This handbook is ostensibly written for readers in countries that want to learn from China’s “great transformation” into a global innovation powerhouse. But it most often seems intended for an audience in Beijing, its main recommendation being that China remain open to the world. Foreign investment and international exchange are behind China’s success, the authors stress, and rising anti-globalism, led by the US, puts it at risk: “Responses and adjustments in China’s innovation policy and international diplomacy will be needed in China’s further pursuit of its innovation goals.”
This approach precludes criticism of China’s innovation policy. The handbook does not consider Beijing’s own path dependencies – the consequences of its past decisions – as a source of risk. Also absent is a credible response to concerns in Washington and Brussels over China’s growing techno-nationalism. All of this renders the authors’ calls for collaboration hollow – working together across borders and institutions can only be mutually beneficial if the surrounding framework is acceptable to all involved.
Across its 38 chapters, the book does critique some Chinese stances. Contrasting views about industrial policy come from Justin Yifu Lin and Zhang Weiying, who famously clashed on this issue in 2016. Zhang’s argument against industrial policy is supported by Loren Brandt and Eric Thun’s chapter, which contends that sectors with the least state inference are the most dynamic and innovative. Regulation can boost home advantages, they argue, but beyond this it is doubtful that government can effectively direct innovation. The authors also warn China’s focus on self-sufficiency will come at a cost.
But such critical observations are the exception. Overall, the handbook avoids direct challenges to the Chinese Communist Party line. Most of its contributors are affiliated with Chinese institutions: some, including Lin, Zhang and Xue Lan, dean of Tsinghua University’s Schwarzman College, are well-known policy advisors; lead author Fu Xiaolan, an Oxford University professor, was made a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences weeks before publication. As a result, the book is more useful for opening a window on China’s liberal intellectuals than for shining a light on innovation there.
Reviewed by Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau, Senior Analyst at MERICS