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Yong Zhao: Fooling the Emperor: How is Creativity Misapplied in China?

Originally published in China-US Focus on October 23, 2015. Adapted from my book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

China’s capacity for innovation has become a hot topic for China, the U.S., and the rest of the world today. There is no question that China must innovate its way out of the “middle income trap.” But whether the country – which over the last thirty years has proven to be able to make everything – can create anything new remains questionable.

The question is not about whether the Chinese people are creative. Creativity is human nature. Genetically speaking, creativity should not have any ethnic bias or favor any one nation. If creativity is evenly distributed, China should have its equal share of the same genetic stock of creativity as any other nation. Given that its population size is more than three times of that in the United States, China should possess three times the number of great creative geniuses such as Steve Jobs. It also claims to be the only ancient civilization that has a non-stop history of over five thousand years and the most powerful empire in the world, which should have given it more time to accumulate creativity and innovation.

But China has produced very few inventions in science and technology that matter much in the modern world, at least not enough protect the nation from Western aggressions backed by scientific and technological innovations. Even today, despite its stunning growth in patent applications and scientific publications, the country has yet convinced many of its ability to innovate and invent.

China apparently has failed to turn its creative potential into significant innovations and inventions. What happened to all the creativity China had? How does creativity get lost in China?

Speculations abound. No single reason can be used to answer such complex questions. But a major culprit is the authoritarian spirit that advocates complete obedience to authority and results in policies that rewards compliance and punishes defiance. While many people believe obedience results in less creativity, it actually can boost creativity, making people more creative. But the creativity is not productive, in fact counterproductive because it is applied to simply demonstrate obedience, without actual compliance, resulting in token compliance – a form of cheating.

For example, to show compliance to the government’s anti-corruption wishes, which include measures such as prohibiting government officials to enjoy expensive alcohol and elaborate banquets in luxurious restaurants, Chinese government officials have been found to be extremely creative: they put ultra-expensive alcohol such as Moutai in Coke bottles or ordinary drinking bottles; they move elaborate banquets to farm houses; they bring chefs from five-star hotels to cook their “working meals” in their local cafeterias. To comply with environmental regulations, local officials in more than one place creatively ordered mountainsides painted in green. In more than one provinces, local officials rushed to cover paved roads with soil and plant vegetables and soybeans to show the inspectors their compliance with government regulations about conserving farmland.

Shangyou Zhengce, Xiaoyou Duice, literally “the higher authorities have policies, the lower have countermeasures,” has become a common phrase to describe the phenomenon of “emperor-fooling.” This is why in China, the authority seems to always have their demands met and wishes granted by its people, albeit at great cost with wasted resources and creativity.

China’s recent campaign for innovation has met the same fate. To stimulate innovation, the government has employed all sorts of carrots and sticks. The Chinese people have again applied their creativity to realize the government’s wish.

Last month, a number of convicts received a reduction of prison term as a reward for their patented inventions. Former police chief of Chongqing Wang Lijun, now serving a prison term of 15 years for abuse of power was granted 254 patents, 211 of which were filed in one year. His counterpart Wu Changshun in Tianjin has 35 patents granted. Most of their patents were related to police equipment and accessories. They were commercialized but mostly purchased by their own departments, and earned them both royalties and fame.

About 10 years ago, Chinese governments showered money and glory upon Chen Jin, who claimed to have invented a sophisticated computer chip Hanxin #1 (or China Heart/Chip #1), which turned out to be a chip he bought from Motorola. However, he creatively hired some migrant workers to remove the Motorola label and managed to pass the inspection of Chinese officials and experts. A professor at Jinggangshan University found a creative way to have over 40 papers published in international journals, which earned him hundreds of thousands of RMB. But these papers were later retracted, together with about 30 from the same university, for fabricated and falsified data.

There are many more forms of creative and entrepreneurial token compliance. Fabricating research papers and faking journal publications for sale have become a multimillion-dollar enterprise in China, so has the creation and sailing of junk patents. Less courageous professors, medical doctors, nurses, engineers, and professional researchers resort to other forms of creative compliance: publishing the same paper in multiple places, splitting a paper into multiple publications, creatively modifying existing publications, or plagiarizing.  As a result, China now receives more patent applications than the U.S. and publishes millions of scientific papers. But the majority of them are of low quality.

By nature, Chinese are no less creative than other people; nor are they less inclined to take risks, or more predisposed to cheating. The authoritarian spirit of absolute obedience to authority seems to direct creativity to risky cheating in order to realize the wishes of the high authority, which may or may not be shared by the people. In other words, while the emperor’s wishes cannot be denied, but people can creatively fool him.

China’s future rests on its ability to turn creativity into constructive innovations and inventions. But whether it can do so depends on how quickly it can change the authoritarian mindset.

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Yong Zhao

Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He curre...