Can China Innovate Without Dissent?

Will China achieve technological dominance over the United States, surpassing us in scientific and engineering innovation?

A lot of people seem to think so. China’s recent landing of an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon, its advances in renewable energies and high-speed rail, its increasing number of patent filings and its vast spending on research and development have contributed to a perception — held across much of the world, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last summer — that China is poised to overtake America as the world’s leading power, if it hasn’t already done so.

Concern that China — home of landmark innovations like printing and gunpowder — might reclaim its legacy as a land of invention is voiced at even the highest levels of the American government. In 2011, Steven Chu, the energy secretary at the time and a Nobel-winning physicist, remarked on China’s dominance in the production of low-cost solar-energy cells, urging, “We really can and should take back this technology lead.”

Americans shouldn’t be so worried. Yes, China has demonstrated skill in moving to higher-value manufacturing, and excelled at improving existing technologies, while producing them more cheaply. But it has not excelled in true innovation. (The first modern solar cell was invented in the United States.)

No one knows this better than the Chinese themselves. Before he stepped down as president in 2012, Hu Jintao directed that vast sums be spent on supporting scientific innovation to “achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

But as a scientist who has taught in China, I don’t believe that China will lead in innovation anytime soon — or at least not until it moves its institutional culture away from suppression of dissent and toward freedom of expression and encouragement of critical thought.

Almost all the paradigm-shifting innovations over the past few hundred years — from Michael Faraday’s generating electricity by moving a copper wire through a magnetic field in London in 1831 to the invention of the transistor at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey in the 1940s — have emerged in countries with relatively high levels of political and intellectual liberty. Why is this?

A first reason is cultural: Free societies encourage people to be skeptical and ask critical questions. When I was teaching at a university in Beijing in 2009, my students acknowledged that I frequently asked if they had any questions — and that they rarely did. After my last lecture, at their insistence, we discussed the reasons for their reticence.

Several students pointed out that, from childhood, they were not encouraged to ask questions. I knew that the Cultural Revolution had upturned higher education — and intellectual inquiry generally — during their parents’ lifetimes, but as a guest I didn’t want to get into a political discussion. Instead, I gently pointed out to my students that they were planning to be scientists, and that skepticism and critical questioning were essential for separating the wheat from the chaff in all scholarly endeavors.

A second reason is institutional: Much of American innovation started with the bright ideas of a few individuals, working in an industrial, government or university laboratory, or perhaps a garage in Silicon Valley. While government support for R&D is essential, innovation is typically the product of a bottom-up approach. A classic example is the letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, arguing that nuclear fission could be the basis of a powerful bomb, which led to the Manhattan Project.

In 2006, I led a group of scientists from Cornell to discuss possible collaborations on nanotechnology with colleagues at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Over meals, Chinese colleagues told me that scientific research was initiated in a top-down manner.

A third reason is political. Free societies attract foreign talent. England gave birth to the steam engine in the 18th century in part because of Denis Papin, a Huguenot who had fled France for greater religious tolerance in England. His idea of using steam and atmospheric pressure to do work, taken up by Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, powered the first Industrial Revolution.

During a trip to China last fall, I couldn’t help but notice not only the lack of access to several Western news sources, but also the cynicism about the news in general. Those “in the know” distrusted what they were told by state news agencies like Xinhua and CCTV.

The case of Xia Yeliang, an associate professor of economics at Peking University, who was dismissed, supposedly for speaking out against one party rule, does not inspire confidence in academic freedom.

While in Beijing, my wife and I visited the 798 art district in the city’s northeast. During our stroll of galleries and studios, I asked about the artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, whom we had met in Berkeley, Calif., in 2008. The woman I spoke with said that it was too dangerous to try to visit him, because there were so many police around his compound.

The significance of China’s vast spending on R&D cannot be overstated, particularly at a time when the United States has made short-sighted cuts to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other agencies that finance research.

Perhaps I’m wrong that political freedom is critical for scientific innovation. As a scientist, I have to be skeptical of my own conclusions. But sometime in this still-new century, we will see the results of this unfolding experiment. At the moment, I’d still bet on America.

Stephen L. Sass, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering at Cornell University, is the author of The Substance of Civilization: Materials and Human History from the Stone Age to the Age of Silicon.

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