Chinese R&D, Innovation, and the Search for Zhōng

Source: HuffPost | Nate Robinson

Learning Mandarin isn’t easy. Establishing a system of innovation and catalyzing R&D isn’t easy either, especially in a country with over one billion people. This is particularly true with successive generations of poverty, a structure established to punish failure, and an education system that emphasizes memorization over original thinking. Technologically and economically, China has emerged from a model of seclusion to imitation. My time in China revealed a consistent emphasis on and need for that next step, from imitation to innovation.

China has over 1,500 R&D centers established by foreign companies, and their own investment in global R&D is also booming. With the world’s fastest train, two of the quickest supercomputers, and the first quantum satellite, China’s innovation culture is ascending. One need only look to the huge rise in Chinese patents and scientific publications. That rise, however, has been met with increasing attention to the sometimes lower quality of these patents, or suspect integrity of the publications [1] [2], suggesting the imitation model persists. To understand whether it’s imitation or innovation, understand Zhōng.

Officially entitled the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Mandarin name of China is “Zhongguo” (中国). This can be read as the “middle nation,” where “middle” is Zhōng, 中. An anecdotal explanation for the term “middle nation” is that the Chinese do not wish to be at the extremes but to be centered. The character 中 has been interpreted to represent an arrow through the center of the target. Perhaps if I were a better scientist, I would research the etymology, but I liked this story. This effort toward the center needs to be a lens to view the state of the PRC, including its cultural, economic, educational, and R&D systems.

I think of my time sipping hot tea in various smoky cafés in China and watching old men set aside their dinner to gamble on Mahjong or dou dizhu. This penchant for gambling is not limited to sidewalk cafes. China, as a nation, is betting on science and technology as its next means for economic development and social planning. Beijing has a clear focus on an innovation and knowledge-based economy that comes from its recognition of progressive trends in the developed world. The thick, murky air that hangs over Beijing is one indicator that China needs science and technology, and the innovation that comes with it, particularly when it relates to the city’s and country’s pollution problems. As I was repeatedly told, the historic model of large-scale investments, cheap labor, and favorable currency exchange rates resulted in a polluted environment with overcapacity in manufacturing, underutilization of talent, and unsustainable resource use. A challenge for China is to utilize its vast labor force through an effective education and financial system with pinpointed public investment. The path forward is an effort to find the middle, Zhōng, between high tech and social innovation versus central planning and controls.

Courtesy of my Eisenhower Fellowship, I spent five weeks trekking through China, talking with industry leaders, government officials, and academics. I saw labs stocked with equipment, researchers funded to innovate, and startup hubs ready to take innovation to market. The leaders of the Communist Party of China (CCP) are staking the future of the country, and the CCP itself, on innovation and technology. This future hinges on educational opportunities, economic rise, and the continued expansion of the Chinese middle class. Market reforms lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty (680M people from 1981-2010) [3]. China melds a unique brand of socialist market economy with a mix of capitalist elements managed by the CCP, two opposing sides finding a middle, Zhōng.

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