Sunday, July 15, 2012

Innovation in China

I recently reread our post about Tokyo, and was reminded that we promised to blog later about our thoughts and impressions.  That never happened, as we arrived in China and our attention diverted to that new adventure.  So let me fulfill that promise by mentioning one strong impression we had of Japan: it's beautiful.

I don't refer to the natural beauty of the landscape, though Mount Fuji in the distance was pretty.  What I'm talking about is cultural beauty.  The Japanese have such a keen eye for graceful design, clean and cool aesthetics, punchy fashion and compelling architecture.  And this beauty is everywhere, in menus and simple streets signs to contemporary art, sushi and majestic shrines.  It seems like nothing is built or created in Japan, no matter how insignificant, without making it look beautiful.  Even sake barrels are works of art.

The Chinese are fond of pointing out the debts that Japanese culture owes to China.  Chinese culture is ancient and has influenced many Asian nations, Japan included.  Today, though, it's the Chinese who are doing the copying.

The Chinese economy roars, but few new ideas for goods or services arise in China.  The Chinese are good at executing others' ideas, but not very good at generating their own.  Often they literally copy others' ideas—knockoff goods and pirated movies are ubiquitous.

In Yungshuo, we ate at a restaurant called Submarine.  In every detail it was a perfect ripoff of Subway.  They had the same bread in that unique Subway shape, the exact same selection of topics (in the same little plastic containers), the same wrapping technique—even the signage looked like Subway.  And the subs were really good, if not very original.

The Communist Party has been talking about how they want China to produce the next Steve Jobs.  Even in their aspirations for innovation they want to copy someone.

Homegrown arts and fashion also seem moribund.  Trendy people here dress like Americans or Japanese.  There are no contemporary indigenous fashions that draw on uniquely Chinese traditions.  I've been looking in vain for some kind of clothing to bring home that has a Chinese aesthetic and is also something that hip, trendy people actually wear here.  Shanghai Tang seems on the mark, but I think only rich foreigners actually shop there.  I heard all their designers are foreign.

China has such a rich history of art and architecture, a plethora of religious and philosophical traditions and a billion people.  It should be the global center of innovation.  Why isn’t it?

One major reason is the suppression of free expression.  Compelling art and a creative culture thrive on dissent and social criticism.  In China, the Party trumpets the importance of “harmony” in society.  Voices out of step with the party line are silenced—or, as they say here, harmonized.  This leaves the creative arts and innovative fields seeming bland and pedestrian. 

Our trip to the state-run contemporary art museum revealed some nice looking, but very dull works.  Some bordered on banal.  We came to learn the original staff members put forward a true exhibition when the museum opened; they were duly fired and replaced with more, uh, harmonious curators.

Connected to the censorship of speech problem are two other censorship issues.  First, history is censored, so many Chinese don’t fully understand some of the darker patches of their recent history—and bad history is often fertile soil for art and culture.   Second, the internet is censored, especially the kinds of provocative sites that might spur creative innovation.  The Great Firewall of China may dampen the subversive influence of foreigners, but it also stifles the connection to the major streams of global culture and progress.

In addition to the problems stemming from censorship, China’s moribund level of innovation also results from its educational system.  Unfortunately, the stereotype of Chinese students engaging in rote memorization is largely true.  Another Fulbright family who were living in Xian sent their two teenage boys and 9-year old daughter to a local Chinese school for the semester, as the kids were already fluent in Mandarin.  The boys told us about an assignment the teacher gave them involving a short story.  The assignment: memorize it.  Seriously.  There were no comprehension questions, essays about perspective or themes, personal reflections.  The class memorized it and recited it word for word.

Shocking as this sounds, it’s actually not bad preparation for the event that looms enormously large over every Chinese student: the Gaokao exam.  Taken at the end of secondary school, the exam determines your life outcome by single-handedly deciding your college matriculation.  The exam essentially tests your recall of knowledge and information.  Muscular memorization skills are key.  And once they get to college, students skate through, aware that their job prospects reflect where they went to college, not what they learned or how they performed there.

In contrast, the US system puts weight on other factors than test scores, such as high school performance, extra-curricular activities and personal statements (and the more elite the school, the more important these become).  In general, American education focuses more on creative and critical thinking, and other cognitive skills.  Our universities, by and large, provide a liberal education that enlarges and refines the mind, not simply vocational or professional training.   It’s a facet of our higher ed system I strongly believe in, hence my work in general education, an important component of liberal education in the US. 

I think the US has such a dynamic innovation economy, and cultural expressions that capture the imagination of the world, in large part because we fully embrace liberal education.  (It’s left to another post to address the American fascination with standardized testing, which seems to aspire toward the Chinese system.)  Liberal education doesn’t exist in China.  I can count on one hand the number of Chinese universities with general education programs.

So, is it possible for China to emerge as an innovative powerhouse?  It’s within the government’s power to make the changes that will encourage creative arts and economies.  Loosen the censorship reigns and reform the educational system.

But these steps would undermine the party’s power.  People who are trained to think critically and creatively, who have access to all the ideas of theirs and others’ cultures and who can express themselves freely about all of those ideas—these kinds of people don’t suffer authoritarianism easily.  They’re difficult to keep harmonized.

I believe this tension will become critical when the Chinese economy reaches the point where their spectacular levels of growth will demand innovation and not just mimicry.  What then?  The party has a deal with the public: we will deliver sharply rising living standards as long as you tolerate a closed political process.  At some point, this deal will no longer be tenable.  They’ll have to open the political process to deliver on the economy.

This is my greatest hope for China.  And I’ll be the first in line to buy the coolest new thing out of Shanghai.

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