A Sputnik year for America, from China


Your humble editor is a cynical man. I am especially cynical when it comes to hyped-up claims that China is about to become the dominant global player of some industry or other. For example, jumped-up journalism on the following Chinese phenomena should be regarded with suspicion:

But in other fields, China is an emerging global leader. Examples include:

  • Architecture: The breakneck pace of construction and light regulation over the past decades have allowed foreign architects to build some of the world’s most audacious buildings in China. Young Chinese architects have soaked up global influences and now outpace their foreign peers in speed and innovation of design and construction.
  • Visual arts: Thanks in a large part to Ai Weiwei 艾未未, but also to a global demand for Chinese contemporary art that began in the 1980s, and the freedom in China to create works on a massive scale, China is a vital part of the world’s fine arts scene. Despite censorship.  
  • Fashion and clothing design: Chinese consumer tastes in apparel and accessories, Chinese designers, fashion photographers, and Chinese models are reaching global audiences.
  • Industrial design: Xiaomi and Huawei phones, the world’s most popular drones, on-demand rental bikes, and a million things you can buy on Amazon, Taobao, or at Wal-Mart are designed or shanzhaied in China.
  • High-speed rail: Any explanation really necessary?

What about high-tech? For a long time, I believed the conventional Western wisdom that censorship and the politicization of higher learning and research in China would forever doom the country to copying without innovating.

  • I first began doubting the conventional wisdom when Weibo, which began as a clone of Twitter in 2009, made one small innovation after another to its product and business model. It is now a dominant player in its sector with real mainstream appeal that Twitter does not have.
  • In 2013, I began using the Uber-like Didi Dache (renamed Didi Chuxing after a merger). But unlike Uber, Didi pioneered a perfect marriage of ride sharing and licensed taxis — the service was initially popular for hailing cabs rather than for personal cars.
  • “Leonardo da Vinci, who is practically the embodiment of innovation, spent his most productive later years under the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. While Ludovico may have been relatively benign, he was an autocrat. And under whose regime was the V2 rocket invented? Or Sputnik? Who sent Yuri Gagarin into space?” That is an argument that my friend and Sinica Podcast co-host Kaiser Kuo has long made to me.
  • “There’s this strange belief that you can’t build a mobile app if you don’t know the truth about what happened in Tiananmen Square. Trouble is, it’s not true.” That’s Kaiser again, quoted in the Washington Post
  • Anyone who has used WeChat in China will tell you that there is no match for it on the American or European internet in terms of seamless integration of social media, messaging, mobile payments, ride hailing, and ecommerce, bundled together in an app that is a joy to use. (If you don’t mind the government spying on you!)
  • Drones: Shenzhen-based DJI is the world’s leading manufacturer — in sales numbers and quality of product — of consumer and industrial unmanned aerial vehicles. I can attest to the quality: I recently bought a DJI drone with some bitcoin given to me in 2014 by a former Chinese colleague who has become a cryptocurrency tycoon. He now sells cryptocurrency mining computers and operates bitcoin mines, which is another area where China leads.

So when I look at today’s Xinhua News Agency piece titled “Yearender Focus: From follower to leader: China emerges at high-tech frontier,” I have to agree. It’s not just propaganda. Xinhua says that “China’s transition from a country that follows the world’s technological trends to one that sets them, is no longer a blueprint — it’s a reality,” and that “Chinese firms are pulling ahead of their rivals” in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), genetic engineeringmobile payments, and bike sharing. To Xinhua’s list, I’d add facial recognition, cryptocurrency (a government-backed cryptocurrency is still in testing phase), mobile device manufacture, all kinds of biotech, and, of course, ecommerce.

For the United States, 2017 has, in fact, been something of a Sputnik year (?) when it comes to Chinese technology. It has finally dawned on the American political and media classes that China might eat everyone’s lunch when it comes to tech.

I remain skeptical about the potential of Chinese companies in internet services such as social media, or in anything with a strong cultural aspect. But in all the fields mentioned above, the rest of the world is going to have to deal with both the benefits and drawbacks of China setting standards and making life-changing breakthroughs.

Baidu offers service to check if your website is blocked in China

The Nikkei Asian Review reports (paywall) that Chinese search giant Baidu is offering a free tool to help Japanese companies check if their website or the cloud services they use are blocked in China. You can find the tool here (in Japanese).

JOB AD: Schwarzman Scholars seeks academic officer

With a $550 million endowment, Schwarzman Scholars supports up to 200 scholars annually from the U.S., China, and around the world for a one-year master’s degree program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China’s most prestigious universities and an indispensable base for the country’s science and technology research. Schwarzman Scholars is looking for an academic officer based in New York.