In November 2018, the New York Times published a series that began with a story titled, The Land that Failed to Fail. The central argument of the piece is that defying Western expectations, the Communist Party has maintained its control in China while adopting elements of capitalism, eschewing political liberalisation, and pursuing innovation. The last of these three — innovation — is the subject of this piece.
What drives innovation in China? This is not merely a question about the mechanics of policy, the might of capital, the determination of dogged entrepreneurs, or the brilliance that is conjured up in university dormitories. Increasingly, it is a question that has acquired geopolitical significance, not just in the context of power politics but also in the debate over fundamental values about political and economic organisation. In other words, the question that China’s march towards becoming a “country of innovators” raises is whether a political system that prioritises control can foster genuine innovation.
Answering this requires an understanding of the key elements of the Chinese model of innovation. To my mind, there are three key components of this model—state support, a systems approach towards the development of new technologies and businesses, and building an effective “bird-cage.” There are, of course, other factors like the pursuit of prestige, the desire to rebalance the economy, the need to enhance the effectiveness of governance, and the size of the consumer market, which supports innovation. But it is the first three components that form the key pillars of China’s innovation model.