Is “Chinese Innovation” an oxymoron?

innovation1Li Kaifu (李開復) is the closest thing China has to a web 2.0 rock star.  No one else in China’s small circle of technology titans comes close to achieving the international name recognition and buzz this guy generates.  For starters, the mere fact that he was the object of a Google-Microsoft love triangle that ended him fleeing one tech giant for the other is enough to give this guy major props.  That said, separating the noise from the signal on his actual accomplishments is brutally difficult not just because it’s China but also because of the very nature of his former benefactors who themselves have very little to show for all their effort in China.


Microsoft’s business model in China has never been a good fit given that 90+% of computer users there do not pay for the operating systems that power their computers.  Furthermore, while Google vacuums up market share in the rest of the world, China remains an enigma for Larry and Sergey.

In his short time at the helm of Google.cn, Li himself failed to significantly to make a dent in Baidu’s dominance of the mainland’s search market.  So whether or not Li deserves the rock star treatment remains dubious, the fact that he has it is beyond question.  No doubt mindful that Google’s western-centric approach to the China market will simply not work, Li made the wise decision to jump ship and leverage his own fame to launch a new incubator fund for Chinese technology start-ups that are starved for early-round financing. Li’s new 115 million dollar venture fund, Innovation Works, marks an important milestone for China in its effort to pull the country from its well-deserved reputation of being a phenomenal intellectual pirate to a society that genuinely prizes research and innovation.

Superficially, it is easy for an outsider to laugh at the idea that China can become a major center of technological innovation when industry after industry suffers billions of dollars in annual losses due to intellectual property rights violations.  Visit even the smallest Chinese city and evidence of this culture of theft is pervasive:  imitation Starbucks adjacent to the DVD vendor selling the latest episodes of “24” for 10 yuan next to the kiosk hawking fake iPhones.  Selling other peoples’ ideas as their own in China is endemic. Unfortunately, the problem runs so deep that it extends far beyond innocuous consumer goods to fake aircraft parts, pharmaceuticals and food products that all too often have potentially lethal consequences.

The same culture that fertilizes intellectual property violations on such an unprecedented, massive scale is rooted in a culture that overwhelmingly celebrates conformity.  From their first day of school, Chinese children are educated in a system that discourages independent thinking through rote learning.   On this point, too many Americans mistakenly believe that a rigid, conformist-driven education system stifles innovation.  If that was in fact the case it would be hard to explain how equally conservative educational systems in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and even Sweden have produced so much technical and creative innovation.  So, the education system by itself is insufficient to judge a society’s ability to innovate.  In China, on the other hand, there is another, more prevalent force that discourages innovation: “the scarcity mindset.”

As even the most elementary student knows, China’s history over the past three to five thousand years is best characterized by a cycle of state expansion and contraction with consistent patterns of war, famine, stability.  It’s been in those periods of relative harmony that China has blossomed so many of the world’s most valuable inventions.  Paper, money, gun powder, etc… the list goes on and on… providing clear evidence that even within a rigid educational and autocratic imperial political system, the Chinese had an unsurpassed innovative capacity.  Conversely, while amidst a period of instability, predictably the innovative climate was understandably restrained by larger priorities (e.g. survival).   Therefore, when considering why so many of China’s most important inventions occurred in past millenia, it is worth evaluating the impact that social and political conditions had on the creative environment.  No doubt, throughout the wars, famine and uncertainty that defined China’s history in the 19th and 20th centuries the country’s ability to generate new and revolutionary ideas was seemingly extinguished.

The “scarcity mindset” is also critical in understanding the Chinese entrepreneurial mindset as it relates to the business cycle.  In the 20th century, for example, where a bruised population emerged from the horrors of Mao’s psychotic revolution, the focus for most Chinese was simply to survive and save enough money for tomorrow — “grab what you can today because you don’t know if tomorrow will be better.”  This is a powerful, little understood sentiment that plays a big role in much of the Chinese business psyche. Yes, we hear constantly that Chinese business is defined by relationships and face, etc… yet grabbing the quick buck, cutting corners and, yes, copying others’ ideas are also equally prominent.  One of the key trends to observe now is to what extent the new found stability and prosperity that exists in China’s business centers can diminish the “scarcity mindset” to ultimately spark a new wave of Chinese innovation.

Like so many other aspects of Chinese society, innovation in China is a contradiction, and even oxymoronic, given how much of the country’s current economic success is based on the replication of others’ ideas.  Yet, Li and other venture capitalists, no doubt, sense that the culture has sufficiently changed to allow a more independent thinking environment that is conducive for new wave of Chinese innovation.


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