The Great Innovation Wall of China

Photograph by Siegfried Stolzfuss

Last week I was struck by two completely contrasting views of China today. They evoke an image of the Great Innovation Wall of China, one that constrains instead of sustains the domestic creation of disruptive ideas.

First, the rise and fall of Bo Xilai—a story of what seems to be power at its worst. When any leader believes he or she is above the law, iron rule is an almost inevitable result. This desire to completely control the world has proved to be the undoing of one of China’s most successful and aspiring leaders.

Second, the Prime Minister of China, Wen Jiabao, asserting to the world that China wants to become “a nation that is based on innovation.” As any country knows, innovation is the future. It is the basis for job creation and competitive advantage, at the country and company level. But innovation that matters, innovations that disrupt entire industries, cannot be controlled end-to-end—the way Bo tried to bully his province and people.

Innovations that make a profound, positive difference surface when leaders create a space where insight emerges and people are engaged. Innovation, especially the disruptive type, comes from challenging the status quo, over and over. It comes from people making observations and being able to share them without fear of retribution. It comes from people talking to others who don’t see the world as they do. Finally, it comes from people willing to take risks, the inherent risks that go along with trying something no one else has ever tried before.

There is a certain craziness to the current Chinese government, in that it thinks it can build a game-changing innovation powerhouse and at the same time exert deep behavioral control over people’s everyday actions. It’s a water-and-oil concoction that naturally separates no matter how hard you try to shake it.

If a country (or company) injects excessive fear into a system, risk-taking evaporates, experiments shrivel, and disruptive ideas fail to emerge. Recent creativity constricting actions such as these (consider the ongoing saga of blind activist Chen Guangcheng) may very well form the new Great Innovation Wall of China.

China is wading through the sludge of deep contradictions, especially when it comes to innovation, and must reconcile these opposing views (innovation aspirations vs. excessive controls) for authentic innovation to surface and succeed. Until it does, expect to hear the rhetoric of disruptive innovation, but don’t count on China to deliver the real thing.

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