On June 19, the University of Washington and elite Tsinghua University in Beijing announced a new, richly funded cooperative program to be based in Seattle and focused on a topic that has become a sore point in China: innovation. Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina’s comment in late May that Chinese “are not terribly imaginative” has been criticized as a sweeping judgment, but it highlighted a common perception both in the United States and in China itself—that the world’s second-largest economy is short on home-grown innovation, and on the business and academic cultures necessary to nurture it.
It’s not for lack of trying. The Chinese government now pours billions of dollars annually into research and development—by one estimate, its research and development budget may surpass U.S. spending by 2019—and Chinese President Xi Jinping has emphasized innovation in his speeches. For the past four 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.”
Despite these efforts, the idea that Chinese don’t innovate continues to inspire soul-searching among Chinese web users. The following is taken from a popular post on question and answer forum Zhihu, originally posted in 2013 and titled “Why do Chinese lack creativity?” While the essay is anonymous, its popularity on the website and the hundreds of comments it garnered indicate that it resonated widely. Foreign Policy translates, with edits for brevity and clarity.
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As an innovator myself, I’ve thought about this question for a long time.
What is creativity? A much-cited April 2003 article published in the [academic] Creativity Research Journal states that “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 phone [pictured here], are without a doubt one proof of our imagination. But if we do not lack ingenuity, then what keeps it from being widely recognized?
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.
In addition, our creativity has not reached industrial scale. An industry must reach a certain size before it can mobilize large-scale participation by outside enterprises such as chip, software, and interface design and algorithm research. Again using the cigarette case mobile phone as an example, we see that such an invention does not have any lasting influence on the further development of either cell phones or cigarette cases. With only this kind of superficial innovation, it’s impossible to construct an expansive industrial system, take the mobile phone industry to the next level, or draw more diverse companies into the cigarette case cell phone market (if this market actually exists).
We lack an environment conducive to creativity. Innovation is not something that a single person can accomplish by just closing the door and thinking hard. But Chinese are not good at using lively debate to turn a spark of originality into a developed idea, and Chinese companies aren’t skilled at using cooperation and competition, or “coopetition,” to innovate. Through cultural and political influence, we have developed the habit of forming alliances with each other, rather than engaging in coopetition driven by profit.
We also lack a rigorous scientific process. The road from an idea to a successful product requires countless runs through the scientific method. There are no shortcuts. But domestically, practitioners of popular science have been bad models. They’ve believed that they can create a so-called new scientific system, using various shortcuts to overturn laws of science and thus make great scientific discoveries. The Hanxin incident at Shanghai Jiaotong University—when a much-hailed computer chip unveiled by a Chinese academic in 2003 was later discovered to be fraudulent—was an “innovation” which clearly violated the laws of development. Innovation must constantly undergo the improvements that only come through ceaseless testing and feedback from the market.
According to one innovation index, China ranks 21 among the world’s 28 largest economies. So while China does possess a certain degree of originality, it clearly falls behind quite a number of countries. This is in keeping with the impression I’ve gotten from the large number of domestic and foreign patents I’ve examined. Most Chinese business and individual patents are either the combination type or simply a new external design. This demonstrates that our inventions remain at a relatively basic level.
Finally, I disagree very strongly with the idea that Chinese education kills creativity. An individual person’s creative ability cannot be killed. The most obvious counter example is the Chinese people who receive their education in mainland China and then go abroad, and are still able to make first-class contributions to innovation or academia. I am more willing to use the word “inhibit.” Education can indeed have an inhibiting effect upon creativity. Our culture and education is more suitable for cultivating engineers [rather than scientists]. Perhaps our country’s most top-notch individuals had the lucky opportunity to find a suitable environment to give their creativity full play, but for the creative development of most of the people in the country, educational and cultural factors have indeed harmed them. In this, we must not turn a blind eye, and we must not sell ourselves short.
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