Growth Challenges

A Tang Tied Future

China’s need to shift its growth model toward domestic consumption and innovation, and away from physical investment and export driven growth is increasingly common knowledge. For most in the West the idea an innovative China however is new, at least within their lifetimes. For China that path however is likely the next section of the other less tangible road under construction – that circling back toward a prized earlier period of stability, culture, prosperity and innovation. 


The Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) is renowned in Chinese history for the advances of Chinese culture and science. During these centuries Chinese entrepreneurs are credited with development of woodblock printing, which in turn facilitated a rise in literacy and the transfer of knowledge; porcelain – now known as ‘China’ in the West; and with advances in areas of timekeeping, clockwork and astronomy, among others. Reigning Emperor Xuanzong, is said to have been served by a team of then craftsmen, modern day ‘engineers’, whom built hydro-powered cooling systems and even a hydro-powered means of serving spirits.


In that era, China’s capital was not Beijing, but rather in modern day Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors (themselves dated back some 2,000 years). Then called Chang’an, modern day Xi’an is perhaps a shadow of its former self. One should not however underestimate its own place in China’s modern day innovation push. As capital of Shaanxi province, the city itself is home to a surprising number of universities and density of human capital:

·      A top 20 national university and member of China’s C9 ivy league, Xian Jiaotong University; 

·      At nearly 2%, spends an above average proportion of its GDP on research and development (R&D);

·      Is home to nearly 3% of those classified as working as scientists and engineers in China;

·      Is home to seven of the top 100 listed universities of 2012 by the China Alumni Association: Xian Jiaotong University (19); Northwestern Polytechnical University (29); North West University (40); Chang’An University (50); Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University (59); Xidian University (68); Shaanxi Normal University (76).


While the names of China’s most famous universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University among them, are an increasingly known international brand, lesser-known universities are also investing increasing sums in research, staff and international outreach: in early 2013 Ghana Telecom University College and Guilin University of Technology have recently signed a memorandum of understanding; the Chinese Academy of Sciences has launched the ‘China-Chile Joint Research Centre for Astronomy’ in Chile; the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology claims to have invented an affordable notebook for the blind; Xiamen University has announced plans to build the world’s largest off-shore campus, in Malaysia.


The international academic and innovation landscape is indeed changing rapidly. China’s goals in this direction include to be in the ranks of ‘innovative nations’ by 2020. By the 100th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in 2049, China aims to be a world technological leader.


If that is to resemble the landscape of 2049, this will be a whole new era for persons whose baseline lifetime reference is the distribution of economic activity of the 20th and 21st centuries. The best way to be successfully Tang-tied rather than finding oneself tongue-tied in a potentially much more Chinese future, is to dust off the compass (these days found in smart phones the world over), and re-orient one’s own study and international preparedness and thinking.


Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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