Why China Has to Steal Technology

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Ms. Klinghoffer is senior associate scholar at the Political Science department at Rutgers University, Camden, and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East. She is also an HNN blogger. Click here for her blog.

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There is no entry for China in Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy. Pity. For the violence and the timing of the Anti-Japanese demonstrations (justifiable as they are) as well as the Japanese Prime Minister’s apologetic response to those demonstrations clearly illustrates Sharanky’s central argument:

Now we can see why nondemocratic regimes imperil the security of the world. They stay in power by controlling their populations. This control invariably required an increasing amount of repression. To justify this repression and maintain internal stability, external enemies must be manufactured. The result is that while the mechanics of democracy make democracies inherently peaceful, the mechanics of tyranny make nondemocracies inherently belligerent. Indeed, in order to avoid collapsing from within, fear societies must maintain a perpetual state of conflict. (p. 88)

Indeed, the anti-Japanese demonstrations have served China in the same manner anti-Israeli demonstrations have served Arab countries. It serves as a political safety valve, a warning that a chaotic China is the last thing a world focused on remaking the Middle East needs and most importantly, as a weapon of mass distraction. The last time Chinese students were permitted/encouraged to indulge in behavior which threatens the Communist Party’s much cherished promise of “social stability” was in 1999 after the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Then, the West was busy in remaking the Balkans and the anti-American demonstrations helped the Chinese government to distract attention from the 10th anniversary of the military crackdown on pro-democracy student rallies at Tiananmen Square. Now, the West is busy remaking the Middle East and the demonstrations help distract attention from the disastrous consequences of the recent passage of the Anti-Secession Law.

The passage of that law not only caused Japan to move visibly closer to the United States but it forced the EU to follow the Japanese example. In an article entitled “ China row shows how little EU cares for democracy” theTelegraphwrites:

Having hurtled to the edge of the cliff, Europe's leaders have paused on the brink. Last year, they decided in principle to lift the arms embargo on China; now they are agonizing over when and how to do so. Perhaps they have finally woken up to the magnitude of what they are proposing. Unusually, their actions could for once have real and calamitous consequences. In the wider world, it does not much matter whether Cuban dissidents are invited to EU embassy functions, or whether Iraqi recruits are trained by European policemen. But the purchase of lethal arms by Beijing is of more than diplomatic significance.

Stung by such criticism the European Parliament passed a nonbinding vote of 431-85, with 31 abstentions to keep the embargo in place. To add insult to injury, the EU assembly did not merely express its ``deepest concern (at the) large number of missiles in southern China aimed across the Taiwan Straits'' and about the recently adopted anti-secession law empowering China to use force to rein in Taiwan.” It went on to call Taiwan ``a model of democracy for the whole of China," and its regret that Europe's ties with Beijing were only progressing in terms of"trade and economic fields, without any substantial achievement as regards human rights and democracy issues." The negative comparison to Taiwan merely added salt to the injuries caused by the EU decision not to treat China as a normal country and not to provide it with the cutting edge technologies she needs to win the high tech war against Taiwan as well as to keep its economic miracle going. In other words, China found itself on the wrong side of the tracks along with the Middle Eastern autocracies and throwbacks like Cuba. All in all, it seems that at least in principle the Europeans have decided on a Helsinki agreement type linkage policy which helped end Communist Party monopoly of power in the USSR.

But is China vulnerable to such a linkage policy? The short answer is yes because Communist China, like its Soviet predecessor, has hit the innovation roadblock. In his 1968 essay directed to his country’s leadership, the premier Soviet nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov warned “that a society that restricts intellectual freedom and prevents the free exchange of ideas would be unable to compete with societies that unleash the creative potential of their people.” He went on to compare the race between the US and the USSR to one between two cross country skiers traversing deep snow. If the dictatorships seem to be catching up fast, it is only because they follow in the tracks already smoothed out by democracies. Lack of freedom consigns “fear societies” to the role of followers, never leaders since “a fear society must parasitically feed off the resources of others to recharge its batteries.”

If Chinese military buildup is moving faster than some expected, it is because “European nations have been selling China hundreds of millions of dollars worth of dual use military equipment each year, but as long as the embargo is in force, explicitly military gear can only be sold under the table and smuggled in.” In “China’s Secret War,” Patrick Devenny, lays out the variety of ways China goes about acquiring the technologies it needs but cannot produce.

The degree to which the continued existence of the Chinese totalitarian system depends on continued democratic aid comes into particularly sharp focus in the following Washington Post report:"Web Censors In China Find Success":

Chinese authorities perform these tasks largely using U.S. hardware and software. For example, Cisco Systems Inc. routers, machines that move Internet traffic around, are capable of recognizing individual portions of data, a technology that helps battle worms and viruses. That same technology can be used to distinguish certain content.

Companies such as Cisco and Google Inc. have been accused of aiding China's censorship by tailoring their products to suit the government's needs. The study did not confirm those allegations, which the companies have denied.

According to the Economist, the Chinese problem even extends to the economic sphere as an article entitled “China's people problem” reveals: “The particular shortages mentioned most often are of creativity, of an aptitude for risk-taking and, above all, of an ability to manage—in everything from human resources and accounting to sales, distribution, branding and project-management.” Interestingly, just as the Soviet leadership was more aware of the problem than its Western counterparts, so is the Chinese leadership. Thus, Hu Jintau, general secretary of the Communist Party of China, identified “increasing the capabilities of innovation in science development” and rural development as the two central challenges facing China.

China is desperately hoping to find a way to institutionalize innovation which is based on risk taking without giving up significant control. Thus, in April 2000, Chinese and U.S. experts on management and innovation came together in Beijing on April 24 - 27 for the "China-U.S. Joint Conference on Technological innovation" sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. This most enlightening American embassy report on the conference reveals that the Chinese scientists are the most pessimistic about the regime’s chances of success:

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. Nobody believes in Marxism, said the scholar, it is just a slogan. Resources are wasted or used very inefficiently much more often in China than in the United States, said the scholar, because under socialism nobody plays the role of the owner who would see that resources are used efficiently. Local protectionism and the struggle between the center and localities are another source of great waste, the scholar said. For example, said the scholar, China has 186 different automobile companies -- many more than in other countries.

Recent developments in India have further strengthened these doubters. Paying the ”democratic price,” India is growing by a mere 6 percent as compared to China’s 10 percent growth rate, but it already enjoys the “democratic dividend,” the ability to innovate and develop cutting edge technologies as is evident from the fact that India already supplies software to Boeing and Lockheed. Thus Chinese premier Wen Jiabao began his recent visit to India in India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore, rather than in New Delhi and brought with him a new Chinese map that showed the disputed region of Sikkim as part of India. Indian may be enthralled by the speed of the Chinese development, but according to Somini Sengupta and Howard W. French, their Chinese counterparts are just as enthralled by Indian democracy:

For their part, mainstream Chinese intellectuals talk of India's advantages in democratic governance. For all of China's apparent strengths today, they say, future success may depend on democratic reform.

If China learns its lessons from India, it can succeed in democratizing in the future," said Pang Yongzhing, a professor of international relations at Nankai University in Tianjin.

India is a far more diverse country," he said, "a place with the second largest Muslim population in the world, and lots of ethnic minorities, and yet it organizes regular elections without conflict. China is 90 percent Han, so if India can conduct elections, so can China.

In other words, the democratic world must be steadfast in tying future technological cooperation with China to democratic reform. Once the Chinese military commnaders realize that the Communist party stands in the way of its becoming a first class army; the Chinese elites realize that the Party stands in their way to global respectability and the Chinese people realize that Party controls limits their economic growth and not only their political freedom, they will unite to overthrow the Party’s yoke. Nothing less than the future of Chinese liberty and world peace are in the balance.

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More Comments:

fernando carlo - 2/7/2010

its funny how you mention democracy and carl brings up an interesting point. americans are so democratic and pro democracy that they have to rig elections. in the case of ho chi min, the americans canceled the election, but there are many other times where the u.s. will allow guys like ho to get elected and then assasinate them. now thats what i call true democracy. if you dont like the elected govt, just assasinate them, or stage a coup.
also with japan, things havent changed much. today, they are the 4th or 5th largest military spender in the world. kind of scary, considering they dont have offensive military force. this means they spend most of their money researching weapons and would probably make the best in the world.
i know for a fact that if america had an opportunity to steal chinese technology, theyd do it in a heart beat. in fact, we have seen this before, where america has to resort to underhanded cheating methods to get ahead by selling opium to china when it had nothing to offer china in terms of trade. china may be selling some dodgy products to the u.s., but at least they werent trying to purposely poison its people, as america and europe had done to it.

Carl Uebelhart - 7/29/2005

I'd buy Arnold's correction. If I recall correctly the contra's in Nicaragua we funded were fighting against a democratically elected communist government. Similarly Ho Chi Minh enjoyed such popular support that the US cancelled elections in Southern Vietnam before the war as he would have been democratically elected and installed puppets (we also turned our back at him after Wilson's 14 points and later after WW2 when he appealed to the West for self-governance). Somewhat similarly we provided assistance after the fact to the military coup in Indonesia against an elected leader (Suharto vs. Sukarno) - one that ended up with at least half a million members of the PKI party massacred, and gave the green light for him to invade East Timor (State dept transcripts released in late 90s by FOIA). Perhaps our perception of the USSR during the cold war made some these and other anti-democratic impulses understandable, but it's still there.

I find it interesting that you say anti-japanese protests are justified (they are a democratic country, and should therefore be peaceable). In the 1980s Japan as % of GDP was the third largest military spender in the world, the US was first, and the rest of Western Europe was under them. Not really pertinent to where you went, though somewhat related.

One thing to remember is despite all the hype about China, in many ways it is still a developing country. Average per capita GDP is a little over US$1,000 adjusted for PPP you can increase that a few times but still nowhere near the levels of the West. The civil warring in the early part of the last century and then Maos closed door policy kept them behind and they are playing catch up - there is a strong entrepreneurial drive in the country but if they can borrow or steal tech it makes sense. I'd check the level of IP problems in other developing countries (including India) before assigning it to soley the government. re: India, they have a booming IT/IS sector but not much else, where China started with more manufacturing... I wouldn't base India being more innovative because they have more coding contracts, apples vs oranges.

China does have a lack of a strong educational system, rule of law, fear of government that surely infringes on innovation, but I don't think it is as dire as you make it out to be. Again most developing countries are looking for increased innovation. :) Not to mention the peaceful and highly globalized (and economically liberal) countries of Singapore and Hong Kong. Compare those to some struggling democratic countries in Africa.

I agree with what you are saying as a trend, but anything that trys to approach being a rule in IR runs into issues. And I'm not just trying to be a relativist. :p

Arnold Shcherban - 5/2/2005

Exclusively for "baffled": Belgium-Kongo-1960s.

Small correction: powerful democracies don't attack other COMPATIBLE democracies, but they do and will attack any form of democracy, if they render the latter incompatible, primarily in economic sense, to their-far- from-democratic-principles interests.

Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 5/1/2005

I understand (though disagree) with references to other countries mentioned by Shcherban, I must admit that the reference to Belgium baffled me. Who precisely did Belgiuma attack?
Democracies do not attack other democracies, tyrranies do. The best way to make the world both safe for democracy and peaceful is to democratize it. Since democracy (though far from perfect) is the best form of government man has yet invented, I can see the up side but not the downside in democratizing the world. As Sakharov suggested, never trust a govenment more than it trusts its own people.

Arnold Shcherban - 4/28/2005

Note: not to be taken as an apology to the deeds of the
totalitarian regimes.

If Ms. Klinghofer did not seriously mean what she preached, it would sound funny to any intelligent observer of history, but since she did, it was just one more reference to the obsolete dogmas of the Western civilization's mainstream intellectual thought.

She, eg. quotes Sharansky: <...external enemies must be manufactured. The result is that while the mechanics of democracy make democracies inherently peaceful, the mechanics of tyranny make nondemocracies inherently belligerent. Indeed, in order to avoid collapsing from within, fear societies must maintain a perpetual state of conflict.>
While, I might second Mr. Sharansky's references to totalitarian regimes in the discussed sense, the wholesale assertion of the inherent peacefulness of the
democractic regimes is nothing but an ahistorical fallacy.
Miriads of facts from the history of Western colonialism and imperialism roar with laughter at such childish, axiomatic interpretation.
E.g., since the US is surely one of the most, if not the most democratic country in the world, it follows that the US does never practice manufacturing of external enemies, correct?
On the same reason (being inherently peaceful) the US
must have never attacked any other country that did not pose any tangible threat to it or to any other democratic nation, correct?
I have five words for Ms. Klinghofer (just for starters): Vietnam, Cuba, Grenada, Panama, Iraq.
The comments are redundant...
Not mentioning the well-known "inherent peacefulness" of such democracies as UK, France, Belgium, and some other Western nations.
I would like to use this opportunity to remind Ms. Klinfhofer that on these boards she does not give cursory introduction to the nature of different socio-economic structures to JHS kids, but addresses more or less sophisticated historians.