Tables may soon be turned on China

opinion December 11, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Technological leaps will place the country at a moral crossroads



Plenty of Facebook users must have seen the video. The footage and graphics reveal eye-popping technological advancements made by China. The video is designed to show us how the Asian giant is opening new paths to progress for the rest of the world. 

The response from Netizens has been mixed, judging by the many comments on Facebook. Some are really excited, others are more cautious in their optimism and some are downright ambivalent or even negative. “Progress”, after all, has a lot to do with exactly who is making it, since that determines whether the advancement will be quickly universalised, or instead monopolised, or slowly shared at the expense of others, specifically the poorest global citizens.

The United States has been here before, once a promising newcomer at a time when human beings were tired of wars and clamouring for peace. Has it made the world a better place? The record is mixed, but we can say with certainty that the reigning superpower leaves a lot to be desired. On technological fronts, we have as much to thank the copycats for as we do US scientists and innovators. Ideologically, meanwhile, the country is now under the microscope thanks to its new leadership direction.

China is quickly emerging to challenge the United States economically, technologically and politically. Although the video focuses on China’s technology, the three facets are linked. No country can be a superpower without all of them. It has to be supremely powerful economically, technologically and politically, so to speak.

The video unveils Chinese advancements in construction, medicine and space technology, to name just a few. These are fields of progress in which  the United States has been outstanding for decades. During the same period, famine has continued to plague many parts of the world, and much of the globe’s access to medicine is restricted by many factors, not least the supposedly noble concept of patent or intellectual property rights. 

Many of these shortcomings cannot be blamed on America alone. Yet others are direct results of the thinking that, if an innovator creates a product, he is entitled to reap the full financial benefits from it. There is nothing wrong with that idea, according to copyright advocates, who insist that if innovators are not rewarded in full, nobody will want to invent anything.

But that thinking can’t be entirely right, either. The financial motive can both inspire creativity and at the same time create morally repugnant outcomes. On the one hand, people can maximise their talents in pursuit of wealth and glory. On the other hand, the concept of sharing can get blocked out along the way, with disastrous results. The American Dream is rooted in this ambiguity, based as it is on individual initiatives being jealously  guarded and even enshrined in law.

China is notorious in the eyes of copyright advocates because the country is a powerhouse of technological copycats. Yet it does not matter how China’s technicians, engineers, mechanics or scientists have gone about their business before, because the near future will be totally different. Their current or pending achievements will be more “unique” than previous efforts, meaning China is about to get a taste of its own medicine.

The question now, is will China sue? Legal action is the basis for intellectual property protection. 

What will China do when the tables are turned?

And that is just addressing one aspect, technology, of the three pillars to becoming a superpower. China will find life just as tough when it comes to the economy and politics. Becoming a superpower is difficult; preserving moral integrity in the process is a lot more so.