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China's tech innovators must 'breathe free'

In his visit to China, Vice President Joe Biden spoke of a need for people to 'breathe free' to achieve innovation in science and technology. China's hopes for 'independent' innovation rest on allowing such freedom.

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    US Vice President Joe Biden talks to visa applicants at the US Embassy Consular Section in Beijing Dec. 4.
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During his trip to Beijing Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden offered this advice to a group of Chinese waiting in line for visas at the US embassy, many of them seeking to work or study in America:

“I hope you learn that innovation can only occur where you can breathe free,” he said, adding that the United States is looking for bright people who will challenge orthodox thinking.

His comments revealed not only a competition for talent between the world’s two largest economies but a marked difference in how China and the US nurture innovation in science and technology.

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The US primarily sees freedom of thought and curiosity – including a freedom to fail – as necessary for inspiration in research. “Children in America are rewarded – not punished – for challenging the status quo,” said Mr. Biden.

In contrast, China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, told a group of Chinese scientists in July that patriotism – or what the Communist Party defines as patriotism – must be their first requirement. Most major scientific research is still directed by the Chinese military. Last June, for example, the National University of Defense Technology announced that its Tianhe-2 computer had become the fastest in the world. Last Tuesday, the military launched a robotic rover into space that will attempt to achieve China’s first soft landing on the moon.

While “big science” projects in the US have often been driven by government, including the Pentagon, most scientific research takes place in academia, corporate labs, or even in someone’s garage.

Google, for example, has set up a secret research lab called Google X aimed at coming up with “moonshot” ideas in technology – much like Amazon’s recent announcement that it is developing a delivery drone. Private spaceflight in the US reached a new threshold Tuesday when Space Exploration Technologies Corp. successfully launched its first commercial satellite.

China has found it difficult to lure back top-notch Chinese scientists who earn PhDs abroad and enjoy the collaboration and freedom in the West. As Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, recently told China’s leaders, “all eight Nobel Prize winners in science who are of Chinese descent either were or subsequently became American citizens.”

Since 1994, China has offered various financial benefits to its scientists who return. But the quality of returnees remains low even as the numbers slowly increase. Two researchers who did return from the US, Shi Yigong and Rao Yi, wrote in a 2010 Science magazine article that China’s research culture “wastes resources, corrupts the spirit, and stymies innovation.”

In October, nine elite Chinese universities signed an agreement with Western academic institutions endorsing open inquiry and scientific integrity in their research departments. The pact comes out of party reforms aimed at enabling China to “catch up” in scientific innovation. But many Chinese academics who work abroad complain that researchers in China still do not welcome competition and rely too much on party patronage.

And with weak rule of law in China, high-tech entrepreneurs face insecure legal protection for their patents. They can also be barred from entering sectors dominated by state-run enterprises.

Chinese manufacturers are in need of innovation as the country finds it increasingly difficult to simply copy Western inventions. To help its researchers flourish and to move the country toward a “knowledge economy,” China must break the cultural and political constraints on freedom. Inspiration flows best when individuals “can breathe free,” thinking creatively without limits of fear.

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