I wanted to share an interesting thought thread that I came upon last Friday. I was in Shanghai, participating in a gathering of a new, informal body called American and International Universities in China. The event was sponsored by the Harvard Center Shanghai. Around two dozen representatives of American and International universities with a presence in China spent a day discussing plans, goals, challenges. The topic of China’s educational system was central to a few of the discussions.
One colleague related a thought he had when listening to President Hu Jintao’s speech at Tsinghua University’s 100th Anniversary celebration earlier this year. My colleague noted that he heard the word “innovation” (创新 chuàngxīn) time and again throughout the speech, but heard nothing, at this event hosted by one of China’s very top universities, about the sort of system of free inquiry that has generated the bulk of the world’s innovation.
The question of innovation has been front and center in China for years, especially as China’s strategic planning has begun to shift emphasis away from a model that is overwhelmingly dependent on low-cost, export-based manufacturing, and more toward value-added services. China wants desperately to “move up the value chain,” and one avenue is to move from “made in China” to “invented in China.”
Where, then, is China’s Steve Jobs? Could there ever be a Chinese Steve Jobs?
It’s probably worth mentioning that the world has only ever seen one Steve Jobs, so why single out China as a place lacking a Steve Jobs? But the point is well taken: there is a growing sense in China, especially in the wake of Jobs’s death, that something fundamental might be missing in the Chinese cultural milieu that would allow for the creation of someone like Steve Jobs, who can bring unthought-of, life-enhancing, and massively wealth-generating technologies to the world.
This article, in some ways, says it all. In particular, the following two bits:
…[M]any Chinese Apple fans query when a Chinese-version of Steve Jobs will emerge given China’s comparatively weak creativity in its cultural industry and electronics sector.
(Quoting Meng Jian, vice dean of Journalism School of Fudan University): “If China’s economic construction is to pursue common enrichment, the cultural construction aims at pursuing social consensus.”
This hits my colleague’s point right on the button: engineering social consensus is at diametric odds with cultivating a culture of innovation.
The point is made perfectly in this blog from the WSJ, which quotes a few Jobs-mourners on this very question.
Finally, two caveats. First, there is no single cause of a lack of a Chinese Steve Jobs, or of a lack of a culture of innovation generally. Second, whenever we talk about a culture “lacking” something, our skeptical ears should perk up: the entire notion of “lacking” presumes a mental framework in which one culture is being compared favorably to another. It is an inherently normative, evaluative conversation. There are time, of course, when we want to be normative; we just need to be sure that we know that’s what we’re doing.