China Must Stress Innovation To Pass U.S.

Ai Weiwei. If you asked people in China who this person is, few could answer. But the man and his recent disappearance are highly instructive in understanding something very important about China and its future.

“Support the proletariat.” “Promote Third World Solidarity.” These were the old slogans of the Communist Party in China that were reflected in policy and in almost every aspect of daily life. For example, if one looked at a Chinese and English dictionary published around 1980, one could see how deeply Marxist it was, as it had Marxist phrases accompanying many words. China has since gone from being a Communist country pursuing and promoting Marxist ideology to being a semi-capitalist authoritarian country. If there were a slogan to reflect the party of today it would be the following: “Remain in Power.”

To ensure its popularity, or at least toleration by the general public, it has embarked on a campaign of economic modernization Đ adopting policies that included privatizing the agricultural sector. The effect has been the famous and impressive GDP growth rates China has had annually for many years.

Many Americans see China rising and the U.S. declining and posit that China will soon surpass the U.S. economically. This is likely due to the U.S. having experienced such a major recession and persistently high unemployment rates, along with very high trade and budget deficits, all while China has high growth rates and high trade surpluses. This fear has been manifested by a commercial about America’s debt from October and November of last year which is an example of demagoguery depicting China as being in control of our country, the recent inflammatory rhetoric by Donald Trump about China being our enemy and probably even the success of the recent book about the “Tiger Mothers.”

But such notions seem overblown. Why? For China to surpass or even come close to the U.S., its government would have to encourage people to innovate and create. For the party, the price of large-scale originality would likely be too high.

Innovation and creativity require the ability to allow those who push barriers to speak their minds and to challenge conventional thought. Undoubtedly, Chinese people are able to be just as innovative as any other nationality in the world. In China’s history, there have many famous inventions by the Chinese such as paper, gunpowder, ice cream, the compass, paper currency and fireworks. However, the unconventional thinking required for innovation cannot be tolerated by a party whose priority is ultimately not to maximize its country’s economic, political and philosophical potential, but whose main goal is to maintain its hegemony.

Its educational system emphasizes rote learning that includes memorizing information about how the party serves the country so well in so many ways and prizes those with these particular talents. Unsurprisingly, little innovation comes from any field. This lack of innovation is shown by the films produced in China, which essentially lack any deep meaning Đ especially in matters of philosophy or politics. It is shown by the inability of its citizens to win a single Nobel Prize, except for a dissident who is currently imprisoned in the country. It is shown by the lack of original research from China.

These problems are embodied in the case of Ai Weiwei. He is arguably one of the top artists in the world. He was the artistic consultant for the design of the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympics and has undertaken many famous and widely acclaimed projects. But accompanying his ability and accomplishments come disrespect for authority Ń for example, his famous photograph of his middle finger pointed at Tiananmen Square.

His iconoclasm has led to outright criticism of the government, including its governance and abuses inevitably leading to the massive loss of life from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. His arrest and subsequent disappearance on April 3 was only the latest in a series of tactics used against him, one of which was when the police clubbed him over the head. His arrest also occurred within the context of a larger crackdown on other dissenters, likely a result of similarities seen by the party between now and 1989 Đ the year that saw the most serious threat to its rule Đ with rampant inflation and a whole region of the world experiencing popular uprisings against authoritarian governments.  It is widely believed he only remained out of custody so long due to his international fame and family pedigree.

Regrettably, little will likely happen for him aside from an occasional criticism from other governments or media. Businesses around the world are all angling for the expanding consumer market within China. One can easily witness how there has been very little legitimate criticism from movies and the media of the party. Even the entertainment industry in Hong Kong dares not criticize the party Đ not even the Cultural Revolution that has been characterized in the mainland as being wrong. Nevertheless, his case exemplifies how, despite the fears of many, China will always be limited in its ambitions as long as the current political system remains. This is because its leaders have a very different priority in mind than maximizing their country’s potential. With Ai Weiwei’s arrest, it is widely believed the authorities are trying to send a message that anyone can be arrested. Unwittingly, they are sending another message as well.

Wesley Oliphant is a graduate student in economics. He can be reached at woliphan@uci.edu.