China's 'Other' Innovation Gap

Now that China's 18th Party Congress has concluded, senior leaders have turned to the task of restructuring the Chinese economy. This effort will depend in part on how successfully China can create -- and not merely emulate -- new technologies. China's so-called "innovation gap," often attributed to an education system that stifles creativity, is widely believed to threaten the country's long-term economic competitiveness. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization's 2012 Global Innovation Index, China ranks 34st in the world in innovation, far lower than peers like the United States (10th) or the United Kingdom (5th).

But for a country to lead and prosper in the modern world, technology isn't the only area that requires creativity. Increasingly, foreign affairs commentators are arguing that flexible and inventive foreign policies are required to meet the challenges of an interconnected world. In a fast-changing global environment where crises and exigencies demand swift, adaptive action, China has exhibited clear inertia in its foreign policy, governed by default rules like "non-interference" and "sovereignty" that offer easy answers but unimaginative solutions. In an Americas Quarterly article entitled "Time for a Strategic Reset," Elizabeth Economy describes how the Chinese government's persistent clinging to its principle of non-interference hampered its ability to effectively deal with the crisis in Libya. "In the midst of such crises," she writes, "China often appears uncertain or locked into a policy position that doesn't reflect the reality of the situation." Similarly, on matters of territory, Evan Feigenbaum has described China's position as "rhetorically rigid, and, in practice, nearly always inflexible," even when strategic or economic interests are minimal.

The country's rigid, rule-bound foreign policy has been attributed to a number of causes, from problems of bureaucratic coordination to overhanging historic legacies -- all of which play an important explanatory role. But given the wide consensus around the educational roots of China's deficit in scientific innovation, it is surprising that no one has suggested a similar mechanism in statecraft. Is it possible that the Chinese educational system has contributed, at least in part, to an innovation gap in Chinese foreign policy?

This was a question I often found myself asking in 2011 while teaching at China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU), the "feeder" school to the Chinese diplomatic corps. Founded in 1955 under the guidance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, CFAU has produced more than 30 ministers and 200 ambassadors -- an impressive figure for a school whose total enrollment hovers at a mere 2,000 students. Of these, I taught 120 or so undergraduates, from junior international law majors to second-degree students in diplomacy.

For me, it was a year of conversation. Both in and outside the classroom, I would engage my students on everything from the wisdom of China's "soft power" offensive to the role of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in shaping Chinese foreign policy. There was much that impressed me in these conversations. With few exceptions, every argument my students made was steeped in a rich set of facts and figures. Their command of geography, too, was far-ranging, and their knowledge of world history -- though sometimes skewed by Party education -- far exceeded those of my peers in the United States.

But on analysis and argumentation, I often found their level of insight shallow and thin, reflecting an uncritical acceptance of the government line. In office hours one day, when I pushed one particularly bright diplomacy major on Chinese investments in Sudan despite international condemnation, he responded by doubling down on China's policy of non-interventionism. I asked him whether that was good policy, and he looked at me quizzically as if he had never once considered this. "It's the policy of our government," he finally responded, "I'm a patriot and I love my country, so of course I support its policy."

Indeed, my students were at times close-minded to the point where further debate seemed fruitless. It often felt as if a certain quadrant of their thinking was sealed off entirely from critical scrutiny. The cognitive dissonance was particularly jarring when, after delivering an astute and (painfully) on-target criticism of certain American foreign policies, they would retreat back into an uncritical nationalistic shell when Chinese policies came under attack. This contrasted sharply with my experiences at the public policy school I attended in the United States, where the principles underlying American policy were subject to constant interrogation. At Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, foreign policy was about debating rules, strategies, and principles. At CFAU, it was often a simple exercise in applying them.

On another occasion, during Japan's standoff with China over the captured Chinese fishing vessel in the disputed waters of the Diaoyutai (Senkaku) Islands, I asked my students whether they had ever considered Japan's legal and historical claim to the islands. It's a bad argument, one student responded, proceeding to recount the Chinese historical narrative justifying possession. "What if we discovered some hidden historical document that unequivocally supported Japan's claim to the islands?" I asked. "What then?" The class fell silent. "That just wouldn't happen," another student concluded. "The islands obviously belong to China. What you're talking about is an impossibility."

Cognitive rigidity of this sort can be traced to two aspects of the Chinese education system. First, a curriculum that emphasizes rote memorization, which is frequently cited as a major source of China's innovation gap in science and technology, does much to stifle creative thinking in general. Students spend the totality of their pre-college education preparing for one exam -- the dreaded gaokao -- which rewards the ability to mechanically apply rules and formulas, as opposed to fostering explorative or independent thinking. "What the Chinese are very good at doing is achieving short-term goals," says Jiang Xueqin, an administrator at one of China's top high schools, "They're good at copying things, not creating them."

Second, an educational culture that discourages curiosity is a natural partner to China's state-approved curriculum of political "patriotic education." From a very young age, Chinese students take courses that glorify the Communist Party of China, glossing over certain "sensitive" periods of modern history and inculcating a sense of nationalism that conflates love of country with love of Party. Over time, these narratives become embedded within an internalized belief system through which many Chinese youth view the world. Psychologists would characterize this as a distinct form of "social influence." Through this lens, any escalation in America's Asia presence is viewed as encirclement, any discussion of China's human rights record is seen as imperialism, and any criticism of Chinese foreign policy is seen as a tactical attempt to undercut Chinese interests.

In college, aspiring diplomats have these predispositions reinforced by hiring and promotion criteria that emphasize conformity. Though not a precondition, Party membership is considered a huge asset when students apply for positions in the foreign service. My Party-affiliated students had to attend regular "study sessions" that emphasized allegiance to Marxist-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and the Three Represents. Ideological control is so important that any Chinese student with a foreign bachelor's degree is disqualified from sitting the Foreign Service Examination.

Thus, by selecting for students who have been subjected to years of creativity-stifling political education, and then filtering them through further processes that gauge ideological fealty, China may be creating a generation of foreign policy elites who are systematically disinclined from challenging existing orthodoxies. This may be good for the short-term viability of the Party itself, but it could very well be contributing to the current and perhaps future deficit of creative Chinese leadership in a world whose challenges increasingly require it.