Can China innovate?

China has become a dominant player of the world in manufacturing. But in order to become a true leading force in the world economy, China must innovate.

China knows it must innovate. But can it?

I’m not going to reach a conclusion on whether China can or cannot innovate. I am just going to make some arguments. I can put forth many reasons why China can innovate, but in this article, I will argue the biggest reasons why China can’t innovate:

(1) Chinese are brought up in a culture that does not cultivate inspirational work ethics to form a foundation of innovation.

(2) Chinese are further educated by an education system that kills creativity.

(3) Chinese work in a working environment that further suffocates creativity.

(4) Moral corruption is bankrupting China’s already-weak backbone of creativity.

Please don’t rush to label my comment racism. I am Chinese and please let me explain.

First, the culture does not cultivate inspirational work ethics – Everyone seems to believe that Chinese are hard-working people. But this is only partially true. When it comes to hard labor, few nations in the world can match Chinese in their willingness to take hardship. But when it comes to creative work, Chinese are cultured to slip into a sloppy mode. I’m not talking about intelligence. I am talking about culture. Deep inside Chinese culture is a toxic mentality that only the lower classes work hard, and the purpose of life is to get out of hard labor and start to be served instead of serving others. Now, I know this is human nature. But you need to understand this aspect of Chinese culture to understand that Chinese have this at a whole different depth and level.

Culturally, Chinese don’t have a strong independent sense of work ethics that a job well done is part of the meaning of life. A typical Chinese will try very hard to get a job done, but only to the extent that is required by an authority. A Chinese with a better attitude may even go beyond the passive requirement and actively try to please, but very few would have an independent sense of enjoying doing something well for its inherent value. This is precisely why Chinese are doing extremely well on the manufacturing level (by following orders), but are doing poorly in creating fresh new things.

Second, the education system kills creativity – Everyone seems to believe that if China is still backward, at least its education system is excellent. But this is almost entirely a misunderstanding. One of the biggest social problems China is facing today is its distorted and unnatural education system. The entire education system is geared toward one goal: to produce good exam takers to pass the college entrance examination. The system miserably fails to produce a workforce of creativity and professionalism.

For comparison, a typical American student spends roughly 1/3 of his active time studying, 1/3 cultivating presentational, organizational and independent analytical skills, and 1/3 developing inner and social personalities and characters. In contrast, a typical Chinese student spends 90%, 5% and 5% of the time on those three areas respectively. Sorry I may be exaggerating a little bit, but if you are in China, you are likely to agree with me, and if you are a Chinese parent or student, you are likely to emotionally agree with me.

Chinese are tortured by the system they invented! By the time a student passes college entrance examination, he has been bled dry and lost all the appetite for creative work. And these are the ones that are fortunate enough to pass the college entrance examination. For those who fail to score high enough to get into a good university, they accept it as a fact that they are just worthless because the education system has concluded so.

Third, the working environment suffocates creativity – This is more commonly acknowledged and recognized by many people and requires little discussion. The corporate structure and culture in Chinese companies do not encourage creativity. Even when a company tries to do that, it tends to do it in a top-down type of artificial policy-based propaganda, not by providing a thriving environment and a natural outlet for individual creativity. Seniority and playing-safe are the rule, making it an acidic condition for creativity to bud and much less to thrive.

Fourth, the moral corruption bankrupts China’s already-weak backbone of creativityI do not wish to discuss in this article the general condition of moral corruption in China, but instead want to focus on the particular issue of misuse and stealing of intellectual property.

Innovation is all about intellectual property. But not only does China lack a legal system that enforces intellectual property rights, but also the society actually has a perverse and pervasive attitude with regard to intellectual property: as long as it is possible, steal from others. As a society, it is absolutely shocking how Chinese have accepted the notion that stealing from others is acceptable.

It is not that Chinese don’t respect intellectual property. They admire, sometimes even worship, intellectual property. They just don’t respect other people’s rights in intellectual property. These are two different things. I’m not going to provide evidence for this, because it is self-evident for anyone who lives in China. What I wish to emphasize here is another point that often fails to be realized by people: stealing is not only a moral burden, it is also an economic burden on the thief himself. One who steals is unlikely to create, and therefore will be poor in terms of innovation. The argument can be made for an individual, but perhaps more so for a society as a whole. As long as a nation steals and further accepts stealing without remorse and repentance, it is not going to innovate.

Above are the four major forces that seriously hurt China’s ability to innovate. Discussing of such forces does not mean that I have reached a conclusion that China will not be able to innovate. I can also put forth reasons why China can innovate, but doing so is not the purpose of this article.

Even under such major adverse forces, there are exceptions of course. There are always exceptions. With 1.5 billion people, you can expect a lot of exceptions. I personally have known and worked with many extremely bright and creative Chinese. But that is not the point to be made here. My point is simple: As a nation, China must face and fight against these social forces that hurt China’s innovation if the country wants to become a respected leading economic force of the world.