The Future is Not Us: The New York Times on China’s Rapid Rise

The following quotes from a recent piece in the New York Times (“Power in Numbers: China Aims for High-Tech Primacy”) really jumped out at me. Here’s the first:

China’s great weakness may prove to be too much government control. Chinese innovation may also be limited by the relative lack of intellectual property protection, discouraging entrepreneurs from breaking new ground.

The 13th International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing, in Beijing in September, left American technology experts underwhelmed.

“There was nothing that really leaped out at me,” said John Seeley Brown, who directed the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the 1980s, when the concept was invented.

In contrast, he said, he observed true innovation at companies like Foxconn, the Taiwanese manufacturing firm with extensive operations in mainland China that has done much of Apple’s assembly work.

“There is the deep embedding of the research and design culture driving a place like Foxconn to do things that they would never have done on their own,” he said. “We’ve now combined the best thinkers in the U.S. sitting side by side with the people who are best at manufacturing in the world.”

In other words, the Chinese people, even against the headwind of their overbearing government, are still rapidly rising, and China has yet to really unleash its human mental production and greed to the extent that it’s unleashed in, say, Silicon Valley or Taiwan. But there are rumblings that it’s starting to do so, and when (if) it does, it’s going to be something to behold:

What scares competitors is that China has begun producing waves of amazing hardware engineers and software programmers, winning international competitions and beginning to dominate the best engineering programs in the United States. The University of California, Berkeley, is about to announce a deal to create an engineering campus in Shanghai, raising fears about transferring technology from one of the best American engineering schools.

Much has been made of computer science “returnees,” most notably Andrew Chi-Chih Yao, who left Princeton to create an institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing that has already made breakthroughs in game theory and computer security.

“Overnight there is lots of activity coming from Beijing,” said Christos Papadimitriou, a computer scientist at Berkeley.

Here, for example, is the patent situation:

[T]here is little question that the structure of Chinese industry is becoming more innovation-oriented. This summer Dieter Ernst, senior fellow at the East-West Center, testified before a Congressional commission that the Chinese had overtaken South Korea and Europe in total patents and were catching up with the United States and Japan.

And the Chinese work ethic is impeccable:

[T]here is a consensus that China’s entrepreneurs have a workaholic culture that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

Asian expert, Orville Schell, though not apparently convinced by the China-juggernaut narrative, is nevertheless quoted as saying the following:

When we look at China through the lens of American decline, we see the Chinese ascendancy, we see the modern skylines and the fastest computers and the new airports, and we see an invincible force building.

Teach your children well (and Chinese). And wish the young and ambitious Chinese well also. It’s not like you’re going to stop them.

Oh, and forget the Arab Spring (it’s really a long and tragic fall into ever more grotesque forms of religious insularity and ignorance). What we’re in the midst of is the Chinese Spring. Are you noticing?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to The Future is Not Us: The New York Times on China’s Rapid Rise

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Good for them! Better technology and more innovation means cool new toys and awesome inventions for everyone! I’m also not worried about Chinese culture dominating the globe, considering how insular they are. And the upper crust of China all learn English. Though learning Chinese probably isn’t a bad idea for the kids. You are right about the Arab spring BS though. Once the world gets off fossil fuels, nobody is going to give two shits what happens in those tragically backwards places.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree with your analysis, but the Islamic world is increasingly going to hold nuclear jokers, which will force the rest of us to pay more attention to it than we would otherwise want to. And oil from the Middle East dominating the economic scene still probably has another 50 years to play out.

      And, of course, the looming of a great plague is probably somewhere on the historical horizon. Libertarian energies in the world are hopeful, but, contra Ayn Rand, it continues to be true (unfortunately) that no man is an island.

      —Santi

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