Wednesday, February 19, 2020

China vs. USA, the State of Play

I’ve been following this story, so why not offer another post about it. The issue: the clash of civilizations between China and American, between Asian authoritarian capitalism and Western liberal democracy.

You know that commentators on the left and especially on the right are up in arms about China. They see China as an enemy and are looking for a fight. It is fair to say that the Chinese government has not exactly been behaving with the utmost civility. It routinely suppresses ideas and opinions that it does not like… roughly as our universities do. And it has not exactly been playing fair.

But, free expression is not the issue. Unless you believe that a student in today’s America has the freedom to express himself on today’s hot button topics. That is, if you believe that he can defy leftist dogma without paying a severe penalty.

If we declare that Chinese economic success, and it is considerable and substantial, is merely a function of its having stolen technology from us, we are saying about China what Obama said about Americans: You didn’t earn that. Those are, dare I say it, fighting words.

If you insist that China is a Communist totalitarian system you will be at pains to explain how this Communist totalitarian system produced the most extraordinary period of economic growth in human history. Over the past four decades China has reduced the extreme poverty rate from over 80% to around 3%. It has produced more wealth and more prosperity than anyone else has produced in a comparable time period. If you want to say that China is Communist, then you will be at pains to explain how Communism has now become such an effective economic system. 

As for the fact that China is stealing us blind, technologically speaking, the problem is worse than that. China is getting ahead of us in technology… that is a real problem.

David Goldman has written cogently about these matters. He is far better informed than yours truly, so we grant special credence to his analysis. Here is the state of play in the ongoing competition between the West and China:

We're not dealing with a bunch of sneak-thieves purloining American technology. China is now an innovation powerhouse on its own. We spent 20 years training a top-quality Chinese university faculty in science and engineering (80% of US doctorates in electrical engineering and computer science to go foreigners, and most of them go home). Chinese students have stopped applying to American universities, and Chinese companies won't hire Chinese kids with a bachelor's degree from a US university, because they assume that they're rich dumb kids who couldn't get into a good Chinese school. China graduates four times as many STEM bachelor's degrees as we do each year, and twice as many doctorates.

Consider that one for a while: we know that American education has become a shadow of its former self. We know that liberal arts education has become an indoctrination mill. But, we had thought that we were world leaders in STEM subjects, we had imagined that the rot of political correctness had not infested science and engineering. We are apparently wrong.

The fault lies in our own insouciance. Goldman does not say it, but we have been more concerned with engineering diversity than with technological innovation.

We need to wrest the initiative in high tech from China and re-establish American dominance in telecommunications, computation, Artificial Intelligence, materials science, chip design and lithography, manufacturing, and other key fields.

He continues, adding that we should have a national program, funded by the government, roughly akin to the Manhattan Project, to advance our interests:

We sat on our hands while China's Huawei took the lead in the game-changing technology that will usher in what the Chinese call the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 5G telecommunications (which we are rolling out a snail's pace while China surges ahead) make possible industrial robots that design production processes by themselves, driverless cars, virtual-reality controlled surgery at long distance, and a dozen other breakthroughs. China is getting the jump on us while we dither. Think Manhattan Project. Think Sputnik moment. Think JFK's Moonshot. Think Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. We need a grand mobilization of material and human resources to meet the challenge of the 21st century.

The Trump administration has been trying to crack down on Huawei, but with limited success. When we block sales of components to Huawei, the company now makes its own:

Excepting Japan, Israel and Australia, every one of our allies has invited Huawei in to build 5G networks because the alternative would cost another two years and 50 percent more. Either they don't believe what we're saying about Huawei's capacity to spy on them, or they don't care. We shut down component sales to Huawei, and Huawei now builds smartphones and base stations with zero US components. It now makes chipsets for smartphones and AI processers that rival the best America can produce.

There never was any doubt that the United Kingdom would continue its collaboration with Huawei, illustrating Gen. Sun Tzu’s adage, “Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.” Huawei built its relationship with Britain in the open and became part of the British engineering establishment with strategic investments and calculated deference to Britain’s security services.

How did America miss what was happening?

The United States didn’t see it coming for the same reason that no American agency considered the possibility that Pearl Harbor might be a Japanese target in December 1941, or the British military didn’t consider the possibility of a Japanese land attack on Singapore in 1942. It simply didn’t occur to America’s intelligence services that the Chinese were capable of cornering the world market in a game-changing technology. It also didn’t occur to Washington that China had developed sufficient capacities in semiconductors to produce its own high-end chips and ignore an American export ban.

This will not brighten up your day. It’s like a cold bath of reality. It shows that we have lost the will to compete. It also shows that a country run by intellectual elites, by lawyers, teachers and journalists can never compete against a country that focuses on STEM. 


David Foster said...

"5G telecommunications (which we are rolling out a snail's pace while China surges ahead) make possible industrial robots that design production processes by themselves, driverless cars, virtual-reality controlled surgery at long distance, and a dozen other breakthroughs. China is getting the jump on us while we dither."

Like many references to 5G, this vastly overstates its important. Why, for example, would one need 5G for long-distance surgery? Indeed, why would one want it, as opposed to a wired (fiber) connection? Do you really want the surgeon's connection to be dependent on the vagaries of a cell network?

Parts of the 5G *communications protocol* might be useful in this application, but without needing the full 5G stack...certainly not the radio frequency aspects...and there are plenty of other ways to do it.

trigger warning said...

So true, David. 5G is the 21st century's Fifth Generation Computing skypie.

David Foster said...

On the broader issue, for a country to simultaneously pursue strategies of stealing IP and doing true innovation itself are not by any means mutually contradictory. The US did just that in its early days, as with the copying of (theoretically export-controlled) textile machinery from England. The IP theft can act as a major accelerator even for things a country could have done on its own.

In the immediate post-WWII era, the Soviets had an excellent fighter design, the MIG-15...but no jet engine for it. They could probably have done a decent development job themselves in 3 or 4 years, but were able to persuade the Brits to sell them the Rolls-Royce Nene engine, which they proceeded to copy and I believe also the actually improve. (Stalin had refused to believe that the Brits would actually be that dumb, but allowed Mikoyan to try)

Today there is an issue with sale of a new-generation GE jet engine to the Chinese, for reasons of concern about reverse engineering. GE says it would be hard to copy even if you have a lot of examples, because of the materials technology. Maybe.

Sam L. said...

DIVERSITY UBER ALLES!! Smarts, who needs that?