The rise of China: changing patterns of global innovation and entrepreneurship

A new era is under way for global high-technology innovation and entrepreneurship, marked by the rise of Greater China. During the past several decades, Taiwan, Singapore, and others have developed as centers in key information communications technology (ICT) industries. More recently, from Beijing to the Pearl River Delta, markets for new products are expanding, competencies in new technologies are growing, and a new generation of high-technology regions is emerging. All these signs point toward China as a rising powerhouse, accelerating the shift of locus for the global high-technology arena across the Pacific.

The contours of the nature and pace of this change are already evident in some ICT industries but have yet to be fully analyzed. The Stanford Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SPRIE) (SPRIE) is leading a research program to advance the understanding of the dynamic systems of innovation and entrepreneurship that drive China’s ascendance in high technology and its implications for the global knowledge economy.


No longer satisfied with China’s role as the world’s factory, Chinese government leaders have declared that zizhu chuangxin (“homegrown” innovation) is the watchword for the future. They are sounding an urgent call to reduce dependence on foreign technology and build China into an “innovation-driven economy.” As President Hu Jintao said, “homegrown innovation” is the “core of national competitiveness”— the path to sustainable economic prosperity and global leadership.

Last May, SPRIE co-sponsored Greater China's Innovative Capacities: Progress and Challenges, a two-day, invitation-only workshop at Tsinghua University in Beijing that attracted scholars from Europe, the U.S., and Asia, as well as Chinese industry leaders and government policymakers. More than 70 participants tackled topics such as indicators of innovative capacity (patent data and journal citations, for example), reforms of Chinese research institutions to spur commercially useful innovation, and the changing roles for innovation of the state, multinational corporations (MNCs), and domestic firms.

A few numbers illustrate China’s progress over the past decade. Total R&D spending nearly tripled, reaching 1.3 percent of GDP in 2005, even while GDP doubled. China is now ranked third worldwide in overall R&D spending (after the U.S. and Japan), with targets to increase spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2010. Science and engineering PhDs more than doubled between 1996 and 2005. And China’s growth rate of U.S. patents granted has eclipsed Japan, Taiwan, or Korea, with an even steeper trajectory in Chinese-authored science and technical publications in international journals.

Yet, according to SPRIE Co-Director Henry S. Rowen, “the highest value-added work in China still is done largely in foreign-invested companies and increasingly in firms led by returnees who have been educated and worked abroad. Currently most R&D is focused on incremental improvements of existing products and services. Nevertheless, the key building blocks are in place for increasing technology contributions.” At MNC R&D centers like Nokia and Microsoft, top Chinese teams are beginning to contribute to worldwide product design and research. Through interviews at more than 75 firms in Beijing and Shanghai, SPRIE researchers have identified emerging competencies at some of the best domestic research labs and companies, ranging from multimedia chip design to communication equipment.

Huawei, the telecommunications networking giant with 2005 revenues of $5.9 billion, reports consistently spending more than 10 percent of sales on R&D. Boasting more than 10,000 researchers in China plus R&D centers in Bangalore, Silicon Valley, Dallas, Stockholm, and Moscow and 3,600 patent applications in 2005, the company epitomizes China’s growing pursuit of low-cost innovation, not just low-cost manufacturing and services.

However, obstacles to China’s drive for innovation are not trivial. Many Chinese institutions, though improving, still fail to provide an environment conducive for innovation, including a competitive and open system for R&D funding or effective intellectual property protection. As SPRIE associate director Marguerite Gong Hancock observes, “The current gold rush mentality for quick profits runs counter to breakthrough technology innovation that is typically the result of patient investments in research with long-term and uncertain payoffs. To date, some of the most innovative bright spots are not in disruptive technologies but in processes, services, and business models.”

One notable obstacle confronting Chinese high-tech firms is a leadership talent shortage, a problem that is the focus of another SPRIE research initiative.


Since 1999, founders have led 24 Chinese firms to IPOs on NASDAQ. From this unprecedented number of startups to a rising class of billion-dollar giants going global, high-tech companies in China have a dramatically intensifying need for leadership.

To examine how China’s high-tech executives are facing this challenge, SPRIE partnered with Heidrick & Struggles, a leading executive search firm, to conduct more than 100 interviews with executives at both domestic and multinational high-tech firms operating in China.

Leaders face what Nick Yang (MS ’99), founder of wireless service provider KongZhong, described as “uncharted waters.” They must create a cadre of top leaders and managers in the face of an acute shortage of seasoned managers and globally capable executives. As John Deng, founder and CEO of Vimicro (a fabless semiconductor company with $396 million market cap), said, “I don’t lack other things, such as funding, infrastructure, or government relations. What I lack now is people.”

SPRIE Co-Director William F. Miller commented, “Interestingly, not one interviewee expressed an intention to adopt a management model that diverges significantly from the dominant global model,” a model defined by competencies well documented as key among U.S. and European executives. Based on the SPRIE-Heidrick study, some of these competencies currently are both more critical and more difficult to find in China: the ability to drive results, achieve customer orientation, provide visionary leadership, create organizational buy-in, model key values, and delegate and empower. The best leaders not only are seeking these competencies in senior executives but also cascading these attributes throughout their organizations.

The impact ripples throughout the talent pipeline, from recruiting to retaining to developing key people. High-tech leaders in China are deploying a wide range of new tactics. Miller noted, “To address pressing leadership shortages, executives are devoting an unusually large amount of their time and attention to talent and human resource issues.” As Mary Ma, CFO of computer giant Lenovo, stated, “I have become an HR manager. I spend 30 percent of my time on people and succession issues.” And the best companies are systematically using their best leaders to mentor and mold the next generation of professionals—the mid-level managers and team leaders, who are mobile, scarce, and frequently lack the full set of skills needed to drive results.

Emerging trends in leadership among China’s hightech executives may be a good harbinger, pointing to how and where this influential generation of China’s high-tech leaders are steering their firms—firms that have been charged with the task of leading China’s future economic growth.