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“Why China Can’t Innovate?”

Posted on November 22nd, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

why cant china innovate

(Source: National Public Radio,

“Why China Can’t Innovate?” (Source: Harvard Business Review March 2014 issue). Another even more brutal headline appeared in the June 23, 2015 issue of Foreign Policy Magazine asking “Why Do Chinese Lack Creativity?”  A Chinese (PRC) national is the author of the article and that headline. He/she has elected to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. The Chinese as a people not only do NOT lack creativity, but they are among the most creative and imaginative people in the world. The point is little creativity has emerged in the people living in PRC since Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 emancipation of PRC’s economy.  The author says the lack of progress has not been for the lack of trying. The Chinese government has been pouring billions of dollars into research and development. For the past five years, China has filed more patent applications than any other country, although state news agency Xinhua has described the quality of those patents as “poor.”  Other metrics indicate little of any progress.

The focus of this post is on industrial creativity or innovation.  It is hard to imagine homegrown entrepreneurship and knowledge economy flourishing without abundant invention and innovation.  What is creativity? According to an April 2003 article published in the Creativity Research Journal creativity involves the production of novel, useful products.  These can be both tangible objects as well as intellectual products such as an idea, an essay, or a process.  Chinese people do not lack creativity. “Chinese-made novelty items, such as the combination cigarette case and cell phones, are without a doubt one proof of our imagination. But if we do not lack ingenuity, then what keeps it from being widely recognized?” according to the anonymous author the article in Foreign Policy Magazine.

Later the author argues: “ First, our innovations lack depth. Products such as the cigarette case/cell phone are what we can call combination-type innovation, simply merging the functions of two different products. It’s using someone else’s advanced technology in different circumstances. This kind of innovation has no technological barriers and is easily recreated or even surpassed by others. It relies on novelty to occupy a market; as soon as someone else does the same thing but with better execution, the market will quickly shrivel and price wars ensue.”

There is another type of innovation besides the creation of whiz-bang devices.  It is the mundane innovation on massive scales occurring in the developed economies.  Every industrial country requires massive numbers of creative engineers, scientists and other workers to keep running its industries efficiently.  That number would have to be tens of millions in a country with 1.4 billion people.  It is through the continuous small improvements, made by armies of passionate industrial employees, that productivity improves and even innovations are made. Those innovations allow extensions of existing products and new ones for the betterment of business.

There are many reasons for the lagging creativity in PRC.  Of those, three major factors are worthy of consideration: the prevailing culture, the make up of individuals and the company where they work.

Let’s take culture first.  An Asian saying goes: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” In other words, act like other people, don’t show off, or else.”  To breed a politically docile population, the Communist Party in China, has reinforced the basic tenets of the cultural preference not to make a public spectacle of self.  Even though it is frowned upon to state the obvious in polite company the PRC is a Totalitarian country.  Its government continues not because of winning elections but because of obedience among its citizens.

Anyone who has conducted a seminar for Chinese workers at a company learns, rather quickly, that finding volunteers to speak up is harder than pulling teeth.  One could get a spirited technical debate going in technical seminars in nearly any country.  That spirit, on a broad scale, is absent among Chinese engineers and scientists. Human beings, especially the young people, crave uniqueness and recognition from their peers and others.  When those drivers are taken away emotions simply dull.  Creativity occurs at the cross section of passion and knowledge and passion engages one’s emotions.  When one is passionate about a problem/project one goes to any length to reach a successful solution.

What is the role of the education system?  The subject is rather controversial. Chinese education is based on the rote system as opposed to creative thinking and problem solving. The recollection of voluminous materials is valued as opposed to the use of knowledge and innovation to solve new problems.  Naturally, knowledge of basic concepts is required for successful problem solving but there is no point to memorize books.  Just imagine a classroom of high school student in USA debating political topics or a solving a physics problem.  Allowing a healthy degree of emotion during class discussions contributes to the flowing of creative juices.

In China emotions are taken out of the classrooms.  Class environments tiptoe around critical thinking, a requisite for innovative thinking, without proper teaching and practice.  It is much easier to rule a people without the ability to think critically in a Totalitarian regime. So the Chinese education may be inhibiting any chance of creativity at a very early age.

The third factor is the employing companies’ environments.  Surprisingly, Chinese companies, not multinationals, still have traditional stovepipe management structures.  There is little reward for sticking out of the crowd even when making a bona fide contribution.  The price of failure or even success, when speaking up at a company meeting, can be quite dear.  Why?  For one thing, the boss expects to be the smartest person in the room.  Never mind the knowledge of the subject of discussion.

Surveys of employees in the US have revealed job satisfaction is not a primary function of salary; raises lead to a temporary sugar high shortly disappearing as a top factor. Important job satisfaction parameters include a low stress workplace, a challenging job, respect, security, an ability to have input into one’s projects and be given a chance to accomplish tasks successfully.  In those surveys, the salary ranks low but is assumed to be competitive. In other words, one can have a decent life style on his wages.  BUT Chinese engineers and scientists are paid less than 10-20% of their Western counterparts.

If the prices of goods and services were lower than they are in the West, one could perhaps struggle to justify the low salaries.  That is simply not the case. For example, a few oranges and apples bought on street, not at fancy supermarkets, cost 5-10% of the monthly salary of an engineer in a big city.  Employees are fed breakfast and lunch at the company kitchen.  The author ate with the Chinese colleagues all over China, not necessarily for the joy of the cuisine, but for the experience.  When one is hungry or must stretch his limited budget even gruel passes for a meal. In inner China where companies are even more traditional the author would not be allowed in the workers’ eatery, rather taken to a commissary serving first class white linen meals.

Not withstanding this post, China is a colossus of a country.  It has vast natural resources and massive economic power in addition to producing goods cheaper than almost anywhere else. Further, it has a central government in full control of its population and economy.  The government has all the cards, be it environment, currency, capital, choice of development locations etc.  The one with all the cards always wins thus for the foreseeable future the world will depend on China, more or less as is, for economic growth.  Absence of sufficient creativity raises the pressure to copy Western designs and innovations even through cyber espionage.

We in the West and elsewhere have to trade with China but we must do so with open eyes.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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