In a report on Monday, the Pentagon accused China of stealing innovative ideas from American industries for strategic gain. The complaint is hardly new in business circles. But the fact that the United States finally made it official and so explicit should force China’s leaders to answer two questions:
Why can’t China simply trust itself to be innovative? Why resort to such systematic pilfering, through cyber-espionage, reverse engineering, and other ways of stealing intellectual property?
Industrial theft is common in almost every country, including the US. But in China it is on such a high scale and at such an official level that the US government simply had to point a finger at Beijing. One American think tank, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, estimated last year that China’s stealing of US intellectual property cost nearly 1 million US jobs in 2009.
What’s so odd is that China is making huge government investments in what it calls “independent innovation,” such as science parks and “hot” industries like clean energy. The country produces far more engineers than the US. Its official investment in research as a percent of gross domestic product has more than doubled since 2000. And its top scientific universities have gained global respect.
Creativity and a quest for the truth aren’t unique to any particular people. They’re universal. Research in science and technology requires such an attitude. “We learn from science [to be] open, honest, and fearless,” wrote Chinese physicist Fang Lizhi, in an autobiography published after his death last year. As a strongly independent intellectual, he criticized the suppression of truth by China’s Communist Party as well as the country’s supercompetitive education system that pushes students toward rote learning more than creative thinking.
China’s top-down economic planning and its domineering state-run enterprises also don’t encourage a Steve Jobs-type figure to emerge. An official policy since 2006 to quickly innovate Chinese industry has led to high rates of plagiarism in scientific papers and other misconduct in research labs. While the quantity of such research papers is higher, the quality is low.
China’s long dependency on foreign technology – and its drive to develop its economy quickly – may be one reason for its lingering tendency to take other people’s creative work. But it also could be that a people living under a ruling party that suppresses the truth don’t feel safe in striving for truth. India, which has far less government money for research, does very well in its open society to inspire technological innovation.
Truth-seeking has a long tradition in the West, where religion focuses on the idea of a rational Creator. Physicist Stephen Hawking speaks of his desire to understand the universe as a search for “the mind of God.” China also has a long history of importing ideas – Mao Zedong imported communism, for example, and Deng Xiaoping brought in Western-style market capitalism. The quest for truth is not alien to the country. China now simply needs to look to its own people for creativity rather than take it from elsewhere.