China no longer playing catch-up
Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s resulted in over 20 million deaths from starvation, and the catastrophe was caused by an absurd understanding of reality. Mao thought that China’s production capacity would drastically increase if production was collectivized. His goal was to surpass Great Britain, then the second largest economy in the world, in 15 years.
China needed more steel. So Mao encouraged building steel furnaces in every town and village, with civil servants collecting and melting pots, pans, bowls and other metal articles to produce steel. Residents were banned from cooking personally and had to eat in groups at communal kitchens. It was based on the idea that everyone should eat equally.
But Mao’s plan backfired; the switch to the commune significantly lowered production, and after a natural disaster, people began to starve.
In 2015, China has set a goal to surpass Germany and Japan within 20 years. Its economy is already bigger, but China aspires to catch up in technology as well. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang advocated the transition from a manufacturing giant to a manufacturing powerhouse by 2025. In the following decade, China hopes to surpass the two. If you think China is a country that mass produces cheap knockoffs using cheap labor, the goal could seem as vain as Mao’s goal to surpass the United Kingdom.
But I changed my mind after visiting ZTE’s headquarters in Shenzhen, which proudly displays the list of patents the company’s researchers applied for in the past year. Since 2011, ZTE has placed near the top of the international patent application rankings announced by the World Intellectual Property Organization. No Korean company ranks in the top 10. The company that began from simple semiconductor assembly emerged as the leader in the communication solutions field in 30 years, and the patents explained its success. The company invests 10 percent of its annual operating profit in research and development.
Huawei, another leader in telecommunications equipment, is not much different. While it was a follower in 2G telecommunication, it became a competitor in the 3G stage and a leader in 4G. Now, it’s confident it will set standards in 5G.
As the home of electric vehicle company BYD, Shenzhen became the first city in the world to have electric taxies. BYD has announced a plan to expand to the Korean market, a “follower” in the field, within the year.
Koreans may not want to admit it, but we need to humbly accept that we were wrong to think China was chasing us.
*The author is a Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo, April 28, Page 30
by YEH YOUNG-JUNE