By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Political crackdowns and state-mandated innovation

U.S.-China conversation.  Shutterstock image.

I have been in China for an academic conference and had a chance to talk with faculty and students about changes since I was last there a year ago. This last year has been an event-filled one, both for the situation in China in general and for IT-related developments in particular.

Many American China experts have been worried about signs of political crackdown on dissent and growing official hostility to the West under the new leader Xi Jingping. A few months ago, for example, the Minister of Education made a speech saying universities were too infected with Western values and that use of Western textbooks in courses should be reduced, part of a larger emphasis on the ideological threat from the West.

There have also been a growing number of arrests of human rights lawyers, pressures against NGOs that receive Western funding, and a remarkable incident -- which received considerable attention abroad, including a statement from Hillary Clinton -- where five feminists were arrested after trying to plan a protest against sexual harassment on subways. (That is hardly a politically sensitive topic to raise, even in China.) Western media outlets have had increasing problems with getting visas to work in China. And China's new leader has taken a much more expansive foreign policy approach, emphasizing China's desire for great power status, with the possibility of challenges to the West.

(There was an interesting article in China Daily about how China is beginning to prioritize university-level instruction in "less commonly taught tongues" such as Tamil, Bengalese, and Filipino, in line with China's increasing influence outside its borders. When I read this article, I confess I instinctively was reminded of the scene in the old Bogart movie Casablanca where the German commander states Germans would need to learn many new languages as they conquered the world.)

While in China, I had two dinners with professors and a number of graduate students where I took up these issues. Reassuringly, the students and faculty did not say they had noticed any pressure to avoid working with Westerners or to change textbooks. The general consensus was that the statement by the Minister of Education was a one-time speech that they saw no real reason to take seriously; they also noted that a number of academics had publicly criticized the speech. All still seemed eager to interact with Westerners -- so no change on that front.

I was also told that, though Google is now generally blocked in China, the government has pragmatically made an exception for GoogleScholar, widely used by academics around the world to help them with locating papers for academic research.

It is hard for Westerners, especially those who can't read Chinese, to have a feel for the state of public opinion on these issues. We tend to interact with more Western-oriented people, but understand there is a big nationalistic current on the Chinese Internet, whose strength is hard to judge. It is interesting, however, that a 2013 poll by a Chinese Internet company showed that 68 percent of Chinese would like to have their children born in the U.S. if they could.

Though the people I interacted with seemed unconcerned about an anti-Western crackdown, they also were surprisingly ignorant about some of the developments that are causing concern among U.S. China experts. None at either dinner knew about the problems U.S. journalists have had with visas -- or that this was the first question asked of Xi Jinping at a joint press conference with President Obama a few months ago. None knew about the Feminist Five. As an American journalist commented to me when I mentioned these facts to him, "censorship works."

Turning to the Chinese economy, a big theme over the past year has been the need for China to move from being a copycat, low-cost manufacturer to developing innovations on its own, particularly in the Internet and broader IT space. The government has actually been urging young people to do startups, a topic I discussed in a recent blog post, and the English-language Chinese media was filled with startup and innovation discussions while I was there.

A brand new poll shows that the percentage of graduating college seniors who said they wanted to start a business as their first college job doubled from about 3 percent to 6 percent in one year. President Xi, in a recent visit to Hangzhou, the city that hosts many high-tech companies including Alibaba, Xi visited a number of startups but actually skipped Alibaba. (He did visit a company called Hikvision, world's largest supplier of video surveillance products.)

We'll see what happens – this has a bit of the air of government ordering citizens to be innovative, which seems slightly weird.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 27, 2015 at 10:11 AM


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