Is Dissent A Necessary Condition for Innovation?

The Case of China

By Shlomo  Maital  


In this blog, I prefer to raise a question, rather than provide an opinionated answer

  The question is:  Can China become an innovation leader,  without permitting open dissent and democratic debate? 

 In today’s New York Times,  Stephen Sass, a Cornell materials scientist, argues, the answer is no.  “I don’t believe China will lead in innovation anytime soon – or at least not until it moves its institutional culture away from suppression of dissent and toward freedom of expression and encouragement of critical thought.”  He notes that almost all the paradigm-shifting innovations in the past few hundred years emerged “in countries with relatively high levels of political and intellectual liberty.”  The reason?  Free countries encourage people to be skeptical and curious. National innovation is the result of creative individuals who have the freedom to broach new ideas.  And finally, free societies attract creative talent, oppressed societies push them out. 

    Here is a series of ‘yes’ arguments.   China will innovate, by innovating its own approach to innovation.  For instance, China excels at “design for value”, innovations in product design that create excellence in ‘manufacturability’.  Chinese innovation will be far more team-based, rather than garage-based American Wild West individualism.  China’s culture fosters discipline, and focused discipline is a key aspect of innovation. China’s huge growing internal market will make entrepreneurship much easier, as startups can sell at home rather than sell abroad, as in Israel.  China has massive savings, which make availability of capital for startups much easier than in the West.  China’s educational system generates enormous numbers of engineers; even if only 1 per cent of them are creative, that is sufficient to fuel a wave of innovation. 

     Can China become truly innovative?  Don’t hold your breath for China to become democratic and tolerate widespread dissonance. The Chinese leadership believes this would blow the lid of China’s economy.  Given the ‘in the box’ thinking of innovation without dissent —  China will struggle to find its way.  Time will tell if they succeed.