Thursday, July 15, 2010

America is rotten; China is awesome!

Yesterday fellow Forbes ChinaTracker writer, Ray Kwong posted a summary of a shocking Computerworld article on the Forbes China Tracker site. Computerworld, a publication not exactly renowned for its expertise on China breathlessly exclaims that China is getting ready to clean America's technological clock. China's education system is producing far more engineering graduates than the US, and China's leaders are fully engaged in making China into a future technological powerhouse.

While the article was fact-based, I think its conclusions were way overdrawn.

This is very much an issue of quality vs quantity. I spent two years teaching at universities in China, and I continue to maintain close touch with the academic community there. While China is indeed turning out math and science whizzes up through high school level (the average middle schooler can plot the trajectory of a non-guided missile), nothing is being done to nurture the kind of creative and critical thinking that produces innovation.

Furthermore, among the engineers earning degrees in China, very few of them have a passion for what they are learning. It doesn't bother me that a relative handful of students in the US are choosing the sciences as long as the vast majority of these students love what they're doing and eventually find their ways to Silicon Valley, Austin, TX or other similar clusters of talent. Again, this is where the innovation comes from.

On the other hand, I think the Computerworld article may have been intended somewhat as hyperbole to shock our leaders into action, and I am pretty sure this was Ray's intention in excerpting the article. If at least one leader in Washington gets the message regarding the vital importance of education quality in the US, this can't be a bad thing, right?

UPDATE: It looks like Dan Harris, keeper of ChinaLawBlog, was also moved to comment on the Computerworld article. He makes some really good points that I hadn't considered, so take a look if this topic interests you. Also check out the vigorous discussion going on in the comment section there.


  1. I'm confused. It appears that Kwong's post was written without taking into consideration two critical factors: (1) China's government has not yet proved that it can sustain a thriving innovation cultural climate, or (2) China's watergy crisis has yet to prove that the country can even sustain the growth that is has so far developed let alone any future growth. Indeed, the issue may not be whether the Chinese lead the world in techno development; but whether the innovators will choose to remain in China. As we have seen in the past, many of the USA's innovations can be attributed to immigrants.

  2. Thank you for hammering on "Five Reasons China Will Rule Tech" and so delicately leaving me out of harm's way (I knew those candid photos of you would come in handy one day). Aside from the shock value, the main reason for posting the Computerworld summary was to draw attention to China's "indigenous innovation policy" which, in practice, forces foreign companies to part with technology so China can fast track its "innovation." I'm seeing this on a daily basis in the commercial space and aviation sectors and have to believe that it's happening in other sectors as well. Mega-fast Maglev train technology is one example that immediately comes to mind (although I don't recall who is more PO'd at China -- Germany, UK or Japan -- it could be all).

  3. @MaoRuiqi,

    You make a very good point in that the environment for innovation in the US is at least as important as the education of those who do the innovating. Another message Washington would do well to understand is the importance of nurturing that environment.


    And another excellent point. While it seemed that Jeff Immelt had also become fed up with having his company's technology copied, he apparently got religion a few days later, apologized for his remarks, and did a deal to provide GE engines for China's new airliners.

    Nevertheless, there seems to be some pushback going on now, and foreign companies are becoming less eager to hand over their family jewels for market access that they still have to fight for.

    As for the train technology you mention, I have a feeling we'll see this come to a head soon as China, Japan and Germany are all vying to supply high speed rail to the State of California. While they've been able to get away with alleged copying of Japanese and German technology in their own backyard, they probably can't expect a pass once IP lawsuits get filed in the US.

    And, yes, I took it easy on you. I have to be sure you don't back out on your commitment to run the LA Marathon with me next year. :)

    For your convenience:

  4. Haha. I'm certain this isn't the proper forum, but it's easier than Twitter (since I'm already here). With the marathon 257 days away, my "coach" says I should save wear & tear on my body by not yet increasing my distance. Instead, he's telling me to do 5K workouts at full speed, even if I run out of gas and have to walk part way until I recover. What do you think about this? So far, my 5K times are a couple of minutes SLOWER, although gradually improving.

  5. Heh heh. Your "coach" is right. It's too early to start training for a 2011 marathon. In addition to your 5Ks, I think you'd still want to work in some longer, (very) slow runs on the weekends (work up to about 8 or so miles). Once you get to a weekly base of about 20-25 miles, you'll be ready to start a training program with speedwork and longer runs in the fall.

  6. On the bullet train IP issue: I read something in the FT that I thought was interesting, basically saying that "other" bullet train makers were fed up with Kawasaki for giving away the farm to the Chinese, for a short term profit. The gist seemed to be that they handed over the blueprints knowing what was going to happen but figuring that they might as well cash in for the short term?
    I wonder if we'll start to see industry blocs forming which try to prevent individual firms from breaking ranks? Clearly most CEOs are too terrified to mention it at the moment ("private" dinners in Rome excepted) but I agree with your point that Chinese firms are going to be barred from exports on products that they have 'reverse-engineered'. They will then regard this as "trade barriers", which will ratchet up tensions.

    Case in point your and my favourite electric carmaker from Shenzhen. As far as I understand it, the separate IP dispute in the US over lithium ion battery technology is still going on, and this is BEFORE brave BYD turns up intending to sell thousands of its own product....!

  7. Thanks, Will. Great points!

    I also wonder if maybe the blueprints the Japanese handed over were yesterday's technology. I had a couple of auto parts executives from the US tell me that handing over technology is the price of entry, but you never give them your best stuff.

    I think you're right that the Chinese government would try to declare lawsuits "trade barriers", but (at least in the cases here, trains and batteries), the technologies in question aren't of US origin, but the lawsuits are (or would be) filed in US courts. That may make it tougher to pin the blame on any one country.

    Not to mention the fact that these are all private companies, not governments, that are (or would) sue Chinese companies. The Chinese government tends to view these as state-to-state conflicts when in fact they are state-to-multinational corporation conflicts.

    It's days like this that I revel in the complexity that keeps us all employed. :)


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