May 10, 2007 12:58 pm


Tom Friedman is on a very well meaning campaign to refocus US attention on the dangers of Globalization to American technological primacy. He is right to worry. Americans will have to run awfully hard to stay in place. BUT in his recent column entitled "From Gunpowder to the Next Big Bang" he is trying to convince us that the Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming.

I beg to differ and agree with the Chinese scholars:

ESTOFF has on occasion heard Chinese scientists and science policy experts see the problems of Chinese science as being inextricably bound up China's economic and political system. Recently a Chinese scholar remarked to ESTOFF that the lack of intellectual freedom and the extraordinary waste of resources severely handicap Chinese science. Both problems are rooted in the Communist Party's monopoly on power and in the socialist system. The Communist Party alternates between tightening and loosening constraints on society depending upon how secure the Party feels. The scholar said that the latest example of the Party's limitations on intellectual freedom is the firing of four Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researchers.

Interestingly, he mentions the Chinese culture of conformity as a barrier but fails to mention the real elephant in the room, the still very much authoritarian, if not totalitarian, Chinese state. The first one was enough to ensure that China did very little to exploit her great inventions:" compass, paper-making, printing and gunpowder." All four were most fruitfully exploited by Western innovators.

The idea that"once you have this foundation, being creative can be trainable" is vintage Chinese and patently wrong. I have little doubt that brilliant Chinese working for Microsoft will come up with useful improvement and write meticulously researched papers. They may even stumble upon an idea which can lead to the invention of the light bulb, not only a better light bulb. But as long as they live in an area where daring and failing are dangerous, they will not be the ones to reap the fruit of even their own ideas.

Finally, I must admit I am puzzled. Friedman is a democracy advocate so why is he so careful not to mention the problems the leftover Communist system poses for Chinese development?

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Barry DeCicco - 11/5/2005

Probably because he figures that economics will drive politics.

For many reasons, this is not unreasonable. To the extent that the elites see it in their interest to relax certain controls, they will. Each relaxation has the potential to lead to things which are very difficult to reverse. The reason that they'd be difficult to reverse is that the elites would take an immediate and obvious economic hit, and would also have to deal with very serious unrest, due to an economic collapse. Unrest to the point where it's not clear that military forces could control things, or that the current elites would still be running things after a successful crackdown.

I'm reminded of what one of the leaders of the Tianeman square (sp?) protests said. He was able to get out of China, along with a number of other leaders, because things had loosened up that much. He said that when Deng had cracked down on a democracy movement ~1980, nobody on the government's list of leaders got away, because the government still had things under tight control.