformity and does little to foster independent thinking. Confucian philosophy reveres the teacher above all. More innovative Western economies, according to Ms Fang, operate under Aristotle’s maxim: “I love my teacher Plato greatly, but I love truth more.” In order to be innovative, China has to foster innovation in the next generation. And that is going to mean fostering independent thinking inside and outside the cirriculum. After all, we are talking about a country with a very long history of imperial and communist rule … which has generated a very conformist culture. And it’s hard to innovate when you conform. I think it will be very interesting to see how this plays out over the next few years. I’m also interested in hearing what The Prophet has to say. In the days ahead, hopefully he’ll chime in.