China’s in­no­va­tion chal­lenge

China is nar­row­ing the in­no­va­tion gap with the US, but the loss of tal­ented grad­u­ates to richer coun­tries, red tape at its uni­ver­si­ties and other is­sues are seen as chal­leng­ing its ef­fort to be­come a global in­no­va­tion leader, China Daily’s Michael Bar­ris

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

IReap­ing ben­e­fits

Those ac­com­plish­ments speak to China’s grow­ing prow­ess as a na­tion of in­no­va­tion. As its lead­er­ship puts a high pri­or­ity on, in the words of Cor­nell Univer­sity in­no­va­tion ex­pert Stu­art Hart, de­vel­op­ing its abil­ity to “blend sci­ence and cre­ativ­ity to gen­er­ate new ideas and new ar­ti­facts and merge the in­ven­tions with hu­man needs”, the move is reap­ing div­i­dends.

Al­ready known for giv­ing the world gun­pow­der, the com­pass, the water­wheel, paper money, long-dis­tance bank­ing, the civil ser­vice and merit pro­mo­tion, China is mak­ing strides to nar­row the gap with the US, the long-time global in­no­va­tion pow­er­house that has brought the world such break­throughs as the as­sem­bly line, the tran­sis­tor and the In­ter­net.

As China, its econ­omy grow­ing steadily, pours money into im­prov­ing its ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and R&D ca­pa­bil­ity while US R&D spend­ing grows only mod­estly in mori­bund eco­nomic times, the ques­tion in­vari­ably arises: Can China some­day over­take the US as a global in­no­va­tion leader?

The ques­tion is im­por­tant as China’s lead­er­ship shifts the econ­omy away from the man­u­fac­tur­ing-driven, ex­port-led model that has pro­duced much of the coun­try’s re­cent eco­nomic pros­per­ity. In its place, the govern­ment is em­brac­ing a par­a­digm that em­pha­sizes do­mes­tic con­sump­tion and ser­vices. In the years ahead, in­no­va­tion will be the main way China achieves the in­creased pro­duc­tion of goods and ser­vices it needs to get wealth­ier and main­tain ro­bust eco­nomic health, ex­perts said.

“His­tory long-term and re­cent — par­tic­u­larly re­cent — tells us, don’t un­der­es­ti­mate China,” Jim Cook, a Michi­gan-based tech­nol­ogy man­age­ment con­sul­tant who lived and worked in China from 1999 to 2003, told China Daily in an in­ter­view. “As you think about in­no­va­tion, don’t make a mis­take of think­ing they will ‘never’ any­thing.”

The fac­tors that af­fect an in­no­va­tion’s adop­tion by a broad swath of a so­ci­ety — such as Thomas Edi­son’s in­ven­tion of a prac­ti­cal long-last­ing light bulb and the sys­tem for dis­tribut­ing elec­tric­ity to mil­lions — are com­plex. Pol­i­tics, per­son­al­i­ties, money, commercial de­mand, the dom­i­nance of an ex­ist­ing de­sign, re­li­gious tra­di­tions and luck all play a part in an in­ven­tion’s wide­spread ac­cep­tance by users, ac­cord­ing to Scott Berkun’s 2007 book, The Myth­sofIn­no­va­tion.

A re­port last month by the Na­tional Sci­ence Board, the pol­icy-mak­ing body of the US govern­ment’s Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, sug­gested that China’s pro­fi­ciency in gamechang­ing sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy is in­creas­ing t was an un­for­get­table mo­ment for China — and for space ex­plo­ration.

Shortly af­ter 8 am EST last Dec 14, Chang’e-3, a ro­botic moon mis­sion by the China Na­tional Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, left its or­bit around the Earth’s only nat­u­ral satel­lite, and be­gan to de­scend to­ward the lu­nar sur­face. Within 12 min­utes, the space­craft be­came the first ve­hi­cle since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 probe 37 years ago to land softly on the moon.

“This is a great day for lu­nar sci­ence,” said Clive Neal of the Univer­sity of Notre Dame’s Depart­ment of Civil and En­vi­ron­men­tal En­gi­neer­ing and Earth Sci­ences. In a con­grat­u­la­tory mes­sage, China’s cab­i­net, the State Coun­cil, and the Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Com­mis­sion hailed the mis­sion as a “mile­stone” in the de­vel­op­ment of China’s space pro­gram.

The ex­plo­ration phase of the mis­sion, con­ducted through Chang’e-3’s in­stru­ment­laden Yutu rover, was not only ex­pected to gather new data about the dusty lu­nar soil that would un­lock the moon’s and the Earth’s ge­o­log­i­cal mys­ter­ies in the months ahead.

The test­ing of new tech­nol­ogy in the project was seen as pos­si­bly pav­ing the way for a fu­ture Chi­nese manned moon mis­sion. Zhang Yuhua, deputy gen­eral di­rec­tor and deputy gen­eral de­signer of the probe sys­tem, hinted as much when he said: “Chi­nese aero­space re­searchers are work­ing on set­ting up a lu­nar base,” ac­cord­ing to the People’s Daily news­pa­per.

The moon land­ing. The soar­ing num­ber of tech­nol­ogy patents held by China’s Huawei Tech­nolo­gies Co, the Shen­zhen-based net­work­ing and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment sup­plier and Len­ovo Group Ltd, the Bei­jing-head­quar­tered com­puter, smart­phone and soft­ware maker. The surg­ing num­ber of Chi­nese PhDs in tech­ni­cal fields grad­u­at­ing each year. The suc­cess of China’s In­ter­net com­pa­nies such as Alibaba Group, the elec­tronic com­merce con­cern, and Ten­cent Hold­ings Ltd, mo­bile and on­line in­vest­ments com­pany. as the US’ pre­dom­i­nance in the field is erod­ing. Dur­ing the last decade, the re­port said, China per­formed nearly as much of the world’s high-tech man­u­fac­tur­ing as the US. Sig­nal­ing the end of US, Ja­pan and Europe’s mo­nop­o­liza­tion of global R&D, sev­eral Asian na­tions — par­tic­u­larly China and South Korea — con­ducted a larger share of global R&D than the US, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

The US’s share of global R&D since 2001 dropped to 30 per­cent from 37 per­cent, the re­port said. China’s share grew to 15 per­cent from 4 per­cent. Europe’s share of global R&D fell to 22 per­cent from 26 per­cent . China also tripled its pool of re­searchers from 1995 to 2008, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

In a Feb 6 con­fer­ence call to launch the re­port, NSB Chair­man Dan Arvizu was quoted in For­eign Af­fairs, a mag­a­zine pub­lished by the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, the non­profit, non­par­ti­san US for­eign pol­icy think tank, as say­ing “it’s pos­si­ble China will over­take the US” in high-tech pro­duc­tiv­ity “in the near fu­ture”.

Emerg­ing economies “un­der­stand the role sci­ence and in­no­va­tion play in the global mar­ket­place and in eco­nomic com­pet­i­tive­ness and have in­creas­ingly placed a pri­or­ity on build­ing their ca­pac­ity in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy”, Arvizu said in a com­ment in­cluded in the re­port. Il­lus­trat­ing China’s in­no­va­tion com­mit­ment, the govern­ment’s 12th Five-Year Plan, an­nounced in March 2011, has set a goal of 3.3 patents per 10,000 people. China’s edge

The NSB re­port also cited China’s edge over the US in award­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion diplo­mas. The num­ber of Chi­nese grad­u­at­ing from a univer­sity swelled to nearly 7 mil­lion by 2013 from fewer than 1 mil­lion in 1999, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. China also held an ad­van­tage over the US in the pro­duc­tion of “first univer­sity de­grees”, or pro­grams that open the gate into ad­vanced re­search pro­grams or jobs, the re­port said.

Sug­gest­ing that China’s edge in grad­u­ates is not merely due to its four times larger pop­u­la­tion, the re­port said 31 per­cent of un­der­grad­u­ates in China leave with de­grees in en­gi­neer­ing, com­pared with just 5 per­cent of US un­der­grads.

These sta­tis­tics notwith­stand­ing, nu­mer­ous is­sues are seen as chal­leng­ing China in its quest to be­come a global in­no­va­tion leader.

First, the US still stands atop the world in terms of high-tech in­dus­try as a per­cent­age of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct — 40 per­cent. And over­all R&D fund­ing in the US has re­turned to 2008 lev­els, when ad­justed for in­fla­tion, de­spite plung­ing dur­ing the re­cent re­ces­sion, ac­cord­ing to the NSB re­port.

China also needs to man­age in­sti­tu­tional prob­lems that threaten to dis­rupt the fos­ter­ing of an in­no­va­tion cul­ture, ac­cord­ing to a Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view blog.

A ma­jor con­cern is keep­ing tal­ented grad­u­ates from leav­ing the coun­try to study or con­duct re­search in other more af­flu­ent coun­tries. De­spite a plethora of in­cen­tives aimed at keep­ing


tory long-term and re­cent — par­tic­u­larly re­cent — tells us, don’t un­der­es­ti­mate China. As you think about in­no­va­tion, don’t make a mis­take of think­ing they will ‘never’ any­thing.” JIM COOK A MICHI­GAN-BASED TECH­NOL­OGY MAN­AGE­MENT CON­SUL­TANT

China’s bright­est minds in the coun­try — in­clud­ing of­fers of re­search fund­ing, lab space, a hous­ing al­lowance, em­ploy­ment for spouses and ad­mis­sion to top schools for chil­dren — the num­ber of Chi­nese study­ing abroad rose to about 400,000 in 2013 from fewer than 120,000 in 2003. By 2012, only 1.09 mil­lion of 2.64 mil­lion Chi­nese study­ing over­seas since 1978 — 41 per­cent — had re­turned, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for China & Glob­al­iza­tion, a Bei­jing think tank that ad­vises the govern­ment on re­cruit­ment of talent.

“The longer these tal­ented in­di­vid­u­als stay over­seas, the less will­ing they are to come back,” cen­ter di­rec­tor Wang Yaohui told China Daily in an Oc­to­ber in­ter­view. “Many of them fear that they may have to start all over again when they re­turn.”

A Septem­ber re­port by a pub­lish­ing af­fil­i­ate of the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sci­ences said Chi­nese people with a PhD who have lived over­seas for three to five years sel­dom choose to re­turn.

Bu­reau­cratic red tape in China’s uni­ver­si­ties also is seen as de­ter­ring in­no­va­tion.

Huang Dekuan, An­hui Univer­sity’s pres­i­dent for a decade be­fore be­com­ing its Party sec­re­tary three years ago, has said some lo­cal gov­ern­ments have turned uni­ver­si­ties into bu­reau­cratic in­sti­tu­tions to the ex­tent that “head­count, se­lec­tion and ap­point­ment of univer­sity of­fi­cials and even the de­com­mis­sion­ing of lab­o­ra­tory equip­ment all need ap­proval from lo­cal gov­ern­ments,” ac­cord­ing to the South China Morn­ing Post. “But how much do they know what sort of per­son­nel our schools need?”

About 2,000 col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties in China are lo­cally run, with re­gional govern­ment fi­nanc­ing. Some 70 higher learn­ing in­sti­tu­tions, gen­er­ally in cities des­ig­nated as in­tel­lec­tual cen­ters, re­ceive fund­ing from Bei­jing. Big cities such as Bei­jing and Shang­hai have been des­ig­nated as na­tional in­tel­lec­tual cen­ters, hous­ing the top uni­ver­si­ties and the stu­dents deemed most de­serv­ing of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Huang was quoted as say­ing that bu­reau­cracy and fi­nan­cial con­straints have com­pro­mised the qual­ity of teach­ing in China and could de­rail the na­tion in its goal to pro­vide qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion. Tight money also ham­pers ef­forts to im­prove the qual­ity of teach­ing and re­search and ac­quire so­phis­ti­cated lab­o­ra­tory equip­ment, he was quoted as say­ing.

In­no­va­tion in China also is hurt by in­tel­lec­tual dis­hon­esty in uni­ver­si­ties. In a 2010 ar­ti­cle the New York Times re­ported that some schol­ars com­plain about the dis­hon­est prac­tices that per­me­ate so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing stu­dents who cheat on col­lege en­trance ex­ams and schol­ars who pro­mote fake or uno­rig­i­nal re­search.

In one no­to­ri­ous case of fak­ery, Tang Jun, the mil­lion­aire for­mer head of Mi­crosoft China, was found to have falsely claimed to have re­ceived a doc­tor­ate from the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

Schol­ars in China and abroad have said a lack of in­tegrity among re­searchers could harm col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Chi­nese schol­ars and their in­ter­na­tional coun­ter­parts.

Cor­nell Univer­sity’s Hart, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of man­age­ment and or­ga­ni­za­tions with the Sa­muel Cur­tis John­son Grad­u­ate School of Man­age­ment in Ithaca, New York, said cheat­ing tends to be more preva­lent “in places where there is tremen­dous pres­sure to per­form”, es­pe­cially on stan­dard­ized tests.

“When there is ex­treme com­pe­ti­tion for a limited num­ber of slots in pres­ti­gious schools, it ups the like­li­hood that those kind of things can hap­pen,” he said. Rote learn­ing

The Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem’s em­pha­sis on rote learn­ing also raises ques­tions about the na­tion’s abil­ity to pro­duce in­no­va­tive minds.

Lee Kai-Fu, one of China’s best-known ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and for­mer pres­i­dent of Google China, was quoted in the Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view blog as say­ing: “The Chi­nese ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem makes people hard­work­ing, teaches people strong fun­da­men­tals, and makes them very good at rote learn­ing. It doesn’t make them cre­ative, orig­i­nal thinkers.”

NSB Vice-Chair­man Kelvin K. Droege­meier said “China is able to pro­duce a lot of very smart people, but they are chal­lenged sub­stan­tially” when it comes to turn­ing dis­cov­er­ies into use­ful new prod­uct, the hall­mark of in­no­va­tion, For­eign Af­fairs mag­a­zine re­ported.

Hart said China’s cul­ture “clearly has to shift away from sim­ply mem­o­riza­tion and rote learn­ing” to be­come an in­no­va­tion leader. “It’s all about dot-con­nect­ing and cre­ative think­ing and be­ing able to pat­tern-rec­og­nize,” Hart said. “Those are en­tirely dif­fer­ent skills than mem­o­riza­tion and rote learn­ing.”

Al­though great stan­dard­ized test tak­ers of­ten gain ad­mis­sion to the most pres­ti­gious schools, “there isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a strong cor­re­la­tion be­tween strong stan­dard­ized test tak­ers and in­no­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity”, Hart said.

To some, how­ever, these is­sues lack the power to stop China from reach­ing the pin­na­cle as an in­no­va­tion na­tion.

Erik Gor­don, a pro­fes­sor with the Ross School of Busi­ness and School of Law at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan, said “China and any other coun­try that em­pha­sizes in­no­va­tion can over­take the US”.

There is “no nat­u­ral right or ad­van­tage with re­spect to in­no­va­tion,” Gor­don said. “The US doesn’t own a deep se­cret to in­no­va­tion. Any coun­try that wants to chal­lenge the US on in­no­va­tion can and should chal­lenge the US. Ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing the US, would be bet­ter for it.”

Gor­don down­played the cost to China of los­ing top col­lege grad­u­ates to other coun­tries — not­ing that while “los­ing them doesn’t help, es­pe­cially in tech­nol­ogy and medicine”, col­lege grad­u­ates “aren’t the only source of in­no­va­tion”. Red-tape maze

China, he said, should view its red-tape maze as an op­por­tu­nity. “The most in­no­va­tive Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties are the ones that leave room within their bu­reau­cra­cies for in­no­va­tors,” Gor­don said, adding that most uni­ver­si­ties in most coun­tries are “mazes of red tape and nearly im­pen­e­tra­ble bu­reau­cracy”.

More im­por­tant, he said, is the re­al­ity that “much of what uni­ver­si­ties think is in­no­va­tive is a decade be­hind what in­dus­try ac­tu­ally prac­tices”.

As for the claim that China’s em­pha­sis on rote learn­ing un­der­mines cre­ativ­ity, Gor­don said rote learn­ing “isn’t the prob­lem”. The is­sue is “the lack of com­pan­ion em­pha­sis on cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion”, he said. “Undis­ci­plined, un­trained people oc­ca­sion­ally but rarely are the most in­no­va­tive.”

Gor­don said that while the money and other re­sources China in­vests in R&D are im­por­tant, where the re­sources go is equally im­por­tant.

The key is to have “sig­nif­i­cant re­sources avail­able to the in­no­va­tive re­searchers who want to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo of un­der­stand­ing and who ig­nore the sup­posed bound­aries of what is ac­cept­able to the main­stream re­search elite who con­trol re­sources such as money, re­search jour­nals and aca­demic ap­point­ments”, the pro­fes­sor said.

Hart said one big edge the US holds over China is that the in­fra­struc­ture is set up to en­cour­age in­no­va­tive in­ter­play be­tween academia and in­dus­try.

“It’s re­ally part of or­ga­ni­za­tion cul­ture — and cul­ture is one of the hard­est things to in­ten­tion­ally cre­ate quickly,” Hart said. “Cul­ture has to evolve over time. Can that hap­pen in China? Ab­so­lutely. But I wouldn’t say this is an overnight thing.”

Al­though he said he thinks China could even­tu­ally sur­pass the US as an in­no­va­tor, “I wouldn’t see that hap­pen­ing any time soon,” he added. R&D money

China’s pour­ing money into R&D will not nec­es­sar­ily re­sult in a stream of ma­jor in­no­va­tions, Hart said. “You can’t buy an in­no­va­tion cul­ture. Just throw­ing money at it isn’t go­ing to get it done. You can spend a lot of money on train­ing people to be re­ally good test tak­ers and ef­fi­ciently ex­e­cute things in a lab­o­ra­tory and con­duct stud­ies quickly but that isn’t nec­es­sar­ily go­ing to pro­duce an in­no­va­tion cul­ture.”

Fund­ing, he said, can “cre­ate the po­ten­tial for cre­ativ­ity to emerge. But you have to have the right cul­ture, the right kind of train­ing and de­vel­op­ment, and men­tors who model that be­hav­ior”.

The US has an edge over China in that in­no­va­tion “has been go­ing on for some pe­riod of time so there are prob­a­bly more role mod­els in terms of sci­en­tists and re­searchers and se­nior fac­ulty who are built that way — and it takes time to get there.”

China’s hid­den strength may be its big pop­u­la­tion. If it were to start tap­ping the wis­dom of the crowd through so­cial me­dia, it would have ac­cess to a huge po­ten­tial pool of ideas.

“It’s just that many more brains,” Hart said. “It’s a lit­tle bit like money in that the more raw po­ten­tial you have in the form of ac­tual hu­man be­ings and their brains and the money that’s be­hind it to sup­port that sort of ac­tiv­ity, then the like­li­hood (of in­no­va­tion) goes up. You con­nect all that through so­cial me­dia and then you’ve just in­creased the like­li­hood in a sub­stan­tial way.”

Whether China ul­ti­mately sur­passes the US as an in­ter­na­tional in­no­va­tion leader may come down to its de­ter­mi­na­tion to fol­low through on a goal, ac­cord­ing to Jim Cook, some­thing it did in the moon land­ing.

“When Chi­nese de­cide to do some­thing,” Cook said, “they ac­tu­ally do it.” Con­tact the writer at michael­bar­ris@chi­nadai­


A photo taken from the Yutu moon rover shows China’s Chang’e-3 space­craft on the moon’s sur­face. Chang’e-3’s soft touch­down on the lu­nar sur­face last De­cem­ber dra­mat­i­cally ad­vanced an en­deavor to gather new data about the dusty lu­nar soil while also rais­ing China’s global pro­file as a pro­ducer of in­no­va­tive tech­nol­ogy.

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