When Steve Jobs passed away in October last year, many worldwide mourned the loss of an extraordinary innovator. In Ningbo, a port city on the eastern Chinese coast, the reaction was similar: there was media attention dedicated to the former CEO’s accomplishments and life history, along with admiration for his talents and vision for Apple. Then there was the heralding of a local initiative by the press: a program to cultivate “an army of Steve Jobs-style leaders.
Beginning by addressing the question "Who will be the next Steve Jobs?" that had been circulating since the innovator's death, the local Ningbo evening paper declared that he had been an extraordinary individual whose talents, skills, and successes are perhaps impossible to replicate. It then moved on to emphasize that "with the right environment and institutions," top-notch talent could be cultivated in China, and yield the next generation of innovative leaders. Essentially the city was announcing huge investment into inculcating the next wave of native innovators on home turf: millions of yuan put forth by the government to mobilize scholars and midcareer officials, and create attractive incentives to trigger technology development that would put more Chinese companies on the global radar.
This issue certainly drew local criticism at the time, as netizens commented on the bizarre nature of a plan that would most likely fall flat on its face. Earnest or not, these efforts reflect just some of China's fixation with boosting recognition for new technologies that are not just Made, but also Invented in China. As the steady growth of the emerging global power in the Far East continues in 2012, the tech industry and innovative products and strategies will only play more prominent roles.
The Ningbo initiative shows that there were hopes of exploiting the relationship between expression and innovation. Although the notion of throwing enough money at a problem to make it go away has not been proven, in certain sectors it definitely helps, and home-grown Chinese enterprises that are deliberately propped up by the state both survive in tough times, and thrive at the expense of their foreign counterparts. Yet investing millions of yuan into cultivating future leaders of technology sidestep the overwhelming issue of digital and online expression. Youtube, Facebook, and Google are still off-limits in mainland China. Censorship continues in the form of shutting down websites, filtering certain search terms, and restricting access to domains, all the name of protecting the public from obscene and rabble-rousing materials. The question is whether a truly vibrant scientific culture that prides itself on innovation can exist without a more concrete political commitment to free expression. In Ningbo the initiative had looked to produce results within five years, so we still have until 2016 to see what happens. At the same time, even though the money may be there, can one really expect extraordinary talent regarding technological pursuits to emerge as planned?
There have been other large and more official Chinese proposals to advance innovation in the technological realm. In February 2012, a think tank under the Development Research Center of the State Council released China 2030, a blueprint for fundamental restructuring of the Chinese economy that included major recommendations for the planned strengthening of China's economic strength. One of these official suggestions included the promotion of innovation through "the development of world-class universities and 'innovative cities'", as well as encouraging green development and investment in cleaner technologies. Indeed on the latter point one could gesture at China's impressive doubling of its solar-panel industry roughly every year since 2006. China is able to achieve these gains because it is fast and cheap to build factories, thanks to inexpensive and efficient construction crews and China's streamlined permitting process. Yet because of the rapid evolution of technologies in the solar panel industry, experts and analysts point out that China can no longer simply rely on such massive proliferation in sheer quantity to stay ahead of the game; instead its manufacturers must adopt strategies that incorporate innovative production and research in order to continue to dominate the international market.
The first Apple Store opened in China in 2008. On June 17th, the all-glass building included typical features such as a free trials of products, and the Genius Bar where existing users could go get technical advice. Yet the first generation iPhone was not present, as the company was still working hard to develop agreements with local Chinese carriers, and large-scale smuggling of the product into the mainland was a massive problem at that point. Consumers who could not afford the real thing only had to turn towards the handsome fakes that emerged with the widespread emergence of counterfeit stores. In essence Jobs' legacy had created not only a hunger for the Californian real-deal, but also the alternate industry of copying and cloning in order to boost sales. Apple products and their unique design language became the blueprint criteria for successful local rip-offs; if it looked like an iPod, iPhone, or iPad, then it was certainly iNnovative.
Unsurprisingly, that model is no longer sustainable. Politically there are many tensions between the United States and China, and it extends far into the realm of economics, on issues such as accusations of currency manipulation and the "dumping" of cheap Chinese exports in order to saturate the international market. The protection of U.S. property is a major ordeal, one that the massive counterfeits are not doing anything to alleviate. With the wave of "China bashing" that reached its peak right before the November 6th U.S. presidential elections, the continued Chinese production of fakes would only continue to fuel tensions concerning the erosion of American businesses and the creation of jobs in the United States, in addition to undermining the competitiveness of American products. Yet with these legal and economic considerations aside, the continued widespread manufacturing of counterfeits does nothing to advance innovation in productive directions for China.
In particular, the U.S. business community has expressed strong concern with Chinese industrial policies that favor its domestic industries. These policies have included patent rules that appear to allow Chinese companies to obtain patents for products they did not invent, a new anti-monopoly law that allegedly allowed the PRC to try and force technology transfers from foreign firms to their local Chinese counterparts, and government procurement catalogues that favored domestic industries. Things have recently improved, since in 2011 China officially committed to revise policy fundamentals in avoid discriminating against foreign suppliers. Nonetheless there are still concerns that China will remain committed to goals of providing preferences to local Chinese firms and companies over their foreign counterparts. One of the major ways this prioritization has manifest itself are industry policies that include state subsidies that prop up and promote indigenous innovation. Here again we can see how money is viewed as the key to producing a technological legacy - or at least a line of products that can be flaunted as a Chinese invention.
There is nothing new about China being at the technological frontier. Touting its 'Four Great Inventions' - paper, gunpowder, the compass, and woodblock printing - the Chinese have rightful reason to be proud of their accomplishments. Nonetheless the desire to create and advance innovation has recently reached the forefront of national policy. During the once-a-decade political leadership transition - the 18th National Party Congress - during mid-November 2012, former President Hu Jintao emphasized science and technology on numerous occasions during his ninety minute speech. Back in 2007 he had promised to "enhance China's capacity for independent innovation and make China an innovative country"; in 2010 the State Council announced seven "emerging industries" that would be the target for special investment. It is no challenge to figure out the buzzword from all these high-profile plans, and although such top-down initiatives may work in the long-term, there is still yet to be any promising development. Legions of highly-capable Chinese engineers graduate from universities in the mainland, but even as they go work for massive and profitable giants in China's high-tech industry, the system itself may not be designed to produce much in the name of long-lasting consumer loyalty on the global stage.
There have been Chinese 'rip-offs' that have rapidly evolved and even surpassed the capabilities of their originals. Companies like Tencent, Baidu, Sina, Renren, and Alibaba didn't exactly copy Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Amazon in a subtle manner. And yet these firms have capitalized on unique assets of their Chinese users - mainly its large size - to go above and beyond their templates, by providing additional services that have attracted large numbers of netizens and remain heavily used and popular online. In these cases the piracy has generated rather positive outcome, at least to those who turn to these Chinese services on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Nonetheless the larger question regarding a national and cultural push towards innovation in emerging technologies remains. In being strongly fixated on its image as a rising global power, China may need to quickly decide whether it wants to be perceived as a thief or pioneer, and instigate responsible policy initiatives accordingly. Nothing is wrong with aspiring to produce many more innovative leaders on par with Steve Jobs. But that ambition does not warrant the unapologetic stealing of creations that others have worked hard to invent.