No. Well, at least not for a while, according to Xu Xiaoping. Xu ranks among China’s most prominent angel investors. He is also CEO of a NYSE-listed education company called New Oriental Group that helps prepare people from China to study overseas. There are many reasons why innovation has been lacking in China. Many of these reasons deal with cultural differences in comparison to other countries, where innovation is encouraged and embraced.
A story from Xu exemplifies the cultural differences among China and other countries in terms of innovation. Picture this: two kids from China are getting an education, one in China, the other in the United States. Both students have a strong interest in computer programming. The student in America is encouraged to follow his passion and further explore it. On the other hand, the Chinese student follows his passion for programming, but then is told by his parents to drop programming, and start studying for the Gao Kao (the most important high school and university entrance exam). Years of tireless studying and intense competition for jobs took away this boy’s passion for programming. He now works for a large corporation in China. The Chinese boy in the US kept at his passion, and ended up creating a valuable technology company. He went on to create amazing things. This brief anecdote from Xu captures the educational differences between the two countries.
Another instance of little innovation in China is the rate at which cloning is present. Most Chinese companies are started by engineers, not by artists or designers, like Steve Jobs. This way of thinking is largely absent from China, which is why New Oriental Group sends students abroad to study. The engineers in China are not encouraged to use creative skills that would allow the creation of new ideas and designs. So, they copy products already on the market because it speeds up time to market. More recently though, Chinese citizens have been criticizing this technique. If this continues to happen, it will force Chinese companies to become innovators and leaders, rather than followers.
In Xu Xiaoping’s opinion, it will take China 20 years before innovation will take foothold in China – although, many large companies are setting up R&D buildings in China, such as 3M, Cargill, ExxonMobil, and IBM. The reason being is that “old-fashioned proximity is a crucial way of collecting market intelligence and responding quickly to customer demands.” Only time will tell if innovation will exist in China 20 years down the road. Changing a whole education system may not be feasible, but with pressure from companies entering the continent, it could definitely help inspire innovation.