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Chinese Netizens to Fiorina: You’re Right, We Don’t Innovate

Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and a declared Republican candidate for U.S. president, evidently has strong opinions about the capacities of Chinese people. “Yeah, the Chinese can take a test,” Fiorina told an Iowa-based video blog at an unspecified date, a statement later circulated by online outlet BuzzFeed [Note: Start the video above at 1:48]. “But what they can’t do is innovate, they’re not terribly imaginative, they’re not entrepreneurial … that’s why they’re stealing our intellectual property.” Putting aside the accuracy and defensibility of the statement, it’s remarkable to observe just how much support Fiorina’s statement has found inside China itself.

To some, Fiorina’s comment may sound offensive, particularly its broad-brush judgments of such a large population. And anyone who has walked Chinese streets and beheld the vast array of small businesses plying their wares would be hard-pressed to deny that many Chinese people are entrepreneurial. But the dig, translated into Chinese, somehow rings differently, echoing criticisms that young Chinese have been making of their own country—and their own education system—for quite some time.

In a May 28 discussion of Fiorina’s comments on Weibo, China’s biggest public social media platform, almost all of the most popular responses were, in some fashion, supportive. The most popular reads, “If this is called insulting China, then I must be drunk. What she said is after all a fact; the faults of Chinese education are manifesting more each day.”

To quote a Weibo user responding to Fiorina, ‘an imaginative answer is also a wrong answer.’

A particular bugaboo is the Chinese focus on tests, which dates back to an imperial examination system that started as early as the Han Dynasty, which ruled until around A.D. 220. Its modern incarnation, the gaokao college entrance exam, is a relatively meritocratic way to spot talent across a vast country. But it also emphasizes skills that may be less useful in the 21st century, particularly rote memorization; and the process of preparation for the test, which begins years ahead of time, is largely acknowledged to be a soul-sucking grind. As one user asked rhetorically, “With endless tests, where are we to find the time to innovate?” In April 2012, a provincial education official named Luo Chongmin became briefly famous online for proposing to abolish the gaokao altogether. “The testing system turns students into test-taking machines,” Luo complained, “and teachers into engineers making test-taking machines.” But nothing came of his proposal. And for now, to quote a Weibo user responding to Fiorina, “an imaginative answer is also a wrong answer.”

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Indeed, Chinese commenters appeared to agree they had the inherent capacity to innovate and imagine—but agreed their country’s current incentive structure disfavors both. For China’s numerous only children, on whom ride the hopes and dreams of two parents and two sets of grandparents, the pressure to get a stable job remains intense—“we can’t just be moochers off our parents,” as one Weibo commenter wrote. “It’s not imagination; it’s that if you give full play to your imagination, you won’t be able to test your way into anything,” wrote another. Even for those indifferent to material concerns, academic inquiry itself remains tightly circumscribed in certain disciplines, often at the behest of a government still highly wary of campus activism. This arguably creates an academic atmosphere without the reflection, debate, and questioning of authority required to nurture an innovative campus culture. “Do we dare to innovate?” another Weibo user asked. “I don’t want to be hauled in” in order to “drink tea”—slang for an early-stage interrogation of those who express opinions the government deems threatening.

Some argued that the status quo was the result of a particular juncture in China’s history. One user insisted, “In a large population like China’s that’s also rising, test-based education fits the current conditions. Otherwise society would become very disordered. Look at India [which has shown less explosive GDP growth than China since its own economic reforms in 1991], then look at us.” Another asked, “When the U.S. first set out, didn’t it plagiarize English and French IP?” One questioned whether U.S. education was any better. “American education also has big flaws, and high-level U.S. intellectuals are extremely worried about American education and admire the knowledge base that Chinese education provides. If students lack that foundation of knowledge,” then innovation can’t occur.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, some web users saw Fiorina’s comments as an insult. In a separate, smaller discussion thread, readers of state-run nationalist outlet Global Times lit into the Republican candidate. The most popular comment stated, “We’re good at taking tests, and not the best at innovating, I admit. But I think saying we steal your IP is a bit bitchy.” The second most popular (but apocryphal) comment joked, “Fiorina is so creative that the day she announced she was stepping down [as CEO], HP’s stock price rose 10 percent.” Another popular comment on that thread read, “Before an election, attacking China is an old talking point for American politicians. How uncreative! How lacking in imagination! Are you stealing someone else’s copyright [when you use] this argument?”

National pride aside, the question of creativity and innovation is one that clearly concerns Chinese authorities, who aim to turn China into a start-up friendly nation.

National pride aside, the question of creativity and innovation is one that clearly concerns Chinese authorities, who aim to turn China into a start-up friendly nation. As labor expenses in China soar, it will no longer work to act merely as a factory to the world; China must turn its economy toward advanced digital products and services. That’s why the government is pumping an increasing share of its GDP into research and development, hosting an annual nationwide start-up contest, and initiatives like “Made in China, 2025,” which seeks to move Chinese manufacturing into robotics and high-end machinery, announced in May.

That may not be enough. In February 2014, this author wrote an analysis for Foreign Policy in the wake of a National Science Foundation report that found China fast catching up to the United States in overall R&D spending, and exceeding the U.S. position in the number of graduates positioned to enter advanced research programs or jobs. The article was loaded with caveats about China’s problems with brain drain, rote learning at the early stages of education, and corruption in the university system. Nonetheless, when it was shared in Chinese cyberspace, it landed with a thud among disbelieving commenters, several of whom simply wrote: “Ha ha.” Another asked if April Fool’s Day had come early. “How much Chinese research isn’t garbage?” one asked rhetorically. “How much can truly be called innovation?”

In this context, it’s easy to see why Fiorina’s comment hit a nerve in China. Yet there’s a subtle distinction between longstanding internal critiques and Fiorina’s words. Although her quote was translated accurately, Chinese grammar does not clearly distinguish between the statement that someone “doesn’t innovate” and the statement that someone “isn’t innovative.” The first, many Chinese are quick to insist, is true. But the latter is a function of prevailing incentive structures and the social and political contexts in which they manifest. Those things are capable of change—and, many Chinese say, must, if the civilization that invented gunpowder, the compass, and paper is to reclaim its past glory. “The times move forward,” one popular comment argued, “and our culture needs to continue to develop off of the base of what we’ve inherited. We need to awaken to certain facts, rather than just picking up what our forebears have left us to use as a shield.”