From Gunpowder to the Next Big Bang

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

November 4, 2005

BEIJING

There is a techie adage that goes like this: In China or Japan the nail that stands up gets hammered, while in Silicon Valley the nail that stands up drives a Ferrari and has stock options. Underlying that adage is a certain American confidence that whatever we lack in preparing our kids with strong fundamentals in math and science, we make up for by encouraging our best students to be independent, creative thinkers.

There is a lot of truth to that. Even the Chinese will tell you that they've been good at making the next new thing, and copying the next new thing, but not imagining the next new thing. That may be about to change. Confident that its best K-12 students will usually outperform America's in math and science, China is focusing on how to transform its classrooms so students become more innovative.

"Although we are enjoying a very fast growth of our economy, we own very little intellectual property," Wu Qidi, China's vice minister of education, told me. "We are so proud of China's four great inventions [in the past]: the compass, paper-making, printing and gunpowder. But in the following centuries we did not keep up that pace of invention. Those inventions fully prove what the Chinese people are capable of doing - so why not now? We need to get back to that nature." Nurturing more "creative thinking and entrepreneurship are the exact issues we are putting attention to today." But this bumps head-on against Chinese culture and politics, which still emphasize conformity.

But for how much longer? Check out Microsoft Research Asia, the research center Bill Gates set up in Beijing to draw on Chinese brainpower. In 1998, Microsoft gave IQ tests to some 2,000 top Chinese engineers and scientists and hired 20. Today it has 200 full-time Chinese researchers. Harry Shum, a Carnegie Mellon-trained computer engineer who runs the lab, has a very clear view of what Chinese innovators can do, given the right environment. The Siggraph convention is the premier global conference for computer graphics and interactive technologies. At Siggraph 2005, 98 papers were published from research institutes all over the world.

Nine of them - almost 10 percent - came from Microsoft's Chinese research center, beating out M.I.T. and Stanford. Dr. Shum said: "In 1999 we had one paper published. In 2000, we had one. In 2001, we had two. In 2002, we had four. In 2003 we had three. In 2004, we had five, and this year we are very lucky to have nine." Do you see a pattern?

In addition, Microsoft Beijing has contributed more than 100 new technologies for current Microsoft products - from the Xbox to Windows. That's a huge leap in seven years, although, outside the hothouses like Microsoft, China still has a way to go.

Dr. Shum said: "A Chinese journalist once asked me, 'Harry, tell me honestly, what is the difference between China and the U.S.? How far is China behind?' I joked, 'Well, you know, the difference between China high-tech and American high-tech is only three months - if you don't count creativity.' When I was a student in China 20 years ago, we didn't even know what was happening in the U.S. Now, anytime an M.I.T. guy puts up something on the Internet, students in China can absorb it in three months.

"But could someone here create it? That is a whole other issue. I learned mostly about how to do research right at Carnegie Mellon. ... Before you create anything new, you need to understand what is already there. Once you have this foundation, being creative can be trainable. China is building that foundation. So very soon, in 10 or 20 years, you will see a flood of top-quality research papers from China."

Once more original ideas emerge, though, China will need more venture capital and the rule of law to get them to market. "Some aspects of Chinese culture did not encourage independent thinking," Dr. Shum said. "But with venture capital coming into this country, it will definitely inspire a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs. I will be teaching a class at Tsinghua University next year on how to do technology-based ventures. ... You have technology in Chinese universities, but people don't know what to do with it - how to marketize it."

A few of his young Chinese inventors demonstrated their new products for me. I noticed that several of them had little granite trophies lined up on their shelves. I asked one of them, who had seven or eight blocks on her shelf, "What are those?" She said the researchers got them from Microsoft every time they invented something that got patented.

How do you say "Ferrari" in Chinese?