Can China Innovate Without Dissent?

ITHACA, N.Y. — Will China achieve technological dominance over the United States, surpassing us in scientific and engineering innovation?

A lot of people seem to think so. China’s recent landing of an unmanned spacecraft on the Moon, its advances in renewable energies and high-speed rail, its increasing number of patent filings and its vast spending on research and development have contributed to a perception — held across much of the world, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last summer — that China is poised to overtake America as the world’s leading power, if it hasn’t already done so.

Concern that China — home of landmark innovations like printing and gunpowder — might reclaim its legacy as a land of invention is voiced at even the highest levels of the American government. In 2011, Steven Chu, the energy secretary at the time and a Nobel-winning physicist, remarked on China’s dominance in the production of low-cost solar-energy cells, urging, “We really can and should take back this technology lead.”

{josquote}Almost all the paradigm-shifting innovations over the past few hundred years ... have emerged in countries with relatively high levels of political and intellectual liberty.{/josquote}

Americans shouldn’t be so worried. Yes, China has demonstrated skill in moving to higher-value manufacturing, and excelled at improving existing technologies, while producing them more cheaply. But it has not excelled in true innovation. (The first modern solar cell was invented in the United States.)

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