The China Syndrome

by Don Willmott 

When I’m not worrying about my own petty problems I tend to
expand my focus and worry about much bigger things, such as global economic
trends and America’s
place in an increasingly dynamic and competitive world. Or to put it another
way, I wonder if China
is going to win. It crossed my mind last week when I read a much-forwarded
headline about Shanghai IT outsourcing company Bleum Inc. that was asking
potential hires from the ranks of American computer science grads to
demonstrate IQs of 125 or above. (Chinese students must hit 140). With a hiring
rate of 1 percent, they say, the company’s "tougher to get into than
Harvard."

The China SyndromeI also came across a fact-filled Computerworld article with
the chilling title of "Five
Reasons Why China Will Rule Tech
." Did you know, for example, that eight
of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau,
including the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, have engineering degrees? I sure
didn’t. Our leaders tend to be lawyers (just what we need), although we do have
one Nobel scientist in the President’s cabinet, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

China
also has the wherewithal to out-invest the U.S. whenever and however it wants.
This is an "unfair advantage" that pundits love to bellyache about. If
China wants 20,000 miles of
new highways or a train track to Tibet, it just rounds up the
workers and gets it done. If it wants to invest $5 billion in new solar
technology, it simply goes ahead and does it. No appropriations committees. No
votes. No debate. It’s utterly un-American, but it’s certainly efficient. Right
now China is investing twice
what the U.S.
is investing in clean energy. Why? Because it knows it should and because it
can.

This is where the question of technology jobs comes in. As
commentator Tina Brown rightly complained a few days ago on MSNBC’s Morning
Joe
, all that stimulus money the government is spending, $100 billion of
which is supposed to be earmarked for tech initiatives that will lead to the
creation of tech jobs
and keep America on the cutting edge of innovation,
seems bogged down somewhere in the bowels of Washington’s sclerotic
bureaucracy. If this is such a crisis, then why must things move so slowly? Why
do we sit around shuffling papers while China rolls out the bulldozers and
starts digging foundations for supercomputer centers, wind turbines, and solar
panel factories?

Then there’s China’s
other "unfair advantage": There’s more of them, and they study
harder. According to Computerworld, in 2005 China awarded 351,000 engineering degrees while
the U.S.
awarded 137,500. And China
seems to have a better sense of where the future is heading, with 42 percent of
all college undergrads in China
earning science or engineering degrees while only 2 percent of U.S.
ninth-grade boys and 1 percent of girls are on that track.

When I visited Tiananmen Square last fall, a few days before China’s 60th-anniversary
celebration, I encountered the two largest video screens I have ever seen. Each
one more than 100 feet long, they displayed dazzling patriotic videos that
stopped me in my tracks. Noticing a sign on the bottom of the screens, I asked
my Chinese colleague what it said. His answer: "Designed and made in China."

We’ve already lost our manufacturing jobs, and now, with all those Chinese
engineers thinking up the next great thing, we’re in danger of losing our
innovation lead as well. Who knows? When the next great iPhone, or wind
turbine, or supercomputer,
or car eventually comes along, it may not just be made in China. It may
be designed there too. It seems to me we need to stop obsessing about all of China’s unfair
advantages and just get to work. Too bad I didn’t pay more attention during
calculus class.

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