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Tech in China? The History You Need to Know in 5 Minutes (Part One)

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Olivia Jeffers

January 29 · Issue #12 · View online

Welcome to Compassionate Technologies. Here you'll get a dose of real science and business in your inbox every Sunday morning. Why? Because cutting-edge research shouldn't be locked in an ivory tower. This newsletter covers the relationships between machine learning, robotics, genetic engineering, and climate science. It's all connected, and it's my passion to simplify and make clear those connections for all of you. Love, Olivia.


Tradition and modernity, communism and capitalism converge into a fascinating future as China celebrates the new year of the Rooster. In honor of this 20-day celebration held by over 1.4 billion Chinese, today’s newsletter is the first of a two part series on tech trends in China.

Chinese New Year celebrations in New York City
Chinese New Year celebrations in New York City
Setting the Context
China is a land that holds an air of mystery, elegance, and power. In the United States, China is regarded with both fear and respect, both a powerful trading ally and threat to domestic economics.
With a long dynastic tradition, the Chinese people have a shared history of over 2,000 years. China is large and rather ethnically homogenous, with 91% Han Chinese population and 55 minority groups comprising the other 9% - as opposed to the United States which has a majority non-Hispanic white population at 63% with the remaining 37% mostly split between Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians.
A map of China overlayed onto the US (Smith2China)
A map of China overlayed onto the US (Smith2China)
China and the U.S. are roughly the same size, while China only has one economic seaboard on the east where it houses over 90% of its population on 30% of its landmass, with a sparsely populated minority desert and mountainous western region landlocked by the Russia and the “stan” region. Compared to the U.S which has economic powerhouses on both the east and west coasts, with an agricultural and mountainous central region.
Cultural Differences
As a westerner, to truly understand China, the most important difference to understand is that Chinese generally have a more collective attitude, while westerners are more independent. The western mindset can generally be described as WEIRD, or “western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic”.
With over 2,000 years of shared history, the Chinese have strong cultural and binding roots dating back to Confucius in 550 BC. Yes, that’s over 500 years before Christ lived and died.
Shortly after Confucius left his mark, China was unified by their first emperor, the famous and ruthless commander Emperor Qin Shi Huang, said to have built the Great Wall of China over the bones of a million peasants. The unification of China (from the name Qin) is credited to him.
After this, for the next 2,000 years, there has always been tension between the ruling emperors and the peasants, with peasant revolts happening every several hundred years, cycling the dynasties and churning power.
East Meets West
For a long time, China was the technological center of the world. The Song Dynasty, from 960 to 1280 AD (while Europe was plunged in the dark ages) was a pinnacle of Chinese innovation. Gunpowder, paper, and moveable print among other inventions were brought into the world. In the 1500s, China had a powerful naval fleet led by Zheng He bringing Chinese influence to Africa with a rumored pre-Columbian discovery of America as well.
The Chinese have always had a strong sense of national pride. The country is named 中国 (zhōng guó) with the character 中 (zhōng) meaning “middle”, showing a line going straight through the center of a rectangle, symbolic for the center of the world.
The introduction of Christianity via the silk road and opium via naval trade with Europe brought China’s already weak Qing Dynasty to it’s knees in 1912, ushering China into the modern and global age. After years of power struggle and civil war between the western-backed Nationalist party and the peasant-backed Communist party, the current rule of order was established.
On October 1, 1949 Chairman Mao founded the People’s Republic of China under communist party rule while the western-backed Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek held ground in Taiwan.
Today: China, Land of Contradictions?
Between 1949 and today, Chairman Mao and other leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pushed, pulled, and ushered China into the industrialized era. The Great Leap Forward into the western industrial age resulted in great famine in 1960, fast-forwarding to a three decade ‘feast’ with rapidly growing GDP along with 27% ownership of United States debt in 2016. But Americans, don’t worry, China also has a significant debt problem of it’s own.
Futuristic Anti-China Ad from Citizens Against Government Waste
Futuristic Anti-China Ad from Citizens Against Government Waste
Once the world center for innovation, Chinese students are now stereotyped as being “diligent but lacking in creativity”. With a large and relatively homogenous market, innovative American tech companies such as Facebook have been chomping at the bit to take a piece of megapie (see below). However, the Chinese government is incredibly protective over their marketplace, insisting on creating Chinese versions of Google products, Facebook, Twitter, and Uber.
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Wish a Happy New Year in 2016
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan Wish a Happy New Year in 2016
While China is communist, it is one of the most practical, pragmatic, and entrepreneurial cultures - with Chinese all over the world as shopkeepers and money makers. Not officially religious, the Chinese are also deeply superstitious with beliefs mixed in from Buddhism and Confucian thought, among other influences over the last 2,000 years. As China celebrates the new year of the Rooster, tradition and modernity, communism and capitalism converge into a fascinating future.
Up Next Week
All of this lays the context for next week’s newsletter, covering the state of technological innovation and markets today in China, and where the future may be going. Stay tuned.
Useful Links...
How East and West think in profoundly different ways
Is China's Debt Problem Really That Bad?
Why China Can’t Innovate
Chinese Professor
Mark Zuckerberg wishes Happy Lunar New Year in Chinese (2016)
Thanks from Olivia :)
Happy Chinese New Year! With shrimp and peanuts from my mother :)
Happy Chinese New Year! With shrimp and peanuts from my mother :)
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