Transferring Technology to China

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Dr. Steven A. Leibo is the professor of international history & politics at the Sage Colleges

It was more than a quarter of a century ago. When as a young academic interested in the historic relationship between Asia and the West I hit upon a topic that seemed perfect for a dissertation, the career of a nineteenth century French naval officer who had spent his career helping to transfer naval technology to China.

Sure, the Chinese were good enough at building ships sailing ships. Indeed, they had sent an enormous fleet sailing from Asia to the west decades before Christopher Columbus was born.

Nevertheless, what they still lacked by the mid nineteenth century was knowledge of how to tap the energy of coal to create the steam necessary to turn pistons that created the west’s fossil fuel driven industrial revolution. Or in by subject’s case turned the propellers of that ran the steam ships.

O.k. there is was a certain irony here. The Chinese had most likely been using the properties of coal to melt copper for thousands of years. But Europeans had mastered its greatest new energy potential by the end of the 18th century and while my dissertation subject was focused on transferring coal driven steam ship technology to China others were helping the Chinese develop an entire host of new scientific skills from modern chemistry to, by the early 1900s, film making.

And yes, many listeners will well remember, the necessity of transferring high technology to China by nineteenth century Westerners is somewhat ironic. After all, for centuries it had been the extraordinary Chinese technologies, that had moved west; from paper making to gunpowder, from printed books to the compass.

Nevertheless, that was not the case by the nineteenth century. By then imperial China seemed more interested in the methods of the past then the possibilities of the future. While the West, powered by the coal driven industrial revolution had soared ahead making the transfer of technology fundamental to any effort by China to catch up.

But that was then and this is now. Today, we on the cusp of yet another energy revolution. However, this time, it is the Chinese who are soaring ahead, as China is emerging as the leader in wind energy technology even as it pours vast amounts of effort into solar.

Yes, China is pushing its own green energy revolution, because its leaders understand that the end of the fossil fuel era is clearly at hand.

At hand, because of unsustainable environmental hazards from the hemorrhage in the gulf to the threat of global climatic disruption and the simple diminishing levels of world oil stocks as more of us from Delhi to Beijing from Houston to London compete for the stuff. However, Beijing’s leaders also understand that building the green energy economy of tomorrow. Also means employing people today to build that future.Not just embracing the new green energy technologies but earning the profits from selling the technology of that green energy conversion

Oh sure, America’s Obama administration has also committed billions to nurture tomorrow’s green energy future with today’s jobs But given Obama’s poll numbers it seems clear that most Americans still don’t get it. Still fail to see the big picture on the emerging new world economy even as the Chinese government is pushing far faster toward that green energy future.

No clearly, it is beginning to seem obvious to this observer that America is going to lose the race to the new green energy future. Most importantly, lose the race for the jobs that will come to those who innovate fast enough.

Which brings me to my core speculation I am just wondering if at some point China might eventually consider returning the favor; be kind enough to transfer some of that newly developed technology back to the west? Especially to today’s America, a nation that lately seems far too much like imperial China, a society too frozen in yesterday to envision the future.

Yes, it really would be nice if Beijing would seriously consider one day transferring some of those new technologies back here.
It would only seem fair. It is after all their turn.

About Steven Leibo

This entry was posted in Asia, China, Energy, The Climate Crisis, Uncategorized, WAMC Northeast Public Radio Commentaries. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Transferring Technology to China

  1. Lillie Ruby says:

    I suppose the question is, “what instigated the ‘helping’ behavior the first time around?” — when we or other nations reached out to help China catch up. Maybe understanding the motivation is key to instigating the behavior.

  2. Steven Leibo says:

    The Western nations did not really ‘reach out” to help China. Actually they were far more interested in gaining advantage in that highly imperialist age. Chinese governments simply hired westerners like Prosper Giquel to transfer technology and western governments supported the efforts because it was good for their economies. Nothing all that different from today. Thanks for writing.

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