China’s Shot at Invention, and Reinvention
China’s shanzhai culture of piracy has inarguably become one of its most highly recognized exports, made evident from the knock-off D&G handbags that hang from stalls in any Chinatown, USA; the counterfeit DVDs displayed on blankets in New York’s subway system; and the poorly-constructed 7 For All Mankind jeans up for auction on eBay. As the world’s leader in counterfeit wares, China also reaps the most economic benefit in this estimated $200 billion global trade while simultaneously tarnishing their legendary history in the realm of invention. Once upon a time, China introduced the papermaking process, movable type, gunpowder and silk. Today, China is largely viewed as a thriving nation of copycat thieves, pilfering the ingenuity of others to assure their own continued growth.
While infringement of intellectual property is both rampant and criminal, China’s academic institutions have supported this practice in their promotion of plagiarism over failure, further reinforced by publication of stolen material in highly-regarded scholarly journals. As Zachary Mexico points out in his book, China Underground, in the West, school officials responsible for uncovering [plagiarism] would be honored; in China, they would be ostracized by their colleagues for having brought shame upon the institutions.” Given this information, eyes of an otherwise watchful world might rest at ease on the assumption that China will continue to remain a cheap and simple manufacturing hub while allowing the US to lead the way in more sophisticated endeavors- like invention.
Many other factors also play against China’s march toward a unique and innovative future. Continued reliance on the hukou system in an effort to control mass urbanization by separating city dwellers (the rich) from rural farmers (the poor) severely limits opportunities for education while impeding talent and potential. An emphasis on rote memorization and dismissal of creative thought has given China’s school systems a reputation of mass-producing robots. Strict government regulation over all matters of industry halts the production of tens of thousands of films, books, products, processes and ideas every year. Corporate reluctance in cross-border collaboration insulates China’s current business leaders from the concepts and designs that are brewing abroad while limiting their exposure to divergent thought. And, of course, shanzhai’s economy erodes both drive and incentive to come up with something new.
But, before we brand China as the copycat capital of the world, consider the historical lessons of invention and the circumstances that contribute to ideas, as well as the people who see those ideas to execution. Brilliance in invention is rarely born from near perfect circumstances; similarly, top-tier MBAs aren’t usually the ones tinkering away in their basements with dreams of the next-generation automotive engine circling around their heads. On the contrary, the process toward invention is more often surprisingly disorganized- stability is its enemy. I am therefore betting that the combined hardships and opportunities generated by China’s “economic miracle” have the potential to create an incubator for many products and processes that will make their mark on the globalized 21st century. Don’t get me wrong, plastic Prada purses are here to stay, but China’s gearing up for some very unique contributions in the fields of science, technology, infrastructure and art. The following are a few points to consider:
Economic Limitations: An estimated 20 million Chinese rural migrants have lost their jobs as the nation’s economic growth has faltered, forcing them to pack up their lessons learned in the big city and move back to the family farm. They are destitute, frustrated, and enlightened by the stimulus of the urban landscape they left behind. Now, consider robot inventor and university lecturer, Wu Yulu, once a self-taught Chinese farmer who had plunged his family into debt by accidentally burning down his house. Another example is former rice farmer, Li Shufu, who has risen through the ranks of enterprise and now serves as Chairman of Geely Automobile Holding Company. He is also well-known as the “Henry Ford of China.” Wang Heng, a farmer and innovator, created a waterproof cement-like material to plug the leaks in roofs, which is now widely used in key Chinese construction projects and has been imported to several other countries. China’s ‘rags to riches’ inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs are numerous, much like we’ve seen in the rest of the world. The act or process of inventing is not unlike the creation of a natural pearl; discomfort causes people to itch.
Infrastructure: According to McKinsey, in the next two decades China will build an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 new skyscrapers- the equivalent of 10 New York Cities. With this comes the “greatest mass transit boom in history” and the demand for leading edge smart materials, nanotechnology, and water and sewage technologies. These new urban centers must also be accompanied by the nuances of design- the icing on the cake. Let’s face it, when you put Manhattan’s crumbling subway systems and outdated buildings next to Pudong in all its edgy glamour, New York looks pretty decrepit. And, even if Mayor Bloomberg called for an “extreme makeover”, current limitations on infrastructure and lack of available space could only accommodate what amounts to a little Botox, at best. China, with its 5,000 years of history, is a brand new country eager to sacrifice its one-story reminders of the past for towers of the future. With this relatively blank canvas comes incredible opportunity for vision, invention and investment while inspiring China’s people to reclaim their cities as leaders of the nation…and the world.
“Opportunity to Surprise:” According to Hsiao-Wuen Hon, Managing Director of Microsoft Research Asia (MRSA) ”innovation can often come unexpectedly, so researchers should be given the freedom and opportunity to explore new ideas.” That’s just what MRSA is facilitating while betting that Microsoft’s next wave of success will come from Asia (given their expansion, it will most likely be in China). But, Microsoft is not the only company embracing this attitude- more and more international companies are setting up shop in China to reduce their costs and capitalize on otherwise untapped young talent with advanced degrees and an insatiable drive. While giving China’s brightest the “opportunity to surprise,” may not sound like a very big deal on the surface, consider it to be the first time in recent history where a percentage of China’s white-collar workforce is being encouraged to tinker, brainstorm, and think. Expect more than a few bulbs to light up.
Competitiveness: Let’s not beat around the bush- China’s government and its citizens are intent on becoming the strongest nation in the world. No one ever says, “I’m really aiming for second place.” The same psychology can certainly be applied to countries, particularly when a long history of strife precedes a rocket rise to power. Similarly, with an explosion of wealth on the national level, one particularly capitalist question has reared its ugly head: “why is he rich and not me?” While this attitude has been a major contributor in both Eastern and Western forms of corruption, it has also fueled motivation unlike anything we’ve seen before. As the free market continues to creep into the smaller cities and rural towns of China, it will no longer be enough to sell the same tomatoes your neighbor is selling for the same wages your neighbor is getting, particularly when your other neighbor across the street just bought a foreign-brand car and put an addition on his house.
Will the world’s next Edison come from China? Are current economic conditions fueling an emphasis on the development of new products in China and if so, what social class is leading the way? Does shanzhai culture undermine China’s path to progress? I’d love to hear from you.
Suggestions for additional reading on invention and innovation in China:
China Underground by Zachary Mexico
”China’s Silver Lining” in Postcards from Tomorrow Square by James Fallows
Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham & the Great Secrets of China Simon Winchester
”A Chinese Lesson for the World” Interview with Peter Williamson
”Searching for China’s Soul of Innovation” on Silicon Hutong
”Why Bad Times Nurture New Inventions” in New York Times