China would be more innovative if it treated innovation less like basketball and more like ping-pong, reports Bob Davis in The Wall Street Journal (9/30/13). In China, "ping-pong tables are everywhere in public spaces and open to all comers … producing a reservoir of talent that has made China a ping-pong innovator and champion. By contrast, basketball courts in China are generally locked up. Entrance is controlled by the state … shrinking the talent pool and the chance for youngsters to hone their moves. The result: basketball mediocrity."
China’s problem is that its "state-led innovation model, where science and technology ministries identify priority areas" and "fund them generously," is similar to its basketball model. "With innovation, there is serendipity," says economist Bai Chong-en. "You need a lot of participants because only 1 in 1,000 ideas may succeed … It’s just like ping pong, where there is a lot of grass-roots participation." The result is that even though China is now "the world’s No. 2 spender on R&D behind the US," its ‘innovations’ are iterative, rather than breakthrough.
For example, China "currently makes the world’s fastest supercomputer," but invests relatively little in "the kind of research that can spawn new fields over time." Its state-controlled approach "snuffs out what’s often called ‘curiosity-based’ innovation." The basic question for China is: "How much are they willing to ease control, let markets operate more freely and encourage curiosity-based innovation? The more they pull back, the more they may reduce their ability to control society. The more they continue to dominate, the less they spur the kind of innovation that can create new technologies and industries."