The argument usually goes something like this: China’s educational and social environment doesn’t nurture the same type of innovation and creativity as in the West. Students grow up pouring over books and memorizing thousands of ratios, formulas, and the odd classical poem. They take the Gaokao, endure university, and end up in the civil service if they’re lucky, where they’ll slowly earn a paunch at the baijiu banquets, and work their way up before retiring on a juicy pension.
There is seemingly no room for out-of-the-box, off-the-wall thought. The type of thought that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, John McAfee (pre-Belizean nightmare), and Henry Ford all had because in China, as the argument goes; risk is not rewarded, nor is daring to be different.
Hence, the theory that Chinese innovation can’t thrive; China is an imitator, not an originator. It doesn’t have an Apple, but it has a dozen sub-Apples, each with more worms than the last. It doesn’t have a Steve Jobs, but it does have Lei Jun, billionaire co-founder of Xiaomi smartphones, who appears publicly at rock-concert-styled product launches in dark t-shirts (a la Steve Jobs).
This argument is pervasive in some academic and political circles, but does it carry weight? What does Chinese innovation look like? And will China ever produce a product to rival the best of the West?
Chinese innovation needs a change in education
“Of course, in a population of 1.3 billion, there are many brilliant Chinese. Smarter than Steve Jobs, even,” says Austin Qie, founder of job-training website, wyzc.com which stands for “我赢职场” and translates roughly to “winning at the job market.”
He went on to say, “The problem, the main problem, is education…not just elementary school, but university [too]. Students aren’t studying useful things. They aren’t studying what they need for the job market, so what they end up with are skills they can’t use, that no one [in society] can use.”
Qie’s website teaches IT skills like app design, programming, and coding, and upon graduation helps match students to China’s tech companies. Though it might seem like a leap of logic, Qie believes that without an education geared towards real, practical skills, China will suffer from innovative malaise as students “learn nonsense knowledge” that won’t help them create the next Xbox or lend them the creativity to write the next Gangnam Style.
Shaun Rein, founder of Shanghai-based China Market Research Group is an outspoken advocate of Qie’s view. In an article he wrote for Forbes last June, he argued that China’s test-focused educational system drains students of their creativity and initiative, and is ultimately poisonous to society: “Chinese parents are acutely aware that the Chinese educational system focuses too much on rote memorization and doesn’t give students enough training in morality and extracurricular activity. Prepping students to get high test scores does not translate into teaching them to think critically,” Rein wrote.
However, educational change alone might not be enough to jolt the status quo. “Our society has too many barriers to creativity [the government not withstanding],” Qie said. “The same thought patterns that one generation had is passed to the next, and the next…and so on. Until something is done to disrupt this, it will be hard [to innovate].”
Xiaomi’s smartphones: Is it an example of innovation?
One Chinese company that has made ripples recently is Lei Jun’s Xiaomi, which was founded in 2010 by a team of seven experienced tech entrepreneurs led by Lei. The Beijing-based company’s cut-rate, high-spec phones have gained a cult following, with online product launches selling out in minutes and analysts gushing about a recent $10 billion valuation (with $4 billion expected in 2013 revenue and expected sales of 20 million phones). In the second quarter, Android-powered Xiaomi surpassed Apple to control five percent of China’s lucrative smartphone market and according to consultancy IDC Xiaomi is expected to grow to 360 million shipments by 2013.
Where Xiaomi smartphones have excelled is in catering to China’s price-sensitive consumers. Its current phones, the more advanced of which stack up favorably against Samsung’s Galaxy Series, are priced between 799-1799 RMB, compared to at least 4,000 RMB for high-end models from Samsung and Apple. In September, Apple’s vaunted launch of a 4,488 RMB “budget” model, the 5c, was met with only tepid fanfare in the Chinese market. In contrast, Xiaomi’s budget model, the HongMi (Red Rice), priced at 799 RMB, sold 100,000 units within two minutes of launching, according to Xiaomi’s Twitter account.
Even with Xiaomi’s blistering advance, there are questions about how truly “innovative” the company is (its early offerings were especially “iPhonesque,” and the English interfaces are often Saved-by-the-Bell-Era clunky). Hoping to shore up these doubts and make inroads in the international market, the company earlier this month hired Hugo Barra, the ex-Android heat at Google, to lead the company’s Global Expansion team.
Whether or not they’ll succeed in tapping into markets outside of China, Austin Qie applauds their effort and thinks more Chinese companies and entrepreneurs should learn from Xiaomi. “They [Xiaomi] don’t just wait for someone like Apple to do something and copy,” Qie says, adding that many other Chinese tech firms still fit this mold. “Instead, they are thinking ahead, always thinking.” This, Qie says, is the mark of innovation.