Joe Biden underestimated China’s ability to innovate before. He shouldn’t repeat that mistake

Few American political leaders have dismissed China’s capacity for technological innovation as publicly and as emphatically as President-elect Joe Biden.

In a 2014 speech to the graduating class of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, then-vice-president Biden famously scoffed at the prospect of China graduating “six to eight times as many” scientists and engineers as the U.S. At the end of the day it didn’t matter, he asserted, because China’s authoritarian political system stymied the development of breakthrough products.

I challenge you,” Biden dared cadets, to “name me one innovative project, one innovative change, one innovative product that has come out of China.”

Challenge accepted. Here are three, plucked just from headlines this month:

  • Early Thursday morning Beijing time, a capsule from China’s unmanned Chang’e-5 spacecraft re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and landed in Inner Mongolia bearing 2 kilograms of moon rocks that are expected to make a major contribution to scientific understanding of lunar geography. Chang’e-5’s four-week voyage establishes China as only the third nation to bring pieces of the moon back to Earth, and the only country to put robotic spacecraft on the surface of the moon this century.
  • In a report published Dec. 3 in Science magazine, a team of Chinese researchers at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei claimed to have built a quantum computer that is able to perform certain computations nearly 100 trillion times faster than the world’s most advanced supercomputers.
  • On Dec. 8, the United Arab Emirates said a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical group Sinopharm had proven 86% effective in treating the virus in phase 3 trials, potentially clearing the way for distribution of Chinese vaccines throughout the developing world.

Yes, one can conjure caveats for all these achievements: China’s lunar expedition succeeded in boldly going where American Neil Armstrong already went back in 1969. The Chinese quantum supercomputer was built to perform a single, specific task and cannot be programmed to do anything else. And despite the apparent success of Sinopharm’s UAE trial, none of China’s vaccine candidates have published any late-stage information about clinical trials.

I’ve argued often in this space that in many crucial sectors, most notably the manufacture of high-speed semiconductors, China lags far behind the U.S., and other trade partners such as South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan—and that no amount of government subsidy will be enough to close the gap. China’s push to become self-sufficient in semiconductors suffered a further setback Wednesday as its biggest chipmaker, Shanghai-based Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, struggled to explain the apparent resignation of its co-CEO Liang Mong-son. Media reports of Liang’s departure sent the company’s stock price tumbling nearly 10% Wednesday on exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

And yes, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent clampdown on private companies, especially tech giants like Alibaba Group and Tencent Holdings, will likely slow the pace of future Chinese innovation.

Still, the big picture is clear: Over the past two decades, China has emerged as a technology superpower, and a formidable one at that. (The Financial Times‘ Tom Mitchell made a similar argument last week.) In many technologies, such as artificial intelligence, e-commerce, digital payments and the rollout of high-speed telecommunications networks, China is poised to lead—or already leads—the world. As president, Biden must recognize that his former disdain for China’s inability to innovate is badly out-of-date.

Eastworld will take a break for the next two weeks and return again in the New Year.

Clay Chandler
[email protected]com

This edition of Eastworld was curated and produced by Naomi Xu Elegant and Grady McGregor. Reach Naomi at [email protected] and Grady at [email protected]

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