One of the top five buzzwords of the past few years is “innovation.” Countries all over the world claim to need it, support it, look forward to having it. Everyone wants high-tech and the related rise in GDP and income.
The rhetoric is easy, the policy is much more difficult. Developing countries have no real clue how to get there, and even modern economies struggle with maintaining a technological edge.
A recent Huffington Post editorial by Harvard freshman Julian Baird Gewirtz (why do these guys all use their middle names?) takes a fresh look at the issue, but in my mind sort of misses the forest for the very obvious trees right in front of him.
One quick note on the editorial itself. It is extremely well researched and written, and Gewirtz should be congratulated. I doubt that I could have put out a similar piece when I was in my freshman year, provided I could have found time during one of my intermittent bouts with sobriety and lucidity. To the extent that I now engage in a bit of criticism has little to do with Gewirtz’s factual assertions but rather with “big picture” economic assumptions that are really all we need to know when discussing innovation policy.
Moving onward, here is Gewirtz’s thesis paragraph:
Much time is spent trying to figure out what will be the consequences of China’s rapid movement towards becoming a great economic and world power. Much less time, though, has gone to explaining how this change happened and how it will be sustained, if it is sustained.
Aside from one sentence later on about the use of foreign technology, the editorial spends most of its time creeping up on the issue of domestic innovation and its connection to continued economic growth. This is all rather behind the scenes, though, as Gewirtz mainly draws on “China Studies” scholarship as opposed to economics. Nothing wrong with that, particularly since (I suspect) Gewirtz is probably a China Studies student. Gotta play to your strengths, and all that.
I would point out, however, that a huge amount of scholarship about “how this change happened” is out there, and written by folks from a wide array of disciplines. Just as an example from my own time in school, I attended an entire semester course on China’s post-1978 financial sector reforms, which was an in-depth look at how modernization came about. (A quick shout out is in order to Professor Pieter Bottelier, who taught that course to perfection. Easily one of the best profs I had in graduate school and a true gentleman.)
Just to let you know where all this is going, here is Gewirtz’s last paragraph, which contains a summing up of his argument:
We tend to look at the Scientific Revolution in terms of its effects: a far-reaching remaking of the Western world. But we shouldn’t forget that for Europe to enter its Scientific Revolution, its political, social, and economic situation had to shift radically toward permitting free inquiry and innovation. The Chinese government looks at the prospect of a “technological revolution” as effecting its move to “the forefront of the world.” But are there things that need to change in China before it can have a sustainable scientific revolution?
I described Gewirtz’s style as “creeping up” on his main point, and I think that’s clear in his very last sentence, which finally tells us where he is going with all this. To put his thesis in starker terms, China needs political and social reform (in addition to other changes) before it can get to the next level with respect to innovation. A great many China watchers agree with that assertion, and in that sense, Gewirtz is certainly not treading on virgin territory here. That being the case, however, I wonder why he felt it necessary to dance around his thesis instead of just coming out with it and directly calling for political reform in China?
Gewirtz’s energies are rather directed towards pulling together several historical threads. This is impressive: he takes some recent comments on innovation by Wen Jiabao on the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement and discusses connections with current technology policy. He also suggests that not only is new technology being emphasized, but that the spirit of a “scientific revolution” is also at play here, a reaction in part to China’s desire to reclaim the mantle it once held as one of the world’s leading scientific superpowers.
This scientific divergence that occurred — so significant that Chinese writers, including Feng Youlan, were moved to say that “China has no science” — has taken on a large place in the Chinese imagination. It connects to the “Century of Humiliation” (百年国耻, or bainian guochi), which refers to China’s period of political and economic subjugation following its loss of the First Opium War. Scientific development, then, matters not only for Chinese education but also for Chinese patriotism.
Again, great scholarship. But what’s the point here? Gewirtz spends a great deal of time talking about the commitment of the Chinese government to innovation and some of the reasons why it, and the Chinese people, are supporting such policies. His discussion of nationalism and the 100 Years of Humiliation are spot on, but a bit beside the point. The overriding necessity behind China’s innovation policy is to fuel economic growth, and specifically a rise in per capita income.
All of these historical antecedents are interesting, yet they pale in importance to simple economic growth theory. We don’t really need to look beyond that to understand very well why China (and every other nation in the world) is pursuing these kinds of policies.
Gewirtz then segues into an assertion that, just as historical factors can explain why China is now embracing innovation policy, we can look to non-economic factors to explain why China did not experience a scientific revolution in years past.
Historians of Chinese science like Needham and Nathan Sivin have stressed that contextual factors–not only economic context, but also political and social structures like China’s civil examination system and its bureaucratic feudalism–were responsible for China’s non-development of “modern science” like the West. So in thinking about how changing Chinese science might change China, political and social changes cannot remain unexamined.
This sets up his concluding paragraph. Political and social factors hindered China’s scientific progress in the past, and therefore they may need to be changed for innovation policy to be successful in the future. OK, let’s take a look at that assertion.
First, I think all of that could have been said in about one paragraph without discussing the May Fourth Movement or nationalism. That was a very enjoyable excursion, but it was extraneous.
Second, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the big issue that everyone who approaches this subject talks about, can be encapsulated in this simple question: “Does China need democracy to foster innovation?” Gewirtz doesn’t go there for some reason, but it is the inevitable destination of this scholarly journey.
For what it’s worth, current government policy assumes that China’s version of capitalism (or socialism with Chinese characteristics, if you are so inclined) can succeed without drastic political reform. Many in the West, and some here in China, disagree, but that is a much larger discussion.
Third, and as a direct response to Gewirtz, I think the connection between political/social reform and innovation has been overblown. For example, some commentators who believe that authoritarianism stifles innovation bring up Europe’s Dark Ages, when the Catholic Church stifled a great deal of scientific discovery in the name of orthodoxy and social stability.1
The comparison is ludicrous of course. Beijing is actively encouraging innovation and scientific discovery, and in many ways acting as the polar opposite of the Medieval Church. To be sure, authoritarianism has many pernicious effects, and to the extent that it instills a chilling effect on reticent scholars and researchers, it can certainly have a negative effect on the mindset that is arguably necessary for creative thought, and therefore innovation.
But a lot of this is conjecture. Economists don’t really know what fuels innovation. If governments knew all the answers, the world would be a very different place than it is now. The general consensus is that money should be spent on education and research, a spirit of creativity should be fostered in educational institutions as well as the private sector, capital should flow to startups, and intellectual property must be protected. Sounds easy, but these are really only general policies, and quite expensive at that.
It’s fairly easy to come up with a short list of political and social changes that might foster innovation (e.g. no more plagiarism), but all of that would be simply fiddling about at the margins. Overhauling and properly funding education, continuing to strengthen IP, setting up a world-class VC/PE financial system – this is where the rubber meets the road.
I enjoyed Gewirtz’s article, and I look forward to more of the same. At the same time, however, I think he put in a great deal of energy and effort into historical research on the political and social front when a much more simple economic explanation would have sufficed.