Zheng Yongnian on Openness, Market of ideas, and Scientific Innovation
"China should expand its opening, even unilaterally; try to create an atmosphere of communication & accumulate trust in cooperation, and it should honestly & faithfully implement its attitudes"
Professor Zheng Yongnian, currently Presidential Chair Professor and the Founding Director of the Institute for International Affairs, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen (CUHK-Shenzhen), is among the highest-profile commentators domestically with a large audience.
One of the constant themes of the Princeton-trained political scientist and former director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore, is the importance of China’s continued openness to the rest of the world.
In September, Pekingnology translated Zheng’s thinly-veiled criticism against an article by a state research institution that is widely understood as providing some justification for the "closed-door policy" during China’s Ming and Qing dynasties.
On December 8, at the 2022 Greater Bay Area Science Forum, Zheng spoke about 开放、思想市场与科技创新 Openness, Market of ideas, and Scientific Innovation. An institute Zheng heads published an article based on his speech.
Before sharing our translation of the article, here are a few observations:
Zheng started his speech by citing the 中国式现代化 “Chinese path to modernization,” a key theme of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October.
As with many, if not most, of Chinese political concepts, the “Chinese path to modernization” is an open-ended conceptualization, and it is fairly new. For the most shrewd operators in the Chinese mainland context, the most effective tactic in the early period of a significant conceptualization is to openly embrace it while trying to publicly share their “understanding” of the concept - in effect, a way to shape the public discourse in the conceptualization while it is still an on-going process.
That’s what exactly Zheng - and other politically shrewd public intellectuals - did.
In sharing his views on the “Chinese path to modernization,” Zheng proposed that reform, openness, and innovation are what he believes to be the “three magic weapons” of the “Chinese path to modernization.”
Seasoned China watchers are perhaps aware that the CPC had its own summary of the “three magic weapons” of its revolutionary times. By adopting the same name, Zheng again shows how adept he is at shaping public discourse while remaining in the good graces of the powers that be.
Once he pivoted to reform, openness, and innovation (which is the theme of the forum he is speaking at), Zheng elaborated on why he believes China’s continued openness is the key by citing China’s own progress since its 1978 reform and opening up, saying that the success of the U.S. came from openness, and rationalizing that the failure of the Soviet Union was due in large part to its closed system. He also said even if China made some breakthroughs before its reform and opening up, China needs to admit the process was costly and painful.
After highlighting the utmost importance of openness, Zheng went on to say China’s indigenous innovation cannot take place independently of the West.
He didn’t mince his words when saying there are two current schools of thought on the issue, and he was in favor of the more open-minded view over the nationalist, populist view which maintains, basically, “China can do it alone.”
China’s achievements are, to a large extent, dependent on the global market and advanced Western technology, and China’s future achievements will still require these elements
Zheng ridiculed the view that whatever happens, China always wins or win-win in China means China wins twice, by saying 也有人在故意搞民粹主义式民族主义 some people deliberately play up nationalism by way of populism. That’s quite a serious jab in a public forum.
A summary of his key message is perhaps, in his own words
China should expand its opening, even unilaterally; it should try to create an atmosphere of communication and accumulate trust in cooperation, and it should honestly and faithfully implement its attitudes to the benefit of both sides.
I hope the observations can help understand how shrewd and progressive public intellectuals conduct their discourse in China. Too often, people - including Chinese observers - read some citations of the Party’s familiar terms and hastily conclude, “okay, this is another hollow piece of propaganda.”
That would be missing or misunderstanding the intended message. Participating in, which in effect is trying to shape, the public discourse requires a unique and rare skillset of framing your point within a given theme or conceptualization. Those themes or concepts, on many occasions, are open to different but detailed interpretations, and that’s the room to maneuver.
All the emphasis below are by Pekingnology.
(Credit: the WeChat blog of the institute Zheng heads.)
Zheng Yongnian: Openness, Market of Ideas, and Scientific Innovation
The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which has just concluded, proposed the “Chinese path to modernization,” which will be achieved in two steps: the first step is to basically realize socialist modernization by 2035, and the second step is to realize socialist modernization in all aspects by 2050. So, how do we want to achieve the “Chinese path to modernization”? I think it is through high-quality development.
At the end of 2021, China’s GDP per capita is US$12,000, which is still a long way from Taiwan, China, the last of the “Four Asian Tigers,” whose GDP per capita is estimated to be at least US$27,000. Our GDP per capita still has a long way to go to catch up with Taiwan, China, not to mention our comparison with the other economies of the “Four Asian Tigers”: Singapore’s GDP per capita is already close to $70,000. Our path of rapid economic expansion in scale has ended today, and we can only replace it with high-quality development.
What is meant by high-quality development? The report of the 20th National Congress spent many paragraphs on science, education, innovation, and talent and emphasized that “technology is the first productive force, talent is the first resource, and innovation is the first driving force.” In Deng Xiaoping’s time, we said, “development is the hard truth,” and now we say, “development is the first priority.” Both mean the same thing. Today, we talk about innovation for the sake of sustainable development. From China’s experience, only sustainable reform and opening up can lead to development, and only development can lead to a future of the “Chinese path to modernization.” Therefore, I recently proposed a new concept that we need a third “hundred years.” We already have the first hundred years, that of the founding of the Party, and the second hundred years, that of the country’s founding. The third hundred years that I propose is a century of reform and opening up.
The Three Magic Weapons to the Chinese path to modernization
How to achieve sustainable development leading to the future? During the Chinese revolutionary period, the Communist Party of China had three “magic weapons” that won the Chinese revolution: the united front, the armed struggle, and the leadership of the Communist Party of China. The Chinese path to modernization also needs new “three magic weapons,” which I summarize as reform, openness, and innovation. Of the three, openness is the most important. We have been promoting reform by opening up for the past decades. Reform is the need of any country, but reform is also challenging. Where does the impetus for reform come from? Often greater openness pushes reform, which was the case with Japan’s Meiji Restoration and China’s reform and opening up. Similarly, innovation requires openness, and without openness, there is no innovation.
I would like to use three examples to discuss “openness” to promote innovation.
The first example is China itself. A History of Chinese Science and Technology by Mr. Joseph Needham of Cambridge University provides a detailed history of China’s scientific and technological development. China’s science and technology during the Tang and Song dynasties were the most advanced in the world, especially during the Song dynasty when many of China’s technological inventions took place. However, when the rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties closed China to the rest of the world for various reasons, Europe pioneered the Age of Discovery, the Commercial Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. The closed-door policy made China lose the seas, fail to develop capitalism and miss the first wave of industrialization, which later proved to be extremely difficult to make up for after “missing” the opportunity of this era. It was more than a hundred years after the foundation of New China, when China was forced to open its doors during the Opium War, or the First Anglo-Chinese War, that China made up for this initial lesson in industrialization. During the 20 years from 1958 to 1978, after the hard struggle of the whole country, China established the basics of the first independent and relatively complete socialist industrial system. China completed industrialization and became the only country in the world with all industrial categories during its second opening, namely the reform and opening up. This experience shows that development in a closed environment will not go far, and there is a huge cost associated with closing up, so it is necessary to promote development by opening up.
The second example is the Soviet Union. How powerful the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, the first country in modern times to have a system of science and technology innovation that is characterized by state mobilization. The Soviet Union made an all-state effort to develop science and technology to compete with the West and made significant achievements in the early days, especially in the military industry, but eventually, it failed. The most important reason is it didn’t open up.
First, without openness, there would not be a market of ideas that scientific innovations needed, as people from different civilizations, cultures, and ideologies would argue and debate with each other, which would yield sparks in scientific innovation. In the beginning, the Soviet Union introduced a lot of technology from the West. Still, because of the lack of openness and the absence of a market for ideas, the incentive for innovation slowly dried up.
Second, without openness, there would be no market. Science and innovation require a lot of money, and investment in science and innovation must be rewarded in the market to achieve sustainable development. When the Soviet Union closed its doors to innovate on its own, its market was at best within the Warsaw Pact allies and some developing countries, like Vietnam and India. Thus, the Soviet Union was not defeated by others but by itself because it was not open.
The third example is the United States. Is the US strong because of its democratic and liberal institutions? The US was already strong before it achieved the democratic and liberal system that people see today, and one of the most important reasons for its strength is openness.
The US has many open systems, among which three are the most important: first, the US has an open enterprise sci-tech innovation system; second, the US has an open financial system; third, the US has an open science, education, and talent system. The US today has a global gathering of high-end talent. It was originally a country of immigrants. During and after World War I and II, the United States attracted many European scientists. It did not pay attention to basic scientific research before World War II; however, European scientists, including Albert Einstein, played a vital role in the growth of basic scientific research in the US. During the Cold War, the U.S. used talents from all over the world, including those who immigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, to compete with the Soviet Union and finally defeat it.
What is the situation we face today? The U.S. competes with China using talents from all over the world, including those who came to the U.S. from China. Since our reform and opening up, we have sent millions of talents to the U.S., and although many have returned to serve in China, most of the Chinese talents who have studied in the U.S. have stayed in the U.S. for various reasons. If China cannot compete with the U.S. for talent from around the world, what will we do to compete with it? In the past, the U.S. did not see us as a competitive target, but now the U.S. officially sees China as the only country capable of competing with the U.S. and has choked the neck of China at every turn. What do we do? That’s why we need to emphasize science and innovation.
Two Ideas for Technological Innovation
What happens if we don’t actively open up? China’s first opening occurred after the defeat in the two Opium Wars and was a passive opening. China’s second opening was proactive, allowing us to escape the trap of 封闭就要落后，落后就要挨打 “being closed means being backward, and being backward means being bullied.” Although the acceptance of China by the West was also an important factor in China’s successful entry into the world economic system, this opening was more of a one-way integration of China into the system led by the Western world. As Karl Marx said, capitalism has created significant wealth and given the West the power to dominate the world. This leadership is particularly evident in the fact that most of the rules currently in force in the world are set by developed Western countries, while China needs to constantly revise its domestic laws and regulations and reform its decision-making system in the process of “convergence” with the world to conform to the rules in force.
In the second opening-up process, China became a unilateral recipient in the negotiations with multiple international systems and had to revise itself in full accordance with the world’s established game rules. Although there were some unnecessary and excessively costly convergences, most were necessary and beneficial reforms, or what might be called 倒逼的改革 reforms forced by opening-up. It is difficult to imagine the success of China’s reforms without external pressure. Indeed, recently competition between countries has increasingly become the driving force behind national progress. Before the reform and opening up, China was an “outside” country (independent of the West-led system), and to join the system, it was necessary to converge with it, although convergence was not a “free lunch.”
However, China’s integration into the West-led world economy does not mean that China has become an “insider” country. Nowadays, China is still an “outsider” among the mainstream players in the world and is different from the West in terms of political system and ideology. Therefore, China’s “going out” can easily be interpreted as a provocation to the established rules, especially since China’s strength has increased significantly in the second opening, and it is considered a “vested beneficiary” in trade and an “intellectual property thief” in technology exchanges.
This is, in fact, the underlying logic of the outbreak of trade and technology disputes between China and the United States. Most of the West’s allegations are about China’s failure to fully comply with every aspect of the international rules established by the West. In other words, without rule-making power, it carries a passive rhythm and faces high costs and risks even if China takes the initiative to go out.
The difficulty of openness and integration in the world further demonstrates the importance of opening up. Science and technology is the first productive force, but the development of science and technology cannot be done behind closed doors. During the US-USSR Cold War, a strict technology blockade and arms embargo were imposed between the two closed military power blocs. Initially, around 1954, the Soviet Union provided China with varying degrees of assistance in cutting-edge military technologies, such as in aviation, missiles, and nuclear weapons, contributing to China’s rapid technological development.
After the breakdown of Sino-Soviet relations, the Soviet Union discontinued the provision to China, and China went through an extraordinarily long and lonely exploration. Although today we talk about this history and always emphasize “independence and self-reliance,” we must admit that this closed technological progress cost us a lot of money, and we paid a painful price. It must be realized that our great achievement of “two bombs and one satellite” can hardly be separated from the development of science and technology in the West. Without many patriotic intellectuals educated in the West, such as Qian Xuesen, who returned to China [from the U.S.], it would have taken much longer to develop the “two bombs and one satellite.”
Nowadays, Western countries are defensive, and they are attempting to decouple in various fields of science and technology, such as designing and manufacturing high-end chips, next-generation communication technologies, and many technologies that can be applied in the military field. Exchanges and cooperation with the West in these areas are becoming increasingly difficult
In this regard, there are two schools of thought in Chinese society.
The first is that we can develop all technologies independently, even if others block us. Some people rant, “whatever the Americans block us today, we will produce tomorrow.” Some people believe that even if we can’t do it for the moment, with the strengthening of our scientific research strength and the expansion of the consumer market, we would be able to make it and at a decreased cost. Therefore, we do not need to fear being secluded, and there is no need to make excessive concessions. The West’s opening to China is a win-win for both the West and China; the West’s closing to China is also a “win-win” situation: China wins twice. This view has a big audience in Chinese domestic society.
The second is that China’s achievements are, to a large extent, dependent on the global market and advanced Western technology, and China’s future achievements will still require these elements, even if the dependence on external factors will undoubtedly diminish. Therefore, at the moment, China should expand its opening, even unilaterally; it should try to create an atmosphere of communication and accumulate trust in cooperation, and it should honestly and faithfully implement its attitudes to the benefit of both sides.
In my personal opinion, the second understanding is in more alignment with facts. The essence of scientific and technological progress is openness. Without openness, even the most powerful science and technology will go backward. Whether we like it or not, it is indisputable that most of the fundamental scientific discoveries and original technological inventions have come from the West in recent times. Nowadays, this situation has not changed fundamentally. If China fails to proactively open up to the outside world, it will be decoupled from the frontier scientific and technological achievements of the West, and this decoupling is bound to be harmful to China. We should fully realize that fundamental scientific discoveries and original technological inventions cannot be achieved entirely through self-reliance in the short term. Also, independent innovation should integrate the latest scientific and technical achievements in an open environment instead of behind closed doors.
The critical question here is whether there can be two different technology systems around the globe. Even if it is theoretically possible, it is not possible empirically. The Soviet attempt discussed earlier was a case in point. The Soviet Union tried to develop its own set of technological systems in a closed setting, but it failed. It could have caught up with or even surpassed the West in one area of military industry, but that was the result of a state-led system that drained the Soviet Union of its economic resources. The Soviet Union could put a man on the moon, but it could not solve the simple economic problems of people’s livelihoods.
One can compare the existing technology system internationally to a mountain. All civilizations, including the Chinese “Four Great Inventions” and Arab civilizations, have contributed to this mountain. For a long time in modern history, the West controlled this mountain, and after World War II, the United States held this mountain. China’s reform and opening up have propelled China into this mountain. After entering the mountain, Western technology began to spread to China, and China worked hard to climb higher up the mountain. Now the situation is that the US has started to set up barriers to prevent us from climbing higher, which is what we call a “chokehold”; furthermore, the US also tries to drive China down or even out of the mountain, which is what we call “decoupling.”
So, what should be our rational attitude? It is not in any way what the so-called “win twice” people are advocating. Among those people, some people are just swayed by impulses, others are ignorant, and some deliberately play up nationalism by way of populism. If that happens, their supposed patriotism will end up being a pest. Our attitude should be to remain on this mountain and tell the Americans that this mountain belongs to the world, not the United States. We do not want to decouple, much less engage in active decoupling. China should contribute more to this mountain and become an indispensable member.
[The latter half of his speech focuses on China’s Greater Bay Area and is hereby skipped. Otherwise, the newsletter would be too long.]
From September 2022