BEIJING -- How did China go from being an impoverished nation in the 1970s to challenging the United States' role as the world economic superpower? Cheap labor? Hard work? Authoritarianism? The unleashed hunger of a people determined to prosper?
The authors of a new book, "Chinese Industrial Espionage," say there is another factor: mass technology transfer. Since the mid-1950s, the Chinese government has been transferring the science and technology of the developed world to China via methods that are legal, illegal and "extralegal" -- because they are hidden from scrutiny -- while keeping out the democratic system and liberal education that enabled such advances in the first place.
"We are talking here of an elaborate, comprehensive system for spotting foreign technologies, acquiring them by every means imaginable, and converting them into weapons and competitive goods. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world," write William C. Hannas, James Mulvenon and Anna B. Puglisi, who conduct research for the U.S. government.
Why do it?
One answer is that the cultural and political changes necessary to build a creative and innovative society would endanger the Communist Party's grip on power, the authors said in written answers to questions. By taking from the developed world what it cannot, or will not, produce itself, it benefits from modernization and freedoms elsewhere, while keeping the lid on at home.
"The problem China's leaders face is how to encourage innovation in one sphere while discouraging it in others," the authors said. "Thanks to these transfer programs, they can selectively import novel ideas while avoiding the challenge of political survival in a free society."
In recent years, the Chinese government has begun encouraging innovation. The authors said it was happening in a limited way, "in areas where the regime has identified a stake."
"Pair talent (native or imported) and money with good research facilities and 'borrowing' foreign ideas and it's a potent mix," they said.
In a book likely to annoy and please in equal measure, the authors use Chinese-language sources, often from public policy documents, to describe a system that has at its core not the attention-grabbing issue of cyberespionage, but human-based, meticulous, often open-source acquisition that involves multiple actors at all levels of the party and state, and appeals to the patriotism of Chinese abroad.
Who may be annoyed by the book's conclusion that China resorts to unfair methods? Those who believe that "'developed countries' have no right to monopolize 'the world's technology,"' a view regularly expressed in the Chinese news media, the authors write; and Chinese patriots who say they are only bringing back to China what they have created themselves.
Who may be pleased? The "individuals and companies that invest in original R&D," and "countries that tolerate the strains, and bear the costs, of an open and diverse society in which creativity can flourish," since the transfer practices are "unfair" to these two groups, the authors say.
Support from Chinese abroad is often channeled through science, technology and business associations in developed countries. While the authors focus on the United States, they write that Europe, Japan, Australia and other nations are equal targets.
The Federation of Chinese Professional Associations in Europe, which is based in Frankfurt, plays a key role, they say.
"From the Baltic coast to the Alps, from the Ural Mountains to the east coast of the Atlantic Ocean, on Europe's vast earth," the association says on its Web site, "is gathered a crowd of yellow-skinned, black-haired people," whose "common ideal is to build a knowledge group of Chinese spanning expertise and subjects to push strongly for China's reform and construction." The organization lists 39 member groups in different European countries.
The top post on the site announces the Yangtze River Delta Meeting, an event being organized by the Chinese government for Sept. 9-14.
Following the link leads to a form asking applicants to list the European country they live in, their employer, their research and results, including patents, as well as details of projects they can present. It supplies a list of what the partner "science innovation parks" in China are looking for, including new aircraft materials, energy, auto and microchip technologies, cloud computing, pharmaceuticals and high-end medical equipment. All expenses inside China will be covered by the organizers, the Overseas Chinese Affairs offices of Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces and of Shanghai. The goal? "To serve the country."
Efforts to contact the organizers by telephone failed. One number was missing a digit, another's voice mail said the recipient was traveling, and a third rang, but no one answered on a holiday in China.
The cultural pattern for this technology acquisition effort reaches back to the 19th century, the authors write. Struggling to respond to the challenge posed by the scientifically powerful West and Japan, some Chinese reformers proposed the idea of "tiyong." "Ti" means essence, and "yong" means practical use; preserve the essence of Chinese learning but use Western learning to serve China.
In their written answers, the authors said: "China seems to think it can import or steal foreign technologies and then strip them of their political or social content."
"While they have been successful thus far in importing information and communication technologies for economic development without threatening the stability of the regime, each new wave of disruptive technologies poses dangerous challenges to the present government," they said.
"At the strategic level, the regime believes that it can separate economic liberalization from political liberalization under the so-called 'Tiananmen bargain,' whereby the population trades liberty for continued prosperity," referring to the economic and political model that deepened after the suppression of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. "This also reflects a superficial understanding of the tectonic changes under way," they said.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.