Correction to This Article
A June 17 story on innovation in China misspelled the name of a Chinese rock star. He is Cui Jian, not Tui Jian.

In China, Dreams of Bright Ideas

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 17, 2006

SHANGHAI -- Wang Wei is busy trying to think up something new. In the next three months, he has to create an alluring, original haute couture collection aimed at a Paris show that could prove crucial in his quest for recognition among the deans of high fashion.

"It may take me 10 more years to catch my dream," Wang said, acknowledging that he is not yet a name on the runways of Paris or Milan. "But I have taken the first steps."

Wang, 34, an artsy individualist whose shaggy hair hangs over his shirt collar, does not look like a model for China's buttoned-down Communist Party bureaucrats. But with the swishy dresses he dreams up for rich women abroad, he is exactly what they say they want Chinese people to become: innovators playing on a world stage.

Instead of millions of Chinese youths assembling somebody else's inventions, the party leadership has concluded, the time is right for China to come up with its own ideas and sell them to everyone else. The question of whether China can pull off this transformation -- from workshop of the world to cradle of invention -- is key to the giant country's future. The answer will help determine whether a government anchored in 150-year-old Marxist ideology can pursue economic expansion, satisfy the needs of 1.3 billion people and take a place among global powers in an age when knowledge is the highest-earning product.

Although political dogma here seems stuck in the past, economic innovation has become a new Communist Party catchword. Even while they enforce political conformity, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao rarely let a speech go by these days without urging their countrymen to think up new products. Most recently, Hu told scientists and engineers they must make China "a nation of innovation."

"Innovation is an overall strategy for maintaining China's economic security," said Hu Shuhua, who heads the Product Innovation Management Center at Wuhan University of Technology. "Now should be the time for us to innovate," he added, pointing out that China has been importing other countries' know-how for the last 20 years. "Now we have the economic and technical base to do it."

The lag in technological innovation has troubled China's leaders most. A cartoon in the government-controlled China Daily newspaper last week depicted the Chinese economy as a Formula One racer all ready to speed off but handicapped at the starting line by one wooden wheel, labeled "technology."

Hu Shuhua, who is a specialist in automotive innovation, has complained that the cars on China's roads, whose numbers are exploding, are copies of foreign designs, co-produced with foreign firms or simply imported. His own research institute was founded in Wuhan, home of the state-owned Dongfeng company that produces vehicles in cooperation with the French firm Citroën. Similarly, President Hu remarked during his April visit to Seattle that he has to use Microsoft computer programs to log on in the morning and Boeing aircraft to travel out of Beijing.

China's traditional culture may be an obstacle. For centuries, schoolchildren here have been taught to conform and belong. "The bird that flies out of its flock is the first one targeted by hunters," goes the Chinese proverb.

Schools still emphasize group activities and discipline over individualism. Class performances mostly involve synchronized banner-waving by rows of identically dressed students. Children are traditionally trained to learn by rote, memorizing material without questioning the teacher and parroting it back at exam time. The method produces high test scores but little innovation.

"Chinese people are educated to be the same," complained Zhang Da, 38, another Shanghai fashion designer, whose dresses hang in the trendy boutique Younik. "If they are the same as others, they feel safer. That's a problem."

As a result, many Chinese lack confidence in their own taste, which is a requirement for innovation in fashion, Zhang said. He recalled that, until recently, nouveau riche Chinese left the fancy labels on their suits so others could see they had bought the right brand. The popularity of Louis Vuitton bags in China is a relic of the same concern, he said, because the firm's initials are prominently etched in the leather for all to see.


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