China Searches for the Next Steve Jobs

Evan Osnos writes in the New Yorker about the eastern port city of Ningbo, where local government officials have initiated a stimulus project to develop “an army of Steve Jobs-style leaders,” and the climate for Chinese scientific innovation:

“As far as Ningbo is concerned,” the local evening paper declared, “Jobs was born with extraordinary talents and gifts and success is perhaps impossible to replicate. But the right environment and institutions would allow top-notch talent to come forth and could yield an army of other innovation leaders.” According to a local government announcement, over the next five years, the city would invest five million yuan to cultivate an initial crop of fourteen hundred innovators. They were expected to be midcareer officials and scholars with signs of potential to make breakthroughs in technology and business. Applications are due by October 31st.

It was easy to chuckle at the earnestness of it all, of course, but the more interesting fact is that the deeper flaw in the plan does not often get mentioned in China: the relationship between innovation and expression. A few years ago, an editorial in the journal Nature took stock of China’s prospects for major innovations, and it concluded: “An even deeper question is whether a truly vibrant scientific culture is possible without a more widespread societal commitment to free expression.”

Last week, the People’s Daily ran an opinion piece claiming that the issue isn’t China’s innovative potential, but rather its manufacturing quality, that restricts its progress:

Do Chinese people really lack the innovative spirit? China ranked fourth in terms of total patents according to a report issued by the World Intellectual Property Organization. The total amount of the patents of the world was 162,900 in 2010, of which 44,855 belonged to the United States, 32,156 to Japan, 17,171 to Germany, 12,337 to China and 9,686 to South Korea. 

While watching the I Love Invention program on CCTV, you may be astonished by China’s talented minds and their numerous delicate inventions. While interviewing people in the property rights market of China, the reporter also found that there were a lot of technical items too. In the United States, the technical innovative ability of the Chinese people is also widely recognized. For example, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang and Steve Chen, the founder of YouTube, are both Chinese. Apple’s technical team probably also includes many Chinese people. 

Obviously, Chinese people are talented and intelligent enough to develop the same technologies that have been developed by Apple. The problem is that if the same technologies were developed by a Chinese enterprise, would you be so enthusiastic about them? In most cases, you may hesitate, because you worry that the product may break down in a few days and you have bought a dud.

See also recent CDT coverage of Steve Jobs’ death and China’s tendency to choose imitation over innovation.


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