Why China Will Not Rule Tech

In Five Reasons China Will Rule Tech, Forbes claims China will be taking over the tech world, and soon.

I ain’t buying it. Not even at a deep discount.

I set out the five reasons in bold below and then I analyze them in normal font.

1. China’s leadership understands engineering. In China, eight of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, including the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, have engineering degrees; one has a degree in geology. Of the 15 U.S. cabinet members, six have law degrees. Only one cabinet member has a hard-science degree — Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997, has a doctorate in physics. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have law degrees.  
So what? Running a country is running a country and there is no evidence that those who are better able to design a television are any better at running a country than those who are not. Jimmy Carter was (at least until George Bush), indisputably the worst American President since Hoover and he was (I think) the only engineer. And since when has the U.S. Cabinet been the determinant of how our our technology is going? Silicon Valley has led the world in technology through many a president and cabinet that was not made up of engineers, so why should that not continue?

2. China’s leadership wants to out-innovate the U.S. China’s political leadership has made technological innovation a leading goal in everything from supercomputers to nanotech. One highlight of this is China’s investment in clean energy technologies.  
Again, so what? The United States’ leadership wants to out-innovate China and it too has made technological innovation a leading goal. More substantively, this analysis wrongly assumes government to be the end-all on innovation and that just is not the case.

3. China’s science and technical talent pool is vast. The technical labor pool in China is so large that Shanghai-based offshore outsourcing company Bleum Inc. can use an IQ test to screen applicants, with a cutoff score for new computer science graduates in China of 140. Less than 1% of the population has a score that high. Bleum has started hiring a U.S. workforce but sets an IQ score of just 125 as a screening threshold.  One data point to note: In 2005, the U.S. awarded 137,500 engineering degrees, while China awarded 351,500, according to a workforce study last year.  
This is complete bullshit. Unscientific bullshit. This argument is so incredibly flawed I have trouble seeing straight enough to even know where to start, but here goes.

  • China has four times the number of people as the United States so one would expect China to have four times the number of people with IQs 140 and over.
  • Are you really making the argument that the Chinese are genetically superior to others? Gosh, that sounds a lot like racism to me.
  • If we assume China has the same percentage of people with IQs over 140 as does the United States, I would absolutely expect a much higher percentage of those people to be interested and available for tech jobs than in the United States. I would expect that because of where China is in its economic development. In the United States (where the standard of living is so much higher than in China), those with IQs over 140 will have far more varied opportunities than in China.
  • Ray’s analysis unquestioningly (and wrongly) assumes IQ is the sole and perfect determinant of one’s value to technology. I have worked with enough software and gaming and engineering companies to know that way more than pure IQ goes into their businesses. These businesses run on innovation, management, marketing, financials, etc., in addition to pure tech. Frankly, I would be very skeptical of any company that bases its hiring purely on an IQ test. And is there correlation whatsoever between IQ and imagination?
  • The number of engineering degrees is far less important than the quality of those degrees and on quality the United States still leads by a vast margin. Ray, were you not familiar with the Duke report or did you just choose to ignore it in favor of making your case?

4. The U.S. is failing at science and math education. A stark assessment of the U.S. failure in science and math education was made by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) at a Senate hearing in May, when she compared the performance of students in Texas to those in China. Wow, if a politician says it, it must be true! More seriously, if the United States is failing so bad in education, why does it seem like everyone in China with money is trying to figure out how to send their children to school in the United States?

5. China is getting U.S. technology, all of it. In 2008, Sony Corp. closed what was identified as the last television manufacturing plant in the U.S., in Westmoreland, Pa. It shifted work to an assembly plant in Mexico, but the vast majority of TVs’ electronics components are made in Asia. (Dell sources $25 billion annually alone in components from China, for example).  
This just about cinches it, I guess. If the United States is losing television manufacturing then it must be falling behind on the newest technology.

I am NOT saying China is not moving forward with its technology and I am NOT guaranteeing China may not some day surpass the United States on this. But I am saying that Ray’s arguments are no different than the arguments that were being made about Russia in the 1960s and about Japan in the 1980s and neither country is really anywhere these days on the technology map.

In the end, if I had to choose a country that will be the leader in technology ten, twenty, thirty and fifty years from now I would be looking more for the country that welcomes diversity (and I use that word in the most purely capitalistic least mamby-pamby way possible) in its population/people and in its ideas over a country with a government that decrees innovation will start happening now.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Just discovered an excellent post by GE Anderson over at ChinaBizGov, America is rotten; China is awesome, also taking this same article to task. Anderson describes its conclusions as “way overdrawn” and he too focuses on how it puts quantity over quality:

This is very much an issue of quality vs quantity. I spent two years teaching at universities in China, and I continue to maintain close touch with the academic community there. While China is indeed turning out math and science whizzes up through high school level (the average middle schooler can plot the trajectory of a non-guided missile), nothing is being done to nurture the kind of creative and critical thinking that produces innovation.

Furthermore, among the engineers earning degrees in China, very few of them have a passion for what they are learning. It doesn’t bother me that a relative handful of students in the US are choosing the sciences as long as the vast majority of these students love what they’re doing and eventually find their ways to Silicon Valley, Austin, TX or other similar clusters of talent. Again, this is where the innovation comes from.

Anderson does toss out the proverbial bone, by noting that this article “may have been intended somewhat as hyperbole to shock our leaders into action.”

Yeah sure. Whatever.

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