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Will ingenuity enable China to play catch-up?

Before Chairman Mao's passing in 1976, "class struggle" was the key buzzword in China. Now it is the "four modernizations" of agriculture, industry, defense , and (lumped together) science and technology.

The last of these -- also known as know-how -- is the key factor. Without it , none of the others is possible.

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This book is about China's new technological revolution." It presents ten academic papers on China's prospects, most of them followed by the comments of other specialists, including government analysts and businessmen. These remarks are a welcome touch; they make for much livelier reading than the average academic compendium.

The consensus, inasmuch as there is one, is that the road ahead is hardly a freeway. While the Chinese will progress and adapt with typical ingenuity, they face a number of serious problems.

One of these problems is attitudinal. For China to seek to become modern, she must admit to backwardness, especially relative to the West and Japan. To catch up involves learning some of the ways of the West and this means becoming more like the outside. Can the Chinese now succeed in doing what their "techniques" while retaining their own cultural "essence"?

Mao's Cultural Revolutionaries felt China could not. They wanted to keep the outside world -- its businessmen and intellectual ideas alike -- at arm's lenght while China developed her own "road to socialism."

Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping, the current leaders, are far more open to the West. Foreign investment, once anathema, is now welcomed, and intellectual interchange is pursued. But the view, or hope, persists in China that technology and culture can be isolated from each other. As one recent article from Peking put it, "We must selectively import advanced technology and equipment while blazing a Chinese road to modernization."

The problem is not just one of cultural or political defensiveness. Technology cannot be transplanted like rice. Machinery and production methods which are appropriate to the United States or Japan, which have large pools of capital and skilled labor, may not make sense in China, where both are scarse.

Even when appropriate, imported methods must be adapted to innumerable different producttion situations in the factories and on the farms. Simply importing and copying the lates products or machinery -- "reverse engineering" -- is too passive, and often cannot be done.

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In other words, the Chinese must be able to innovate. The American specialists who have contributed to Baum's book indicate that this may not be easy.

First of all, innovation requires a strong core of professionals who understand and can develop basic scientific principles and apply them to production. China's current "Edisonian" approach of trial and error based on existing technology is unlikely to create important breakthroughts.

The Cultural Revolution may have brought the experts and the factories closer together, but it hit the universities hard. Few new scientists or engineers were trained for over a decade. It will take China years to rebuild its ranks of experts.

Ironically, amore fundamental problem facing China lies in its pursuit of one kind of Western experience -- centrally planned socialism. The economic institutions which China borrowed in the early 1950s from Stalin's Soviet Union work well for relatively undiffentiated products such as steel. But they also tend to stifle the "unplanned" initiatives of individual producers; this distorts and delays progress in industries which are relatively sophisticated or which produce a variety of products.

China's leaders tend to regard research and development as a centralized, specialized, planned activity. This does little to encourage grass-roots innovation. In fact, factories are given little incentive to take the risks of pursuing significant innovations.

The current Chinese leadership would like to break out of the Stalinist straitjacket. There is talk in Peking of letting the market operate more freely , of competition between factories and of rewarding managers and workers on the basis of their enterprises' profit. All of this would certainly encourage producers to innovate -- if they can.

But many of the old men who have returned to the seats of power also took back fondly on the 1950s as the "good old days," before the chaos of the "great leap forward" and the Cultural Revolution. They may not want to let things get too far out of Peking's control again.

The consensus of views in this book is that it is good that China is turning away from the xenophobia and ati-intellectualism of Mao's last decade. But some of these authors are concerned that the new-old modernizers may do little better than than the former chairman in "institutionalizing" innovation. If they cannot, China will not succeed in becoming modern.

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