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Chinese Impressions

I am back from Shanghai. When I left, I said I had three questions I hoped to answer during my visit.
June 23, 2005

I am back from Shanghai. When I left, I said I had three questions I hoped to answer during my visit. They were: Is intellectual property really respected in modern China? Do peer review and free scholarly debate, as they are understood in the West, exist? And Could China become the dominant source of innovative technologies and scientific discovery in the 21st century?

These questions are obviously extraordinarily complex; they are deeply controversial; and informed men and women of good conscience can disagree about their answers. I am conscious of the shallowness of my impressions, but my initial answers, based on a very cursory visit to a single city’s universities, companies, and publications, are: No, No, and Not yet.

1. Intellectual Property. China has no incentive at the moment to respect intellectual property rights (IPR); it has every reason to continue to flout them. Thus, the conventional wisdom that IPR, while still primitive in China, are becoming stronger under pressure from the World Trade Organization, is almost certainly wrong.

Why is this? China produces little of its own IP; at the same time it is a developing country that wants to become a dominating force in the world’s economy. Therefore, whether the products are drugs, software, educational textbooks, or media, the Chinese central government and Chinese companies are behaving rationally when they are piractical. Indeed, a proponent of free culture like Larry Lessig might even argue that China has a moral imperative to ignore international IPR.

This kind of sentiment seems strongly established in China. One generalizes about so old and various a country at some risk, but there is arguably a Chinese cultural bias, confirmed by forty-five years of Maoism, towards weak IPR. On Wednesday, the International Herald Tribune noted,

China previously treated inventions as common property. [There is a saying]: “When one household makes an invention, a hundred more can benefit from it.”

Of course this will change one day - but only when China is so productive of new intellectual property that the central government has an economic incentive to enforce IPR. In the meantime, the only IPR that are likely to be protected are those owned by the central government or by businesses in which the central government has a major stake.

2. Science. My strong sense is that Chinese scientists, particularly in the life sciences, simply do not collect and analyze experimental data in the same fashion as their Western colleagues. Peer review is not universally established and is weirdly managed where it does exist. Nor is the liberal spirit of review respected: junior researchers are not encouraged to challenge the heads of labs or departments.

This, too, will change: some of the current generation of young Chinese scientists now studying in the United States or established here as junior professors will return to mainland China - and when they do, they will bring Western standards of data collection and peer review with them.

It should be noted that many of the young Chinese scientists now working in the United States are exceedingly brilliant. Today, as the editors at Technology Review were finalizing the list of the TR35, we were struck by how many of our innovators were born in mainland China.

3. China’s Future. So until 1 and 2 are fixed, China will not become dominant in technology and science - at least in what economists call “formal markets.”

I make this distinction because China will probably dominate the informal markets for technology and digital information - that is, the black or unregulated markets where piracy and security breaches are commonplace. In other words, as so often in the past, China will do things her own way.

I would like to thank those in Shanghai who were generous enough to talk to me, and who attempted to correct, with typically Chinese grace, my laughable ignorance. I will not embarrass them by naming them. They did their best: the errors of judgement or observation in this post are all mine. I sincerely apologize if any of my hosts find these notes insulting: they represent my honest, friendly impressions. Finally, thanks to Technology Review’s Chinese readers for their introductions.

I hope to return to China soon - this time to Beijing, which I did not have the time to visit on this occasion. Perhaps a visit to the seat of Chinese government will moderate my views.

Technorati tag: China

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