What Drives China also Slows It Down

Copyright ©2016 by Theo Pavlidis

Abstract: The same cultural attributes that are the cause of China’s successes are also responsible for China’s limitations.

Chinese social and political attitudes can be summarized as "Father knows best." Such a relationship is seen not only between father and son but also between husband and wife, and between emperor and government officials and between the officials and the citizens. This attitude pre-dates Confucianism by at least 1000 year, so Confucianism can be seen as the formalization of long held beliefs. (Confucius himself claimed that he did not introduce any new ideas: “I transmit, I invent nothing, I trust and love the past” [1, p. 68]). Such attitudes contribute to political and social stability but they also stand in the way of new discoveries.

A break-through in knowledge occurs in unexpected ways. The reason that a problem remains open is that people think it is either impossible to solve or not worth solving. It takes a contrarian person to attempt to solve such problems. Moreover most of the attempts at solving open problems result in failure. Therefore in a society that puts emphasis on productive work and respect to tradition, individuals are discouraged from "wasting their time." Steve Jobs gave the following advice in his commencement address to Stanford students that goes against Confucian tenets: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish” [2]. Alan Cromer [3, pp. 112-120] blames the Chinese bureaucracy for discouraging innovation but I think the cause is much deeper. The bureaucracy itself is a consequence of the attitude “Father knows best.” Another system of government would not have helped innovation as long as people were discouraged from doing “foolish things.”

Steve Jobs is a prime example of a great innovator who also has complete disregard for social norms [4]. Jobs could not have survived in China, ancient or modern. Even though Jobs innovations were successful within a few years, he had to be obstinate in the beginning because others could not see even a few years ahead. This is true for several modern computer innovations. The reaction of managers and colleagues has not been usually encouraging: “who needs another operating system?” for Unix; “who needs another programming language?” for C++; and most famously “who needs a computer in their home?” (by the CEO of a major computer manufacturer). It was the obstinacy of the innovators and the tolerance of management that allowed these projects to succeed. (I witnessed some of these developments first hand during my years at Bell Labs.)

Of course, the benefits of innovation may be hidden and may not become apparent for many centuries. Consider Mathematics and Astronomy. The Chinese were way behind the ancient Greeks but that did not have any negative practical consequences. The Greeks may have known the value of π far more accurately than the Chinese (who thought π was the square root of 10) but what good did it do to them? Eratosthenes may have measured the size of the earth but that result was never used. (Fortunately, Columbus underestimated the size of the earth, otherwise he may not have attempted his westward journey). It was only after more than 1000 years that Greek mathematics helped advances in Western science.

Even if Chinese individuals pursued "idle" thoughts that led to discoveries another obstacle remained. Technological revolutions require not only a rebel innovator but also investors and organizers. Everybody knows who James Watt was but far fewer people know who Matthew Boulton was. Yet "Watt attempted to commercialize his invention, but experienced great financial difficulties until he entered a partnership with Matthew Boulton in 1775" [Wikipedia]. Venture capitalism was not invented in Silicon Valley! We must credit Boulton with taking the steam engine out of the laboratory and making it a product.

There may or may not have been a Chinese Watt but there was certainly no Chinese Boulton. Merchants were held in low esteem in China and the state controlled most of the wealth. (When Den Xiao Ping opened the door in 1979 he sought foreign investment and that was a great success that changed China.)

We may point out that the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution occurred in the West only after the rise of the merchant class at the end of the Crusades. Gibbon [5, Chapter LXI, vol. 6, pp. 205-208] writes that the major effect of the crusades was "not so much in producing a benefit as in removing an evil." The crusades weakened the oppressive European feudal structure. He writes "The estates of the barons were dissipated ... Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer ..." He concludes the section with a metaphor: "The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the small and nutritive plants of the soil."

If we accept Gibbon’s reasoning then we must conclude that the western industrial revolution was the ultimate result of the defeats of the Crusaders at the hands of Muslims. It is a deep question whether Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution were results of an inevitable historical process or of unlikely events. In that case we should not be asking why the Industrial Revolution did not occur in China but why it occurred in any place at all! That question is the focus of Cromer’s book [3] and needs to be addressed in another essay.

There are a couple of issues to dispose of before leaving this topic.

What about Chinese inventions such as gunpowder and printing? The process we mentioned above makes inventions unlikely but not impossible. In contrast, during the "Dark Ages," inventions were impossible in Europe and Middle East because of the heavy hand of religious orthodoxy. Keay [6, pp. 295-297] points out that paper and printing helped "enshrine Confucian values" and adds the following observation. "An eccentric character called Feng Dao is generally credited with overseeing this first printing (of Confucian texts), and one might expect his name to be held in awe ... Yet (historians) do no such thing." The West has no monopoly on eccentric inventors! But in China eccentric inventors had much tougher time than in the West.

Some historians (notably Niall Ferguson) hold the view that the Industrial Revolution did not occur in China because it was a unified country and did not worry about enemies while Europe was fragmented into several competing states. That view is not supported by history. China was often fragmented into numerous states and always had to fight foreign enemies (Mongols in the North, the Vietnamese in the South).

China had several rebellions, such as the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), the Li Zicheng Rebellion (1642-1644) that ended the Ming dynasty, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), etc. Someone may ask: If political revolutions were possible why not technological revolutions? The answer is that political revolutions were the result of despair while there was no such drive for technological revolutions.

I am grateful to my friend David Lee for the last insight as well as several other constructive comments on an earlier draft of this essay. David was born and grew up in China and the two of us were colleagues at Bell Labs where we witnessed first-hand the unpredictable path to scientific and technological discovery. I am also grateful to Ken Steiglitz (my friend and former colleague from Princeton) for comments and for giving me Cromer’s book as a gift. Reading that book challenged many of my views on the evolution of science.

Sources Cited

[1] Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, Norton, 2000.

[2] http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

[3] Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense, Oxford, 1993.

[4] Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, Simon & Schuster, 2011.

[5] Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1788. Note: I use the 1978 reprint of the 1910 Everyman's Library (Dutton: New York) unabridged edition with comments by Oliphant Smeaton.

[6] John Keay, A History of China, Basic Books, 2009.