China’s Innovation Hurdle

Drawing on extensive research and experience living and working in Asia over the last thirty-five years, Stumbling Giant by Timothy Beardson spells out China’s situation: an inexorable demographic future of a shrinking labour force, relentless ageing, extreme gender disparity, and even a falling population. Also, the nation faces social instability, a devastated environment, a predominantly low-tech economy with inadequate innovation, the absence of an effective welfare safety net, an ossified governance structure, and radical Islam lurking at the borders.

In the next instalment of her regular column, top economic commentator and What’s Next? author Lyric Hale discusses Stumbling Giant,  the complexity of the reality facing modern China and the shifting relationship between the far Eastern superpower and the rest of the world.

At a meeting in Chicago, the China-United States Exchange Foundation released a report ‘US-China Relations in the Next Ten Years’.  Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel opened the meeting, chaired by CH Tung, the former Hong Kong chief executive, as well as Henry Paulson, the former US treasury secretary.  The mood was celebratory, especially after the overnight announcement that the presidents of both countries would be meeting in California in June, sooner than expected.  

 The idea of a bilateral US-China free trade agreement was floated, in effect to create a new G2.  The two countries are currently so interdependent that in some ways China and the US are already one nation. I could only imagine the reactions of Japan and the EU to a formal alliance of the world’s two largest economies.

 My mind wandered back to the book I have been reading recently, Timothy Beardson’s  Stumbling Giant – The Threats to China’s Future. In particular I remembered one of the author’s pithier comments.  He said that when commentators coined the new term ‘Chimerica’ to describe the interconnectedness of both countries, they might have missed the allusion to the word chimerical or fanciful. 

 In spite of their opposing points of view, both the conference participants and Mr Beardson would agree on at least one point: the current Chinese economic model, based on cheap labor and cheap money, has run its course.  

 The demographic challenge is the greatest of all.  Here is a bracing forecast:  China’s population in 2100 will shrink to 941 million, but the US population will grow to 478 million.  Instead of four Chinese to every American, there will be two.  As Beardson notes:

 Societies with steadily falling populations do not normally have a sustained high rate of economic expansion.  As China’s population is estimated to peak around 2026 and then to fall, there is a narrowing window for China to continue its high economic growth rates.

 Comprehensive reforms are needed in the Chinese economy. Absent government policies that will quickly alter the longstanding behavior patterns of Chinese consumers, the middle class and especially the poor will be incentivized to save for retirement, for healthcare, and for education.  Chinese leaders however have fully subscribed to the mantra of gradualism, and what is missing is a sense of urgency about the transition.  While Mr Beardson does not completely dismiss the possibility, he seems unconvinced that these changes, especially the transition to an innovation economy, can be made in time:

 The model is comprehensively broken and it faces multiple challenges.  China is no longer the cheapest country in which to manufacture.  Currency movements have disadvantaged it, wages have risen, social and environmental costs are increasing.  Export margins were always thin, but with rising costs there is a little buffer available to absorb the impact…If the old cheap export and fixed investment model is broken, the alternative should be a combination of the long-awaited innovation and domestic consumption.  However, the downturn showed that the country’s technological and economic competitiveness still lags behind world standards. 

 Being a superpower involves hard power, military might, soft power and economic dominance.  Of course these are all related, and all are dependent upon the ability to innovate.  This of course has long been the strong suit of the US.

Will China be able to meet the innovation challenge?  One of the great successes of Beardson’s book is his chapter ‘The Elusive Knowledge Economy’ in which he describes the current state of innovation in China, as well as the historical and cultural factors that will affect its future development.  

 The world appears genuinely worried by China’s scientific advances.  However, I will argue that the platform is lacking for China to create an innovative economy.  This is for reasons of education, history, culture, ethics and politics.

 His overall conclusion is stark:  ‘China is failing in innovation’ but he leaves open the possibility that this might change.  He knocks down false indicators, pointing out that China’s high ranking in terms of R&D spending has been falsely adjusted to reflect local living standards (PPP) while the costs of laboratory equipment, for example, are really based on global standards.  These are the fine distinctions that explain a lot. 

 Based upon Beardson’s long and successful history in Asia, unsurprisingly Chinese culture is not neglected. Here he touches on a subject near to my heart, which is the absolute necessity of freedom of information as the basis for innovation.  This is also the Achilles heel of Chinese soft power, which suffers when freedom of expression in China is visibly repressed.  According to the South China Morning Post, recently university professors in China were given a directive not to discuss the following seven topics: freedom of the press, civil society, civic rights, historical mistakes by the Communist Party, elite cronyism, and an independent judiciary.  If universities are the cradle of innovation, this is not the atmosphere in which critical and independent thought can possibly thrive.

 In other words, China may accumulate the funding, build the laboratories and staff them, but it might not possess a ‘non-hierarchical scientific culture, fertile institutional framework and critical thinking’ – the necessary soft skills…If critical thinking and social stability are seen as opposites in a zero-sum game, China will be the loser.  However, China can achieve much if it wills it.

 Essentially, Beardson’s argument is that China’s heretofore-successful model is about to run out of steam, and it will not be able to innovate its way out of this corner without essential political reforms.  Some would disagree and cite China’s economic success.  They note that Haier has become a global company and brand, and that the Internet in China in particular has created many innovations and changed the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese.  Steve Blank, of the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, recently visited web companies in both China and Japan. He sees China at a turning point, rather than reaching a hard limit, as he describes innovation with Chinese characteristics:

 For the last 10 years China essentially closed its search, media and social network software market to foreign companies with the result that Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Dropbox, and 30,000 other websites were not accessible from China. This left an open playing field for Chinese software startups as they ‘copy to China’ existing U.S. business models. Of course ‘copy’ is too strong a word.  Adapt, adopt and extend is probably a better description.  But for the last decade ‘innovation’ in Chinese software meant something different than it did in Silicon Valley.  China Startups–The Gold Rush & the Fire Extinguishers

 Dan Harris, an intellectual property attorney and author at China Law Blog, looks at another aspect of innovation that is often cited as evidence that China is pulling ahead of the US—the number of patent applications filed by Chinese companies. In a recent article he cites the $18B China now pays for licensing foreign technologies.

 Those who say China is innovating often cite the massive numbers of IP filings being made by Chinese companies in China.  I use those numbers to counter those who allege that filing trademarks, copyrights and patents in China is a waste of time, but I do not think they show much regarding innovation.

 But the new (to me anyway) numbers that I found most salient are those relating to patent licensing.  In 2012 (according to the Financial Times) ‘China had a record deficit in royalties and license fees of nearly $17bn — compared with an $82bn surplus for the US’.  China’s $17bn deficit is a result of China paying out $18bn in royalties and license fees and collecting only $1bn in such fees.  I see these numbers as extremely meaningful and what they say is that China is having to pay huge sums to other countries for innovations created outside of China and substantially less is being paid to China for innovations created there.  Indeed, it is quite possible that a large chunk of the $1bn going into China for licensing and royalty payments is for innovations created by foreign subsidiaries doing research and development work within China.

Is China Really Innovating? The China Licensing Numbers Say No.

Innovation can be negative as well as positive. China’s cyber security and hacking activities are front-page news. The Chinese are investing in US telecommunications companies, and it is a good bet, according to an official at Google, that they have visited you already.  According to Beardson however, a good offense doesn’t necessarily mean that you can play great defense.

Surprisingly, an American security researcher, Dillon Beresford, claims to have successfully hacked into many highly classified Chinese military facilities: aggressive behavior is not always matched by proficient cyber security  Indeed, he states that China has ‘an almost total lack of basic cyber defense’.

China is also behind on some key metrics in defense technology.  To give just one example, the traditional blue water navy paradigm leaves China far behind.  The US has 19 aircraft carriers, including ten Nimitz class super carriers that are powered by nuclear reactors.  China has one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which is actually a rebuilt Soviet-era ship, and it is not nuclear-powered. 

Health care is another area where the US leads the world in innovation, even if our own citizens pay a high price.  China has more pressing concerns however.  Lack of access to basic care has erupted into violence against health care workers in China, as illustrated in Yanzhong Huang’s seminal article The Sick Man of Asia. In spite of the high density of mobile technology, which could be an ideal platform for telemedicine, there are simply not enough trained health care workers to make this a feasible alternative to bricks and mortar hospitals, and can never replace long term care for China’s rapidly growing population of over 65’s. Beardson muses that the aforementioned aircraft carrier might have to be scrapped in order to pay for housing for 150 million elderly Chinese with no place to go

Worries that China will fizzle out are not new. Back in 2011 I wrote an article for this publication entitled
China’s 99%:  Why China Will Not Surpass the United States  Books on China and its relationship to the rest of the world abound.  A quick look at Amazon for titles by country returned the following results:

US  1,631,884

Great Britain 502,241

China 398,784

France 298,075

India 220,043

Canada 201,182

Japan 199,255

Mexico 195,511

Germany 130,885

Russia 74,433

Iran 22,866

Iraq 24,475

Afghanistan 13,956

China is certainly top of mind in the US. However, if you are going to read one book on China this year,  Stumbling Giant should be it, because of its depth and scope and the even-handedness of its author.  I have focused on the subject of innovation, which is a constant throughout the book, but other vital topics are covered as well, such as the environment, military power, and China’s relationship with the rest of the world. Beardson recounts vital history that is largely unknown to Westerners.  I particularly liked the section on China’s relationship with Russia, which was disconcerting—I now feel that Russia has more to fear from Chinese border disputes than Japan.

I would have liked to have seen maps, given the geographically challenged nature of most Americans, and more graphs, given my economic propensities.  The addition of photographs might have turned the book into an encyclopaedia, but they would have added to the narrative as well. 

Ever since we gained the top spot, Americans have been obsessed with the possibility that other countries might upset our global dominance.  After World War II we actively feared the Soviet Union.  Then in the 70’s we worried that Japan would be Number One, until it suddenly wasn’t.  Now we look to the Chinese to fill the competitive void. 

In spite of a spate of reports from the OECD about China’s economic dominance, and breathless media coverage declaring that China will overtake the United States any moment, a sense of reality is returning.  China faces a myriad of huge challenges.  Their traditional markets have slowed down, and their GDP is falling.  A real estate bubble, civic unrest, and massive corporate and local government debt are worrying signs. 

While the size of China’s economy in absolute terms could be larger than that of the US, it certainly isn’t on a per capita basis, and that’s what counts in terms of satisfaction of a country’s citizenry and the stability of its government.  China’s income inequality is now greater than in the US.  Which might be all right if income opportunity were the same, but corruption blocks equal access. 

Stumbling Giant should convince you in a highly nuanced way that China is far from unassailable, but we should all hope, very fervently, that she keeps her balance.

– Article by Lyric Hughes Hale

What's NextLyric Hughes Hale is the author of What’s Next and a contributor to a range of publications, including the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Current History, and Institutional Investor. ‘China Takes Off’, published in 2003 and written jointly with her husband David Hale, is one of the most oft-cited surveys of China’s economic ascendency. Ms. Hale studied Japanese at Northwestern University and graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. She has lived and studied in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

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