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.
In an interview, Hu Shuhua dismissed those concerns. Traditional culture did not prevent China from become the world's leading high-tech nation 1,000 years ago, he pointed out, contributing such inventions as gunpowder, porcelain and the compass and such technology as navigation, book-printing and silk-making. The Confucian ideal may mean modern Chinese schoolchildren are less outgoing than their Western counterparts, he said, "but you don't have to be outgoing to be innovative."
Beginning with the Communist victory in 1949, however, Mao Zedong's rule imposed a rigid political and social orthodoxy on China that took traditional conformity to new extremes. Education during the Cultural Revolution was abandoned or distorted for a whole generation -- the generation now wielding power in government corridors, universities and boardrooms. Much has changed over the last 25 years of reform, but the heritage of conformity remains strong.
"In the '60s and '70s, everything we saw was the revolution," recalled Wang Yiyang, 36, who designs and sells soft-contoured, ready-to-wear garments in his own Shanghai shop. "All the pictures showed Mao or heroic workers. Of course, that had a big impact on us."
In that atmosphere, innovation has been rare in modern China. Wang Wei's dream notwithstanding, no homegrown Chinese fashion designers have won fame on the world's runways, for instance, and no Chinese has won a Nobel Prize without leaving his homeland and the system that runs it.
Research funds remain hard to get and are often politically directed. Although China has vowed to make science and technology account for more than half its growth by 2020, Chinese institutions still spend only 1.1 percent of gross domestic product on research and development, compared with 3.2 percent in Japan and 2.6 percent in the United States. Chen Jin, the man touted as the inventor of China's first homegrown microchip, was recently uncovered as a fraud, his invention actually a Motorola chip stamped with Chen's brand name.
The party continues to discourage innovation in many fields, particularly politics or information and art that touch on political themes. The government, it seems, wants innovation to produce revolutionary new products but not revolutionary new ideas.
Even as President Hu was urging party members to "actively promote cultural innovation" in April, censors were ordering more than 20 paintings with political content pulled from an exhibition in Beijing's Dashanzi art colony. Similarly, in May, Premier Wen urged scientists to "raise the level of self-generated innovative ability" just as his government ordered a blackout on the film "Summer Palace," a Chinese production containing references to the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square that gained acclaim at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Wang Wei learned about conformity early in life. His father, a painter, was forced to produce Cultural Revolution schlock during the day, Wang recalled, and was able to indulge his love of traditional Chinese painting only at night, in the privacy of the family's Shanghai apartment.
Wang started imitating his father early on, drawing street scenes on walls and earning praise from teachers for classroom art. By age 13, he had represented Shanghai in a national art contest, sticking to everyday urban life as his theme.
"That was sort of an inheritance," he said.
Before long Wang was enrolled in design courses at Shanghai's Donghua University. As he prepared for his entrance exams, the June 1989 protest drama played out without him in Beijing and other cities across China.
The inroads made by Western culture during the 1980s had a strong impact on Wang and his fellow students. They listened to the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. But they showed little interest in Tui Jian, whose homegrown rock was the background music of the Tiananmen protests.
Western influence has persisted in the Chinese fashion scene. Most Chinese women of means prefer to buy famous brands such as Chanel or Ferragamo. And most Chinese designers still borrow from what they see in imported Western clothes rather then finding their themes in China's distinctive traditions of dress.
"We still have a lot of copying in China's fashion industry," Zhang Da said. "Right now, I can't say my stuff is 100 percent original, because it still reflects influence from designers in Belgium and Japan, but I am looking for my own style."
In the end, China's originality may arise from the crude fashions in vogue with country girls who come to the big city sporting spangles on their jeans and sharp points on their shoes, he said. The generation now coming of age may produce designers with the individuality to find inspiration there for something new, he said, "but I think it will take a long time."
After graduating, Wang spent two years with a Hong Kong fashion company that produced Western-designed clothes under license for sale in the Chinese market. He came away with a feel for the world beyond China and a sense of how to move toward his long-term goals. The crackdown after Tiananmen did not affect him or his friends.
In 1997, Wang went to work with the late Chen Yifei, a successful painter who spun his celebrity as an artist into a lucrative fashion business. For six years, he worked at Chen's side, helping open 175 stores in China, Japan and South Korea and market ready-to-wear designs for women.
Wang has trained 80 dressmakers to produce garments according to specifications from fashion houses in Europe. With that and his willingness to supply silk and other goods to European clients, Wang makes a living while awaiting what he hopes will be a breakthrough for his haute couture.
Some of his designs would be seen as Western-oriented and decadent if the Cultural Revolution were still underway. Coats resemble the robes of medieval Christian monks, with heavy hoods. Dresses have bulbous sleeves and bold stripes reminiscent of European court jesters. Nothing seems to look like Shanghai's traditional qipa o dress, let alone a bulky Mao suit.
By 2003, Wang was ready to step out on his own. Haute couture was his goal, he said, and he thought he was ready to conquer Paris, London and Milan.
After getting together a collection of designs, he toured European capitals last year, seeking to promote his clothes. He was invited to the sidelines of London Fashion Week and has an invitation to "Who's Next" in Paris this September. But the world market, he found, was not clamoring for his creations.
"So then I began to understand," he said. "I was not ready yet."