Why China Won’t Win in This Century

08 Jan

“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?


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