When I came to Beijing 25 years ago, Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening up was in full force. If I had predicted in August 1994 what China would look like in 2018, I would have been taken for a madman. Never could I have imagined at the time the breathtaking speed with which China has caught up the West over the past decade in particular. For a long time, there was a balance of power between the West and China. The West had technology but China had a big market and was the world’s factory. China’s copies of Western products were not considered a threat.
Deceived by stereotypes
In the meantime, China has become innovative. Chinese entrepreneurs have revolutionized the banking and financial world with apps such as WeChat Pay and Alipay. Huawei smartphones are as advanced as those by Apple and have even overtaken iPhones in global sales. Earlier this month, China made history when Chang’e 4 made a soft landing on the far side of the moon. Electric buses are commonplace in China whereas in Germany they are only running as part of pilot projects. When it comes to artificial intelligence, China is as advanced as its rivals.
Some in the West wonder how is this possible. But basically they fell victim to their own stereotypes. They thought that China was only good for copying. But this was a little naive, it must be said with hindsight. Why should a group of young, creative people in a population of 1.4 billion not eventually make itself noticeable? As soon as the economic framework was in place, the innovation began.
Chinese innovation is nothing new
This came more of a surprise to the West than to China, which has a different perspective on its own country. While in the West it was normal for China to be considered backwards, in China it was assumed that the country was going through a temporary weak phase. Now, the country is back after 150 years of problems and returning to its usual level. In 1820, China was responsible for a third of the global economy. Then came a century of humiliations, from the Opium Wars to the Japanese invasion. This is thankfully over.
There is no doubt as to how the West was able to bring China to its knees: The arrogance of the Chinese empire, which considered itself the center of the world for too long and thought it could turn its back on the technological progress that was taking hold in Europe. The Qing dynasty thought it could do without and slept through the Industrial Revolution. Reformers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao were forced to leave China or face the death penalty. In the first half of the 20th century, it was impossible to run or control China, which had almost come down to its knees. Forty years last December, the country reopened its doors to the world.
There are reasons for criticizing China’s politicians today, but they cannot be accused of missing the boat when it comes to technology. After learning a tough lesson, they have done a lot to become even more innovative than the rest of the world.
Germany’s rise also began through copies
To begin with, there was support for the copies which then led to something new. Therefore, apps such as WeChat or Meituan were able to develop into multi-function platforms where flights or doctors appointments can be booked — as Connie Chan from the US venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz put it, these are “remote controls” for our lives.
It’s long been forgotten that Germany once copied the Britons’ locomotives and “Made in Germany” was once a pejorative term for cheap copies of British goods. Germany rose from nowhere in industrial and technological terms, while China was one of the most innovative countries in the world for centuries — responsible for inventions such as paper, porcelain, gunpowder and the compass. Therefore, the West should drop its ideas of China being a country that just produces cheap copies, which by the by was also the idea of Japan in the 1980s.
More and more, China’s progress is based on its domestic creativity and it looks as if these ideas will soon be having an impact on the general development of humanity. What’s particularly astonishing is that innovative capacity is exploding in an authoritarian state. There is enough freedom for innovation. Copies can be made on order but not creation and innovative capacity. Every day, China is becoming a little less dependent on Western technology. But the West is not becoming less dependent on the Chinese market. As the chief executive of VW recently put it: “The future of Volkswagen will be decided in the Chinese market.”