With no end in sight to the US-China trade dispute, Beijing is feeling a noose tighten around its neck, and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has said that, even though China is a major manufacturing nation, it still has a deficit of talent in crucial core technologies.
Given this, the buzzword flying around last month’s Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee was “innovation.”
There was talk of implementing major breakthroughs in core technologies to propel the country into the leading ranks of innovative nations, of placing innovation at the center of the country’s modernization drive, of the importance of scientific and technological self-reliance in the strategic support of national development, of how innovation is the soul of national progress, and of how “grasping innovation is grasping development and seeking innovation is seeking the future.”
The problem is that innovation is not about mobilizing the workforce, nor is it about pulling out all the stops. The sad truth is that a one-party totalitarian government acts as a straitjacket on innovation.
According to a Radio Free Asia report late last year, Chinese journalists are required to pass a test on the Xuexi Qiangguo (學習強國) — which can be translated in two ways: “learn from Xi to strengthen the nation” or “great power of learning.” To obtain press accreditation, they need to demonstrate their ability to effectively propagate the thoughts of Xi, the report said.
For modern journalists, satisfying readers’ right to know is a vocation. The modern media should have special public status as the fourth estate.
In 21st-century China, the media serve the party, and no interview, report, opinion piece or even photograph can so much as approach a political red line. How can innovation thrive in such an environment?
Then there was a report in the New York Times about “a spate of acclamation” in Chinese media reports in the past few months with narratives about domestic consumption peopled with heroic doctors and construction workers from Wuhan.
In this ”concerted campaign” the Chinese government attempts to alter the perception of a city — and by extension, China — that has become a byword for the COVID-19 pandemic and the CCP’s initial disastrous attempts to contain it. They are changing the narrative into one where China becomes “a global emblem of superior governance.”
Back in the real world, Beijing’s refusal to allow foreign experts to travel to Wuhan to observe the COVID-19 outbreak, while silencing journalists and whistle-blowers on the ground, shows by how much political propaganda trumps the scientific spirit in China — and just how odd the CCP’s calls for innovation are.
In a one-party totalitarian state, the CCP suppresses the freedom of its citizens, and this is detrimental to thought, knowledge, science and technology. None of these can begin to take root, as cutting-edge talent needs to know how to navigate political pitfalls and expertise comes second to politics.
Four decades after it was introduced, US President Donald Trump revealed China’s so-called “reform and opening up economics” for the “theft economics” that it was. The most egregious example of this model is the Thousand Talents Program, promoted as a means to recruit top scientists from abroad, but often suspected of being little more than a scam to rip off the intellectual property of foreign companies.
People only have a need to steal from others when they do not have the goods themselves.
The most frightening part is that, as China cannot self-innovate, intellectual property is not a politically “correct” outcome. One-party totalitarianism is intrinsically anti-intellectual.
This means that China faces a quandary: If the CCP encourages genuine innovation, over time the party will inevitably be shaken off its perch. To ensure political correctness, innovation will always fall by the wayside.
China’s theft economics, which allows for rapid economic growth, at first glance appears to be a superior model — Beijing certainly makes this boast. While other nations took 200 years to industrialize, China has achieved the same level of development in 40 years.
However, the situation is more complex than that.
First, once the victims of China’s theft economics wisen up, the model becomes unsustainable. The US-China trade dispute is the most vivid example of this.
The core technologies that Chinese firms rely on to manufacture their products are produced overseas.
Chinese electronics giants Huawei Technologies and ZTE have been cut off from their supply chains and will likely find it difficult to replicate equivalent capabilities at home.
Second, theft economics is like a parasite that takes over an organism: If the parasite wants to become the host, it must consume the organism, but with nothing left to feed on, it will also perish.
Xi wants to replace the US as the global hegemon, but once the US is subjugated and its technical innovation atrophies, theft economics will run out of road. No more advanced, core technology will be left to steal and China’s national strength will decline.
Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) policy of reform and opening up turned out to be a sort of redemption for China’s one-party dictatorship. In opening up, the country unleashed the creative energy of China’s 1.4 billion people.
Unfortunately, after Xi arrived on the stage, the possibility of further reform was almost completely snuffed out. Reform and opening up exists in name only and has been replaced by a new model: digital totalitarianism.
With a new cultural revolution having taken hold in China, there is no room for the development of ideas, knowledge, science or technology.
So-called self-reliance in technological innovation is nothing more than a closed door.
The outcome of this new cultural revolution can be easily predicted: There will be a steady exodus of cutting-edge talent, while the new Hong Kong National Security Law will similarly drive people away.
When China is most in need of cutting-edge talent, unhealthy political winds will drive the workers to other countries, just as Nazi Germany gifted cutting-edge talent to the US, which created an explosion of US strength and influence during and after World War II.
Through Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” and “China Standards 2035” initiatives, China’s technology industry has achieved its dream of surpassing all other countries in the world, yet all it has to look forward to is the construction of a digital dictatorship within its borders.
Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma (馬雲) reportedly gave a speech in which he candidly revealed China’s weaknesses: “The Internet and smartphones were not invented by us, and we still lag behind the US in chip design by 20 years. In the real underlying computing and logic, the underlying science and technology, we still lag far behind others.”
“China has had many software innovations, such as TikTok, Meituan Dianping, Ele.me and Pinduoduo, but these are all just applications. In the end, computing power is still needed — that is, chips. Without basic science and technology, no matter how much software innovation there is, it will still be controlled by others,” Ma said.
The admission that Chinese innovation still has a long way to go should be a wake-up call for many, not least of all China’s leaders. Xi and his cronies — whose self-confidence far exceeds their ability and who lack the imagination to build a real empire — are destined to fail in their endeavor to complete the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.”
Conversely, it was Deng’s policy of “not seeking hegemony” that correctly diagnosed China’s most serious disease.
However, Xi threw caution to the wind and threw down the gauntlet, and in doing so achieved the impossible by uniting US politicians, of all colors and stripes, around a “The Empire Strikes Back” banner.
Once the dust settles after the US presidential election, the battle will begin in earnest.
Translated by Paul Cooper and Edward Jones
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