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How China is using Silicon Valley Will CCP bureaucrats triumph over Western free thinkers?

China will break the West's tech monopoly. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

China will break the West's tech monopoly. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images


July 4, 2024   6 mins

Up until the 16th century, China was the most technologically advanced region in the world. While aristocrats ruled Europe, China’s meritocratic literati made exquisite scientific discoveries: gunpowder, the compass, papermaking and printing, among others. Now, China hopes to return to its golden era, with the Chinese state once again fixated on science and technology.

Already, China is unnerving American and European policymakers with its relentless supply of Electric Vehicles. But the EV boom is a symptom of a broader trend, and Beijing is busy masterminding similar revolutions in the fields of electric planes and medicine.

So is China the future of science? The numbers alone are intimidating. There are currently nearly 50 million diligent Chinese students at college today. In 2025, 77,000 STEM PhDs will graduate from China’s universities. Most of these graduates will spend their lives pursuing state-funded research within Chinese institutions. They will be given everything that they need to make scientific breakthroughs.

Yet their success isn’t inevitable. The technological advances that drove Chinese prosperity and civilisation came to an end in 1500AD, giving rise to Cambridge polymath Joseph Needham’s question: “Why did modern science… with all its implications for advanced technology… not develop in Chinese civilisation” which, in previous centuries, “was much more efficient” when it came to applying natural knowledge to practical needs?

In China, debating this question is a parlour game. Many plausibly suggest that the printing-press resistant nature of Chinese characters hindered the spread of mass literacy. Others argue that the nature of China’s educational system, so good at teaching what is known, doesn’t leave enough room for the unknown. And some feel that China’s greatest scientific minds gave up trying because there seemed to be nowhere else to go.

Today, with China’s re-emergence as a scientific superpower, Needham’s question has been revived. Yet even as China builds massive new industries on the back of technological breakthroughs — in batteries, for instance, or telecoms technology — some in the West continue to claim that China cannot innovate due to the nature of its social structure. This seems at odds with the empirical realities of scientific research, as well as China’s lived reality — in many ways, from transport to finance, Chinese society is far more infused with technology than most G7 countries. Most urban Chinese live in cities whose size and technological sophistication rivals or exceeds that of London or New York.

Already, it seems that China’s state-led approach is working. It has, for instance, been highly successful in nurturing China’s Electric Vehicle industry. Why else would the European Union threaten China with EV tariffs of up to 38%? But Beijing’s strategy doesn’t always work: it is far less effective in fields such as AI and life sciences than in physics and engineering.

What explains this apparent inconsistency? Let us recall the Chinese bureaucrat and his English aristocratic counterpart. The founders of Nature, the world’s leading scientific journal, and those other eminent Victorians who did so much to drive the Industrial Revolution, existed in a humanistic and omnivorous intellectual world that was far less specialised than science is today. Western science was driven by brilliant amateurs long into the 20th century: in hindsight, Watson and Crick’s groundbreaking 1953 double helix paper looks more like the notes you take after a brilliant conversation during a drunken lunch, with the illustrations taken from the napkin you stuffed in your pocket. It certainly couldn’t be published today, and back then, it wasn’t even peer reviewed. Those were the days when science was the preserve of absent-minded gentlemen slowly untangling the threads of the world.

The mental world of the English language scientist, from John Milton’s Lucifer to Charles Darwin, and on through to the Silicon Valley tech bros of the present day, is a world driven by insatiable curiosity, rather than state policy. This is why Lucifer is the sly hero of Paradise Lost; the quest for knowledge has always been prized above all else. It was natural for English political thinkers to see society as being a war of all against all, rather than a team effort led by one authority. The English mind “looks down on all that are haughty; it is king over all that are proud”.

These Englishmen were free thinkers precisely because they were landowners, with the time and resources to wander the world asking questions. These free-associative questions are at the heart of scientific breakthroughs, the zero to one of pure intuition. Today, these sorts of breakthroughs — the ones that ask basic questions about why the world is organised in the way that it is — are the preserve of American and, to a lesser extent, English scientific researchers, often those working at startups such as OpenAI rather than within academic institutions. In 2024, Stanford University dropped out of the Nature Index’s top 10 institutions by research output (of which seven are Chinese). That’s not because the researchers of Silicon Valley are losing their touch, but because they would rather win the war of all-against-all that is capitalist competition. They don’t bother to submit their work to Nature anymore — they’d rather go straight to venture capital offices on Sand Hill Road.

But money is not their sole motivation. Elon Musk is surely not indifferent to his fortune, but profit alone cannot explain his Promethean ambition, which resists the authority of America’s feeble government. In this light, it’s not surprising that many in Silicon Valley support Donald Trump. If all you dream about is pushing the boundaries of AI, Trump might appear attractive candidate, as he is less likely than Joe Biden to implement a wave of regulations. Either way, California’s tech bros aren’t cowed by the power of the state. Unlike in China, where the government is the sovereign, America’s true government is capitalism. If the Peter Thiels, Elon Musks and Balaji Srinivasans of the world see the White House as irrelevant and ineffective, who can blame them?

This libertarian, largely unregulated tangle of individuals is up against the state-run colossus that is Chinese science. The micromanaged industry is the offspring of thousands of years of the Chinese keju system, which chose elites based on meritocratic contests: who could memorise the rules most accurately? Unsurprisingly, these elites enforced, and revelled in, the contours of law. The Plan was everything; exile from the state was exile from life itself. (Most famous Chinese poets, from Qu Yuan to Li Bai to Su Dongpo, were fired from jobs as government ministers and took up poetry as a hobby; these men are the only true Chinese analogues to the English gentleman.)

Today, the Chinese system is enormous and fiercely competitive. But those who compare Chinese science to Soviet science are mistaken: their strengths are quite the opposite. The Soviet Union harboured creative figures, such as Vladimir Vernadsky and Nikolai Fedorov, who arguably came up with breakthrough concepts that erred on the side of wackiness, even as they found no structure or system to articulate and realise their work. The Soviets arguably invented the Internet, for instance, but never really scaled it; America’s big consumer market provided the opportunity for that. By contrast, the Chinese didn’t invent EV cars, solar panels or digital payment systems; they merely applied them at the massive scale of China.

For now, China’s skills lie in accelerating the improvement and driving down the prices of technologies others invented, to the point that they spark a global revolution. A comparison can be drawn with interwar German physics, which came to its high point in suburban California, Princeton and the deserts of New Mexico. The Chinese tend not to go from zero to one, rather, they go from one to 100.

“China’s skills lie in driving down the prices of technologies others invented, to the point that they spark a global revolution.”

It would be wrong, then, to suggest that Chinese research institutions in their current form will displace Silicon Valley anytime soon. Silicon Valley, Britain’s DeepMind and the biotech clusters near Boston and New York City aren’t really competing with the Chinese Academy of Science. Instead, these visionary individuals are imbibing large quantities of venture capital to create fantastic technologies with no clear commercial application (except for that lucky fraction that make it big time). The Chinese scientists are just completing their homework, using Western creations to solve the problems facing China’s population — whether that’s in the realm of healthcare, cheap energy and food, or preventative adaptation to climate change. In formal terms, one is basic science, the other, applied science.

Eventually, as termites attack a home, the Chinese ability to make inexpensive and high-quality analogues to the products of American stock market champions will undermine the capitalist system’s ability to generate and circulate capital. China will develop products for its own use, and export those products, eliminating the aristocratic monopoly of the West on biotech, high-end manufacturing, computing and all the rest. As the West reacts by seeking to restrain Chinese scientific advances, we will find ourselves rephrasing the Needham question:

Why did China advance so quickly in science in the 21st century?

Because we told them that they could not, and that they should remain inferior.

The lumbering behemoth of China’s state is mobilising, and even though the eccentric visionaries — the latter-day Vernadskys and Fedorovs — will emerge in the United States, China’s vast consumer market will see technology used and applied at a scale that has never been seen before. That is, until Beijing exports it all across the global south. The Electric Vehicle revolution is only the start.


Jacob Dreyer is a writer and editor based in Shanghai who writes for the New York Times, NOEMA, Nature, South China Morning Post and others.


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Point of Information
Point of Information
12 days ago

“…and those other eminent Victorians who did so much to drive the Industrial Revolution”.

Georgians.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
13 days ago

I’m old enough to remember when the same was being said about Japan, how its MITI-led well-organised system of financing and achieving objectives would leave the West in its wake etc. There were even the same tropes about Pure vs Applied science and how Japan wasn’t creative but was better at incremental improvement.
China has vast numbers of empty housing units that can’t be sold, and all the wasted resources and opportunity costs to the economy associated with that, and I wonder if the 77,000 STEM PhD’s graduating in one year isn’t merely a human resources version of the real estate problem.
If these scientists are that good then western companies can hire them. If they’re not, it’s oversupply.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
12 days ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

Well I’m old enough too, if I remember right the Japanese auto industry came close to annihilating the US auto industry at that time, Crysler got a bail out, GM and Ford were in trouble as well. Today Toyota, Honda, Nissan remain powerful global auto companies. The Japanese dominated in consumer electronics, TV’s , sound systems, games etc. Most of these companies remain global powerhouses despite increasing competition from South Korea and China. China was a backwater in 1980 still recovering from decades of Mao, but in 40 years they have made incredible progress, and they are only getting started. The Chinese have a strong work ethic , they value education and are very adaptive and disciplined people. They have an incredible ability to organize and get things done. They have built huge modern cities, infrastructure, and transportation, educational establishments , etc , all in a few decades. They are in a position to dominate the industries of the future including electric vehicles, batteries, and renewable energy and many other fields. While Americans are focused on culture wars and internal division which is only harming their future, China will continue to sail ahead.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
12 days ago
Reply to  Dave Canuck

Absolutely, and I completely agree about the cultural advantages. You could say the same about the Japanese. However, a lot of Japan’s apparent success was also down to financial engineering that blew up big time, and you wonder whether the CCP will be able keep their financial show on the road through sheer force of will, especially given a declining population and what may turn out to be industrial overcapacity.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
10 days ago
Reply to  Dave Canuck

No, demographically they will implode.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
12 days ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

A few years ago I worked as a software engineer for a commodity trading company that was trying to make money out of renewable electricity, which is very hard, so you need a lot of clever meteorologists and physicists (they had more doctors than a large teaching hospital!)
They hired one Chinese guy that on paper looked incredible 5 years post-doctoral research in Chinese university, with another 5 in business.
He was gone within 6 weeks because he couldn’t seem to apply his big brain to any real-world problems.
Obviously you can’t extrapolate from a sample size of 1, but you have to wonder about the quality of those 77,000 PhD’s they’re churning out.

Brian Kneebone
Brian Kneebone
13 days ago

The magnetic compass; moveable type; gunpowder; paper currency; the umbrella; the wheel barrow (?); ship bulkheads; maybe a few more. Not that much for a large country with a 5000 year history. Maybe something of an under achiever.

Perhaps poor little Scotland could rack up a list of inventions achieved over a few centuries, that equals or even surpasses that of China.

The future will be different, the past doesn’t guarantee what that will be.

Tomorrow, who knows!

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
12 days ago

Interesting. China doesn’t have to worry about acquiring intellectual property, they have been doing a fabulous job of stealing, demanding access to technical information if you want to do business in China, and buying off the biggest “Tech Bros” in Silicon Valley. After all, the phrase “the capitalists will sell us the rope we hang them with” is more true than ever .

Martin M
Martin M
13 days ago

What explains this apparent inconsistency? Let us recall the Chinese bureaucrat and his English aristocratic counterpart.
Historically, they are actually quite similar. The Chinese bureaucrat got his position due to his diligent study of Confucian Classics, and worked his way up to being a Mandarin. The British bureaucrat got his position by studying Classics at Oxford or Cambridge, and once he had ascended to the senior ranks, he was referred to as a “Mandarin”.

A D Kent
A D Kent
13 days ago

 The Economist recently published a piece on Chinese scientific development using the number of publications in prestige journals as an indicator of scientific output (it’s how the Neoliberal West have decided to measure this nowaday so why not) – and the Chinese are indeed powering ahead – and good for them.

The US ‘Libertarian’ tech overlords are all about restricting the power of the State, just as long as that State funds most of the basic research, trains their workers and, most importantly to them, makes sure their patents aren’t infringed and their lavish rental incomes disrupted.

For the globe in the long-run I think the CPC’s approach will almost certainly be more productive, but time will metell.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
10 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I think you’re dead wrong. People work best for themselves.

Peter B
Peter B
13 days ago

“They will be given everything that they need to make scientific breakthroughs.”
No they won’t.
They won’t be allowed to fully think for themselves, question the official line or go against the CCP ideology.
Innovation happens best and fastest when free-thinkers, iconoclasts, oddballs and loose cannons are allowed to come up with new ideas – most bad, but a few brilliant.
If your career – and sometimes life – depend on not offending those in authority, you can be certain that you’ll see less innovation.
The author should ask himself why the most talented engineers (and yes, engineers do “applied science” – despite his claims to the contrary) from all over the world flock to Silicon Valley and not China.
The idea that the Soviet Union could ever have had an internet is laughable. You can’t have an internet in a society of mass censorship and surveillance.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
12 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Pretty much my thoughts exactly. The scientific breakthroughs that power the 21st century originated where people have the freedom and capacity to take leaps of imagination. The entire social structure of Chinese society appears to be geared towards stifling imagination and imaginative effort.

vl hc
vl hc
12 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

You can say there are 2 genders in China without getting fired, say that in the US and your career is over. China produces the most original AI research on the planet while Google spends so much effort keeping their AI woke it’s become a joke.

And no the most talented engineers do not go to the US, half of the planet’s top AI researchers are in China and Chinese universities dominate Nature Index. You just feel talents go to the US because US is incapable of producing talent and the few that goes seem the most talented in the land.

At end of the day ignorance isn’t strength, while Chinese science and technology is now dominating almost every field, Americans are still reciting decades old dogma about creative thinking without any sense of irony. While China has the sheer numbers to win even with all else equal, all else isn’t equal and China’s biggest advantage is, ironically, not being shackled by doctrine and lack of imagination.

Peter B
Peter B
12 days ago
Reply to  vl hc

What utter nonsense.
Have you ever been to Silicon Valley ? Are you aware how many major US tech companies are led by immigrants from India and ethnic Chinese ?
By the way, how did the Chinese Covid vaccines work out for them ? Was that why they were first into Covid and last out ?
And you don’t win in science and technology by “sheer numbers”. You are confusing quantity with quality.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
12 days ago
Reply to  vl hc

Who is saying the Chinese produce the most ground breaking AI research? I don’t believe any of the most recent major advancements were done by the Chinese (which isn’t to say there weren’t Chinese individuals participating in those projects). From what I’ve gathered from reading the literature is that most of the major advancements are indeed from the west.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
12 days ago

It has, for instance, been highly successful in nurturing China’s Electric Vehicle industry. Why else would the European Union threaten China with EV tariffs of up to 38%?
Because the EU wants it both ways, that’s why else. Brussels wants to perpetuate the fantasy of an all-electric fleet but also expects its cronies to profit from it, not someone else’s cronies. It’s protectionism, not principle.
The China envisioned here is wildly at odds with the stifling environment in which the country exists. One is “free” to innovate only to the level that the CCP will allow it. Beijing is and has been perfectly willing to steal Western technology or to co-opt Western leaders into working on China’s behalf.

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
12 days ago

Most modern states were built on protectionism while giving space and freedom to strange and beautiful minds who thought differently. Open your phone and trace where all the parts were really invented and its almost 100% the public sector, often cold war era and DARPA-funded. In a way we live in a world of commercialized cold war technology. Competition with the Soviets incentivised the state to invest in research and also very high quality universal education.
After the late 70s the Soviets lost their momentum and the West embraced neoliberalism, which changed everything. This is also where the Chinese got their true leap forwards because we exported our productive base to them. In my opinion, our capacity to truly innovate has diminished since then. Universities are run like bureaucratic companies, where scientists are subjected to targets and unstable contracts. Bad places for the many brilliant minds. Research shows that, even though we publish much more, the number of high-impact papers has fallen since the 70s in many sectors.
Big tech and start-up culture has brought us interesten technology but some of it is also low hanging fruit. Someone like Zuckerberg just made a website at the right place at the right time. A bit of PHP, back in the day, many intelligent teenagers were able to do this. Many of the big tech ‘geniuses’ cannot really be compared to the Bell Labs scientists who truly laid the foundations for the digital revolution. AI might be similar. It seems complicated but open source is really not far behind commercial solutions and GPU parks can be found in the cloud. Surely, the Chinese can easily copy this. It shows the problem of the West, we can mostly innovate in the virtual space. Or worse, what we call innovation is just financial speculation. We cannot actually build much anymore because, well, the Chinese have to do that for us.
And as for ‘libertarians’ like Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, they are still very much dependent on the state. Sometimes through direct subsidies, yes. But the dirty secret behind venture capital and other financial behemoths is that they are essentially swimming in public central bank money, especially since 2008. That is also why making profits any time soon isn’t even that important in that world anymore. We more or less already moved beyond capitalism in quite a few ways.

John Riordan
John Riordan
9 days ago

The article makes two large conclusions towards the end that seem to me to be somewhat contradictory. If China doesn’t develop an innovative capacity that equals the USA and to a lesser extent the same UK and European capacity, then it can hardly undercut the West’s capitalist model that rests upon continued innovation. Or is the article arguing that the West will continue innovating, China will keep nicking the resulting intellectual property and making all the money from selling the resulting products and services globally, and that’s going to be that?

I doubt it.

M To the Tea
M To the Tea
12 days ago

well selling human capital and stealing continents was lucrative so yes…Europeans had a great beginning!