Forty years ago, China was just ending their cultural revolution. An ugly time when Mao and the communist party launched a nationwide attack against the intellectual bourgeoisie and renegade officials sending them into labor camps in the countryside, forming the Red Guard groups, and crushing capitalism and innovation in the name of communism and the common good.
A True Tale
To grasp what the perspective is in that environment if you’ve grown up in and lived your whole life in a free market democracy is a huge leap, but here’s a telling story. My partner, Paul Chau, had a factory in Hong Kong as the markets in China were opening and employed a couple smart and creative workers from inland China. From their experiences, they had an original idea that they could implement at a factory they used to work at in their hometown, so they left Hong Kong and returned with visions of grandeur.
When used, the idea would reduce costs and increase efficiency making the factory more money and thus give them more ability to reward their workers. The two creators proposed their idea to the factory boss and asked for a small increase in their wage to put it into action. The owner didn’t go for it though. He told them that they were being too greedy by asking to be rewarded for their idea and that giving them an advantage over the other workers would be bad for morale. In the end, the idea was never implemented and the workers continued to work, unhappily, with the outdated system. That is the power of a generation of propaganda.
Not Me, I’m the Same
For 30 years the people of China had been taught that to stand out, to be different, to innovate was a greedy, capitalistic endeavor. The ideal was to live with humility, contribute at the basic human level and not stand out. If you didn’t stand out, you would be fine.
The Next American Idol
The opening of the market has been gradually changing the cultural stance on innovation. The rate of technology transfer (the knowledge and experience that is crucial for new ideas) into China in the past 30 years is unparalleled in history. Each factory, engineer and business person is absorbing new ideas and knowledge at an outstanding speed, but there is still a long way to go.
The educational system is geared toward and tested on wrote memorization. As much as we may worry in the US about our kids not being taught well, in the area of thinking for ourselves our teachers are among the best in that category. We are taught from a young age that to be different is acceptable and even encouraged. No child in the US values being the same as everybody else. Americans all want to be the next American Idol or dance with the Stars. In China, there is still a great deal of value placed on fitting into a norm.