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Tech Professor and Graduate Student Discover Reason Behind Lack of Innovation in China

Hannah Musall

As the world's second largest economy, the second largest spender on research and development, and the largest producer of engineers and scientists, China has become the topic of countless academic studies. Georgia Tech's Jon Schmid, a Ph.D. student, and Dr. Fei-Ling Wang, a professor, have recently completed a research project that provides insight into the future of China and its role in the international economy with regard to innovation.

The project focuses on an existing theoretical framework called the National Innovation System (NIS) that examines a country's capacity for innovation and the impact that it has on the country's economy (OECD, 1997). Mr. Schmid and Dr. Wang's research aims at adding contextualizing measures to the NIS that take into account not just China's invention capability but also the political, cultural, and social factors that shape it.

We are trying to look for explanations to the puzzle or the eternal question of why the Chinese economy has not been very innovative," Dr. Wang explains.

The mystery of the lack of innovativeness of the Chinese economy is reflected in the high quantity but low quality of Chinese scientific papers and patents. According to Schmid and Wang, Chinese publication of scientific papers and registered patents "are catching up with and actually surpassing the United States" in quantity but substantially "behind the U.S. in quality."

Most of the Chinese patents and research papers represent what the research project refers to as "nominal innovation," "innovative imitation," or "creative absorption." This basically means that Chinese products in today's world market are inspired by imported technology and foreign brands.

China should have become a superpower of innovation already." Dr. Wang says. He believes that the political, cultural, and social environments limit China from becoming the dominant technological superpower, and more specifically, "the political structure in which the Chinese Communist Party monopolizes all the power and controls information" bars the Chinese economy from reaching its full potential.

The current Chinese government dictates the incentive structure for the economy, and it seems that while there has been success with this system, there has also been loss of true innovation. This same government creates a difficult environment for the individual to be truly innovative. Without a fundamental change in the Chinese political structure, Dr. Wang and Jon Schmid foresee a continuation in nominal invention and creative imitation rather than genuine innovation in China.

The International Monetary Fund has recently claimed that the Chinese economy has now surpassed the United States as the world's largest, but controversy arises from the reliability of Chinese data and the measurements considered. Regardless, Dr. Wang believes that the United States and particularly students enrolled in universities should understand the competitive potential that China possesses.

"We [the United States] should be aware that we have a competitive advantage in our system that allows us to be creative and innovative, but that doesn't mean that our national competitiveness will endure indefinitely," Dr. Wang points out.

The future of China is uncertain, but if the predictions of Mr. Schmid and Dr. Wang are correct, great change in the political, cultural, and social spheres of China is crucial for it to truly become an international economic and technological leader.

OECD, (1997), National Innovation Systems, OECD Publications, Paris.;