I have seen the future — in China.

In my previous blog, I addressed the concern that the United States is adrift without a science policy to secure our future, while China seems to be quickly adopting our successful research university model. But that isn’t the end of the story.

I first went to China in early 1983 to offer a two-week lecture series at Nanjing University. I landed at night in a truly primitive Beijing airport and was driven around the city in a car, a rarity at the time (the driver used the night lights only to warn pedestrians in the two-lane road!). During my stay, I lived in an on-campus apartment and by necessity ate all meals alone, as there were no restaurants accessible to me.

Seven years passed before my next trip to Nanjing. I co-organized a U.S.-China Hydrology meeting at a brand-new high-rise hotel with a rotating restaurant at the top. Prior to our event, our Chinese counterparts could not readily visit the hotel and restaurant. They were amazed by what they saw and ate. During that trip, I saw street vendors selling jeans — a young couple trying freedom and the beginnings of “Chinese-style capitalism.”

Since 1990 I have gone to China in frequent intervals, never exceeding five years, and far more frequently in the past 10 years. My last trip was at the beginning of November of this year. Every time I go, I am simply blown away by the pace of development and innovation. Cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shenzhen are difficult to describe, having so rapidly advanced.

The roads and the buildings are extraordinary and going up faster than one can count. These are not your nondescript skyscrapers, but architecturally interesting buildings full of the latest technology and amenities, including boutique shops of international brands I would never dream of frequenting! The restaurants and the foods are top quality and of every style. But I should add that when you are ready to pay you better have the Alipay app on your phone because there is a good chance your U.S.-issued credit card will not be accepted.

It has been said that China is a good follower. When they see a good idea, they implement and execute it well and extraordinarily fast. For example, you can equate Alibaba to Amazon on steroids, if you can imagine that! Likewise, you can equate Alipay to PayPal, SF Express to UPS, Baidu to Google, and WeChat to WhatsApp. The present reality is that the Chinese have learned to further develop business ideas that surpass the models. In my opinion, that is true of every single one of the above extremely successful, publicly-traded Chinese corporations. A massive, technology-hungry and captive market certainly helps, but there is no doubt that their products and offerings are excellent.

The fact that the Chinese can innovate on existing ideas so well tells me that it is only a matter of (short) time before they begin to drive the creative process. Combined with their equally aggressive adoption of U.S. educational system concepts and of the science policy ideas that we seem to be abandoning, I come to the sobering conclusion that China will soon surpass the United States in aggregate economic might (GDP). Unfortunately, they are also on the path to take our mantle as the most creative country, driven (as we have been) by investments in education, science, and technology.

Rafael L. Bras



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