Letters from China: “Breathtaking Beijing”

In early June, I visited Beijing for the first time. The Chinese capital is breathtaking in every sense of the word. The city has gone through an amazing development and is more glitzy than many American and European large cities. It definitely feels more modern and dynamic than Philadelphia, whose neighborhoods I explored while living there for most of 2012.


As a teenager in the early 1980s, I visited a number of communist countries: East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia. So I find it easy to imagine what Beijing would have looked like before 1978. In mere 30 years, a run-down and crumbling place was transformed into a modern city, which is far better developed than any city I have seen during my visits to formerly communist Ukraine in 2004 and 2009. Also in relation to Rio De Janeiro, Beijing seems newer, and lot cleaner especially compared to the outskirts of Rio.



Announcing a Special Feature: “Letters from China”

During the first two weeks of June,  I will visit China for the first time. To share my impressions, I plan to write a few Letters from China.  Today I want to give you a bit background on the trip. For a long time, I wanted get out behind my desk and see China with my own eyes. This visit is long overdue given that I started to research the development of the Chinese synthetic dye industry five years ago.

The goal of my visit is to get a deeper understanding of what the future of China will likely look like. More specifically, I want to become more knowledgeable about whether China will become the world leader in high-tech industries and if so how. For this reason, I want to build connections with people in China who are participating in or following these developments.  Until now I have been relying on Hong Jiang to be my eyes in China. I recruited her from China to write her doctoral thesis under my supervision. Together we published an article entitled Regional institutions, ownership transformation, and migration of industrial leadership in China, showing how the leading centers of synthetic dye production industry shifted twice in the period from 1978 to 2008 because of differences in the institutional composition of regions within China. Hong is currently back in the field trying to find more evidence on how personal networks allowed entrepreneurs to access crucial knowledge from established firms. Our particular challenge is to find knowledgeable people from companies that went out of business so we can establish with more certainty that they lacked the personal contacts that allowed their rivals to be more successful.

It is important to realize that synthetic dye technology was developed in the West decades ago and has become stagnant.  This is why Chinese firms could become the largest producers in the world by simply imitating product innovations made abroad. Now, I am looking for one or more industries where Chinese firms are not simply copying innovations made abroad but where they are at the frontier of global knowledge. If you think you know such an industry, please contact me. After my trip to China, I hope to have a better sense of the kind of high-tech industries in which China may be pushing the global knowledge frontier.

To avoid false expectations, let me emphasize that I am not writing my Letters from China as a “China expert.” I am very well versed in Western social theory and, more specifically, evolutionary theory in the social sciences: As an evolutionist, I have strong theoretical commitment that success is built on a mountain of failures. Or, to put it more simply: China cannot become the leader in a sector without trying out many things and figuring out what works through experience. (I lay out this perspective in non-technical terms in Scaffolding in Economics, Management, and the Design of Technologies). But I have modest credentials regarding the “facts on ground” in China.  Aside from what Hong Jiang taught me, I can trace most of my knowledge about China to three books that I found particularly useful.