The Great China R&D Squeeze of 2021 & the US Obsession with China’s Collapse
Lots of gems in this year’s edition of Dan Wang’s annual letter. It is really worth the long read, but today we’re going to hone in on two sections of his analysis on where China is today. First, on the 2021 squeeze on tech companies:
Beijing’s attitude marks a difference with capitalism as it’s practiced in the US. Over the last two decades, the major American growth stories have been Silicon Valley (consumer internet and software) on one coast and Wall Street (financialization) on the other. For good measure, I’ll throw in a rejection of capitalism as it is practiced in the UK as well. My line last year triggered so many Brits that I’ll use it again: “With its emphasis on manufacturing, (China) cannot be like the UK, which is so successful in the sounding-clever industries—television, journalism, finance, and universities—while seeing a falling share of R&D intensity and a global loss of standing among its largest firms.”
The Chinese leadership looks more longingly at Germany, with its high level of manufacturing backed by industry-leading Mittelstand firms. Thus Beijing prefers that the best talent in the country work in manufacturing sectors rather than consumer internet and finance. Personally, I think it has been a tragedy for the US that so many physics PhDs have gone to work in hedge funds and Silicon Valley. The problem is not that these opportunities pay so well, rather it is because manufacturing has offered dismal career prospects. I see the Chinese leadership as being relatively unconcerned with talent flow into consumer internet and finance; instead it is trying to fashion an economy in which the physics PhD can do physics, the marine biology student can do marine biology, and so on.
Then, in a similar vein to what An Xiao Mina’s wrote previously about the missing context that plagues tech reporting on China:
China is like the thinking ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris: a vast entity that produces observations personalized for every observer. These visions may be a self-defense mechanism, allowing leftists to see socialism and investors to see capitalism; or, as Lem’s ocean might be doing, China is vastly indifferent to foreign observers and generates visions to play with them. Whatever the case, we need a better understanding of this country. Too many commentators have been interested in the story of China’s collapse. When the collapse doesn’t come, they lose interest and move on. It’s a more important and more subtle skill to figure out how this country can succeed, because that is the exercise the Chinese leadership is engaged in.
The modal piece of commentary on China focuses mostly on the country’s mistakes and weaknesses. In my view, much of this type of opinion is both useless and dangerous. It’s useless because it doesn’t make a serious attempt to engage with the country’s strengths; and dangerous because it implies that the west can do nothing since China will fail on its own. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that China will fail. But it’s a mistake to assume that it will happen as a matter of course. Instead we should expect that it will become a major competitor to the US, which should not only do better itself but also make better assessments. That means producing more disinterested analysis.
Read the full letter, which also includes a section on Wang’s love of opera, amongst other things.
Editor’s note: This post was published in November 2022, but backdated to January of 2022. The latter is when we initially wrote it, but forgot to hit the publish button.