Innovation is nothing new in China

Shaun Rein, the author of The End of Cheap China, a book I reviewed on my blog a couple of years ago, sent me an email today. In the email he was publicizing his new book about innovation in China entitled The End of Copycat China: the rise of Creativity, Innovation, and Individualism in Asia. The Book will be available in the fall.

I enjoyed The End of Cheap China ( review here The End of Cheap China ) and I am sure Rein’s new book will be just as good. Because you know what I agree with Shaun Rein. I think there has always been tremendous innovation in China. What is the old phrase Necessity is the mother of invention. Well no where is that more apparent than in China where decades of poverty have forced people to be innovative in every nook and cranny, something we do not see in developed countries.

One of my favorite examples of Chinese innovation occurred about four years ago on a trip to Guangzhou. I had broken a pair of glasses in Tokyo and could not find anyone in Tokyo who could repair them. I must have gone to five or six optical stores but no one could do it. All that wonderful Japanese innovation could not mend my $ 200.00 pair of glasses. Fortunately at the time I was headed to China for the Canton Fair and I knew if I took my glasses I would find someone there who could fix them. SEven years of living in Shanghai taught me this: if something is broken the Chinese can fix it. And so I packed a pair of broken glasses with me. One day after the fair I took the glasses to an optical store in Guangzhou and they told me 没问题 ( trans “no problem”) and asked me to come back in an hour. When I returned my glasses were fixed. The frame had been broken and while the Japanese looked at the frame and said it could not be fixed and just gave up at that point, the Chinese solved the problem by looking for a solution in the part that was not broken, the lens. What they did was to drill holes in the lens and then attached a wire frame to the lens. In many ways it was a typical Chinese solution, crazy but functional. And I have seen it many times over the years.

Of course these were just glasses and I can not use this one example to make an argument that China is on a par with the west or Japan in terms of innovation. I do not think it is. But the innovative spirit is there and China is catching up to the west. In fact, a recent study by the University of Michigan and Peking University makes the point that China has already surpassed the United States in innovation in Science and Engineering. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America. Reading this study critically one can question its objectivity since both of the authors are Chinese . But there is some truth to their findings otherwise it would not have appeared in such a prestigious journal. At least that is how I would look at it.

Why then China’s bad rap as a country and culture that is imitative and not innovative ? I think much of this misplaced attitude is owing to inherently negative views of China that have prevailed since the Cold War ( and perhaps before). Just as 40 years of anti Western propaganda in China have led most Chinese people to have an unfavorable view of the West, especially the US, so have four decades of anti-China propaganda in the US taken its toll in terms of how Westerners look at China.

But this is changing because China is innovating like never before.

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