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June 14, 2017

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Chinese students increasingly attuned to innovation

AT the just-adjourned Shanghai Forum that brought together participants from around the world, Nobel Laureate in Economics Christopher Pissarides in his keynote address cautioned that sustained economic growth won’t take place without new technologies to provide breakthrough products with lower production costs.

That requires innovation, as China is advancing through “Made in China 2025” and other countries have publicly expressed their intent to pursue. Chinese students already are more savvy about product change, competition and tech trends than those of 10 years ago. They are budding innovators with critical thinking ability stemming from their own lifetime experiences.

Thanks to personal technology, they are also attuned to world tech trends that have made both the Chinese and US students I’ve taught much more connected in their observations and ambitions.

Global technology trends have helped them understand that consumer products now change more frequently than in the past; that the delivery system constantly adapts; that cost and features matter; and there are clear advantages of one product or company over another.

In classrooms in both China and the US, I regularly hold class debates that pit two competing smartphones, tablets or other tech products against each other. “Face it, you only like that phone because the screen is larger, and you just forget about its dropped calls,” a Chinese student in the front row said to her best friend following a spirited debate about the relative performance and sales prospects of their favorites.

In other debates, either online sites or merchandise delivery companies go up against each other. There’s a popular mix of Chinese and US brands in no particular order. Students get excited as they point out weaknesses or strengths and offer clear opinions on where the most future profit likely lies.

Many of the debate arguments are virtually the same whether they take place in my Chinese or US classrooms because they involve a universal pursuit.

Ask students in either country what excites them the most and inevitably they will note innovative tech-oriented firms such as Tesla, the innovative electric car company that is a worldwide phenomenon. Or they will discuss Uber’s prospects when one day it has a fleet of autonomous driverless vehicles on the streets. Success of Jack Ma of Alibaba is also noted. Conversations branch off into futuristic scenarios far beyond the products at hand.

Over the past decade I’ve seen career ambitions of Chinese students transitioning as well. In past years students from both China and the US, but especially China, felt strong responsibility to only consider a position in a traditional company with little chance of ever being fired, which was sure to please anxious parents. Today they’re still careful, but also consider working with start-ups or newer companies they deem destined for great things.

Jobs are a primary consideration, because as Dr. Pissarides of the London School of Economics pointed out in his keynote address, “technology does not raise all ships.” Technology ultimately should reduce the length of work weeks, benefitting fields that can make money from workers’ potential extra time, he believes. Routine jobs are the most likely to be lost, but Pissarides expects job creation in a variety of other fields, such as luxury products or services that can’t be computerized; higher-level health care with specialized personal treatment; a variety of education fields; and the real estate industry.

We can’t predict the future, but students today have a much better vision of it. Innovation comes more naturally to them and harnessing it for profit is the next progression.


Andrew Leckey, a visiting scholar at Fudan Development Institute and previously a Fulbright Scholar in China, has lectured at a number of Chinese universities. A former syndicated columnist, television anchor and author in the US, he is President of the Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism and the Chair in Business Journalism at Arizona State University.


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