Rolling the dice in China


When scientists get further along with epigenetics, they may discover the Chinese have two unique DNA: a gambling gene, and another for hospitality. The first, of course, explains why Macau is odds-on favorite for replacing Vegas as No. 1 world gambling champion. The second suggests why few escape the lure of a Chinese campaign to win visitors’ hearts and minds.

Looking at a new determined shift in Beijing’s economic strategy, one has to chalk it up to that gambling gene. Intoxicated with turning into “the world’s factory”, Beijing plans to sail right past their successful collaborative development with foreign multinationals. Its new strategy literally amends Maximal Leader Deng Hsiao-ping’s dying instructions two decades ago to hide their capacities until they had achieved his four modernizations.

One can only chalk up Western businessmen naiveté to that second suspected Chinese gene, the ability to vamp any visitor. Of course, Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s more literary companion, explained it all more than a century ago. He foresaw that on the way to the gallows, the capitalists’ greed would drive them to compete with one another to sell the rope to their executioners.

From mid-summer last year Chinese authorities – as a muddled but highly informative U.S. Chamber of Commerce report concludes – shifted from defense to offense. Years of studying their acknowledged total dependence on foreign technology has culminated in proposing 16 new megaprojects. With them they aim:

1] To provide new opportunities for stealing foreign technology. Now, before any technology can be introduced into China, it must be intensely “studied” — in fact, stolen even before it enters the market. Another is increased allocation of “patents” to Chinese firms with virtually no verification, making it virtually impossible to pursue legal indemnification for losses.

2] To restore the primacy of the SOEs, the state-owned enterprises, those giant behemoths notorious for their inefficiency and corruption but powerful political entities. Massive funds [$25 billion] — out of the huge 2008 stimulus package, originally aimed at warding off contagion from the world financial crisis – have been allocated to the SOEs to produce “indigenous innovation”

3] To continue to ensnare foreign companies, Beijing will suggest in return for continued tech transfers, they will get a share of the growing Chinese markets. They will also be offered participation in new technologies in China using government funds. But increasingly “import substitution”, that protectionist policy which crippled much of the third world before “globalization” became fashionable, is government policy.

Beijing’s new turn is loaded with risk. The history of Chinese innovation during the current boom is miserable. Eighty percent of China’s major firms do not have R&D at all.  One reason may be it has been so easy to rent or steal needed foreign technologies. But there may be even more important – if difficult to evaluate – cultural factors.

Although China was historically leader in basic scientific development, simply said, the Europeans picked up on those breakthroughs to initiate the industrial revolution leaving China behind. Why? The answer to this question is perennial among scholars. One answer lies in China’s intense bureaucratization, in part arising from the need for huge collective enterprises – largely for water control. Another, of course, is Chinese learning has always put the emphasis on rote memorization and an inordinate, even religious, respect and adherence to what has gone before. It may be no accident, as the Communists used to say, now bereft of its Marxist-Leninist-Maoist dogma Beijing is turning back to Confucianism. [A statue of Confucius was recently installed in Tien An Mien square alongside a huge portrait of his greatest adversary, Mao Tse-tung.] With its emphasis on ritual, Confucianism represents the antithesis to the restless European [Greek] mind. An even greater threat to the new effort to produce originality may be the all pervasive corruption permeating Chinese life today which means vast sums promised R&D will go astray.

China is also taking other risks. Despite an intense campaign, Beijing has not been able to lure home more than a few prominent scholars among more than 62,000 Chinese in the U.S., many in technological research. With ties in both cultures, they have been critical to transferring technology. The new Beijing strategy may jeopardize that relationship as American business, reluctantly, and the U.S. government becomes increasingly cautious about China deals.

True, economic development in East Asia was always full of warfare over intellectual property. Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have been major culprits. But the Chinese pour salt in the wound by offering products overseas based on stolen technology. Thus California’s former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was talking to the Chinese about proposed federally subsidized high-speed rail based on their theft from three foreign companies that had cooperated in creating them in China. At the moment, Washington is grappling with the proposed purchase by Huawei, a Chinese entity with military connections, of an American IT company with the Pentagon as a client.

Beijing’s gamble if successful would insure continued giant leaps forward but like Mao’s infamous economic plays, this one could prove catastrophic.

Sws-02-11-11

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