Why China Won’t Win in This Century

“The reason why China will never win hands-down in its current economic war with America is the same as why Japan didn’t succeed in the 1980s when all (Americans included) were expecting that its corporations and banks would eat America up. The reason is that both countries are good at copying ideas and technologies; neither is good at inventing new ones.” That argument is Keith Hudson’s post today on his blog.

Here’s the rest.

It’s their written language that’s the main part of their problem. It’s non-phonetic. It means that in order to acquire a basic vocabulary—of, say, 2,000 or 3,000 words (the content of their average newspapers)—- children have to learn uniquely-shaped characters (whole words) which have no, or very little, relationship with their utterance. A Chinese or Japanese child can learn to speak his language quite as readily as children do the world over, but learning how to read or write each individual word takes many years. And there’s only one way, unfortunately for children, and that’s by rote learning. And thousands of hours of rote learning over many years under the strict discipline of slave-masters in the schoolroom doesn’t do anything for the creativity of young minds—or for older minds for that matter because the basic mental skills are aptitudes are thoroughly laid down before puberty.

The Chinese and Japanese governments are well aware of the damage that rote learning is doing to them—and say so quite frequently. Although both countries can churn out ten of thousands of science and engineering graduates every year, there’s scarcely an independent mind among them. Independent ‘garage inventors’, as we have in the West, are as rare as hen’s teeth in China and Japan. For example, Japan has been industrialized for over a century—only a decade or two less than other Western countries—yet it has only won 15 Nobel prizes in the science subjects. Compare this figure with those of America (261), the UK (91) and Germany (88). China has only won 10! However, this comparison is unfair because China’s have only been won since it woke up in the 1970s. America’s number also needs to be modified because about a third of its prizes have been won by foreign-born scientists who became American citizens after migrating there.

It’s all Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s fault (yes, the same as is famed for his terracotta army). Once Qin had conquered several countries and unified China in 221BC, he standardized as many things as possible—from weights and measures and currency through to the written language. All the various scholars throughout his empire, speaking scores of different languages (some with and some without a written form) were forced—on pain of death—to produce a composite, but common, written language. And this could only be non-phonetic, of course. Even the mighty power of Emperor Qin couldn’t force millions of his subjects to learn a new common spoken language but he could certainly force his relatively few scholars to produce a new common written one. One popular penalty in those days was to cut someone through his midriff, mount him on a platter of hot tar and take him around the town, gesticulating and shouting before he expired.

And herein lies a paradox, because the industrial revolution in Europe would never have happened without starting from a basic stock of scores of innovations—such as canal locks, differential gears, sowing grain in rows and so forth—that had drifted in from China along the Great Silk Road over a period of centuries. However, this doesn’t signify that the Chinese had been more inventive than Europeans. But its common written language had meant that when one innovation—say a wheelbarrow (very important indeed for both China and Europe)—had been invented by a genius in one tucked-away corner of China, then the local mandarin could write and tell hundreds more all about this wonderful new device.

But what once had been an accelerator for both Chinese and European civilizations actually became a retardant for China when the Western Enlightenment and scientific revolution stirred into life in the 1600s and 1700s. The Chinese had no way of encapsulating these new ideas. A Chinese mandarin visiting Europe in, say, the 1700s or 1800s, and learning about the new exciting scientific ideas (if he’d learned Latin or another European language of course) had no way of disseminating them widely in China because there he had no method of writing them down in Chinese words that would have been instantly recognizable by fellow Chinese scholars or engineers. He could only convey the new ideas vaguely by speaking of them face-to-face when he returned home.

Thus Japan (which had inherited thousands of Chinese words) and China were left behind by the industrial revolution in England, Germany and America. They didn’t begin to catch up in earnest until the the 1870s (the Meiji Revolution) and the 1970s (the Deng Xiaoping Revolution) respectively. And this is still—largely—where they are today. Both the Chinese and Japanese governments are trying to phoneticize their written languages but only very slowly, such is the cultural conservatism of two thousands years to contend with.

What might be significant in China (though not yet happening in Japan), is that all their college and university entrants have to learn spoken and written English these days. All their top government officials speak English and most business and science faculties in their universities use English widely in their seminars. Also, thousands of their brightest young post-grad scientists go to America or England for research experience and qualifications. Indeed, once they are here for a few years they become quite as inventive as Western scientists (if not more so when you look at the authorship of many papers in heavyweight subject, say genetics or particle physics). Unfortunately for the Chinese and Japanese governments many, if not most, of the most innovative scientific minds elect to stay in their adoptive countries rather than to return.

But the problem is even more serious for China and Japan. Almost as important as are the original ideas of innovative individuals is the necessity of other individuals who will give a welcome to new ideas and help to develop them. And it’s this open-minded hinterland which is still limited because of their deep, conservative, authoritative cultures. Goodness knows, new ideas often have a hard time being accepted in the West. Even here, the crazy ideas of yesteryear sometimes have to wait until its die-hard opponents are dead and buried and a brand new generation appears. Only then are the ideas seen to be not so crazy after all.

There we are then. Japan came close to hollowing out America and Western Europe 30 years ago with its superbly made (Western-invented) products. China is threatening to do the same in the coming years. But the innovative momentum is still with the West and this sort of cultural momentum takes a century or two to die down—if it ever does—or a century to acquire—if it ever does in China and Japan.

Just BTW, many Indians would read the title of the post “Why China won’t win . . .” and subconsciously insert India in the context. India’s chances of going anywhere has been put paid to by the Congress-led UPA governments. That’s a shame but then it is hard to avoid the realization that Indians elect criminals to government.

It’s all karma, neh?

13 thoughts on “Why China Won’t Win in This Century

  1. Oh well, I guess Atanu owns the blog and can say whatever he likes here. But “India’s chances of going anywhere has been put paid to by the Congress-led UPA governments” — will he ever stop trotting out the one old old excuse for everything that sucks in and about India?

    Perhaps his singular focus is the engineer’s desperate last hope of fixing a system. Locate one or a few bottlenecks in complex machinery, and you stand a chance of fixing it. If every gear, every sprocket, every axle, every cotter pin, every bearing is a little askew, that piece of machinery is impossible to fix, one must wipe the slate clean and start over. Unfortunately not possible for this subcontinent.

    As I was reading the article I was pondering something else. Westerners are writing such articles today because they are now threatened by China despite the stated shortcomings. There are no such articles about India, although all the statements about formatted education stifling creativity (even though we have a more scientific alphabet than China and the West) are doubly true of India. This is because it will be a long time before India poses a threat, if ever.


  2. @Karan Bhatnagar filing patents need not be confused with inventing ideas.

    See this article from Economist on Rising number of patents in China . An excerpt “Only a fifth of professionals working with patents surveyed by Thomson Reuters believed that Chinese patents were of high quality, a lower proportion than in any other region in the study.”

    @Atanu: Further, the article goes on to say that:

    “Yet despite all this, it is clear that China really is growing more innovative. And the fact that the government now takes intellectual property seriously can only help.”

    I am not sure as to how much and how quickly can Government set things in order by respecting patent laws, encouraging science professionals to come back, setting world class universities, and encouraging invention. And, on a similar note, if, just because China’s culture is not open and its language is non-phonetic – it will always remain a second fiddle.


  3. I would not underestimate the Chinese civilization. They are an ancient people with a unique civilization. They never cared what outsiders thought of it and thought they were the center of the world. Judging from their tactics these days, they still do not care what others think of them and are marching ahead. It is inward in this respect, and it is growing to be visible in a way India is not. If might even attack India in a few years, the recent headlines on China speak of the stealth fighers it is seeking to produce, only America produces these at the moment. Even if it does imitate, it produces. And at least every day the newspapers are full of some progress by the Chinese, whereas the headlines about India are usually a dysfunctional government and headlines such as how India loses 50 billion a year due to lack of adequate toilets (in bloomberg recently)…It remains to be seen how a strong China will be, it definitely will be a game changer…


  4. Hitting China’s language to say that they can not win is same as saying that India can not win because pagan Hindus are not intelligent enough to invent anything (remember the book “Because of the Gods..”). Westerners have a deep seated hubris that prompts them to evaluate all other civilizations periodically and then discard them as inferior. This would confirm their bias and makes them comfortable.
    Their civilization had invented a lot in terms of quality of life after they discovered (not invented) science, but what is their contribution to the world? A disgusting concept called race? A violent ideology founded on the basis of a jealous God? Their sophisticated civilization would not go down only after 300 years but as they face more challenges they will be more matured…that is my best hope.


  5. A disgusting concept called race? A violent ideology founded on the basis of a jealous God? Their sophisticated civilization would not go down only after 300 years but as they face more challenges they will be more matured…that is my best hope.

    Sid, these concepts come from Abrahamic thinking. Look at Greeks and Romans, they were not racist in the way we understand, although the Romans were fond of war and conquest….


  6. Actually I am almost certain that China will attack India soon, India has no means to defend itself and has turned into a laughing stock of a nation. I think such articles above just display Western insecurity. Today in the Wsj, it reported that Americans fear China the most. Every day I read that China is on the way to becoming a top military power in the next decade, when India is attacked by them, then perhaps bovine Hindus should get the good jolt they deserve thoroughly…


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