It’s a common stigma: Chinese people aren’t creative. They can only copy, they aren’t good critical thinkers, and they can’t think outside the box.
If you were to look at the countries most successful companies and entrepreneurs, you might be swayed to agree. While there are a few exceptions, many of the big names are viewed as local adaptations of western models. Baidu copied Google. Alibaba copied Ebay, Amazon, and Paypal. Weibo copied Twitter.
When I hear fellow foreigners in Beijing discuss this topic, the most common culprit that comes up is China’s education system. You’ve probably heard the old tropes about “rote memorization” and “tiger moms” killing creativity in kids. Another stereotype is that Chinese people are too “safe” to start businesses or take jobs at startups. They prefer to work for large corporations or government enterprises where a routine schedule and monthly paycheck are guaranteed. The assumption is that this carries over into the entrepreneurial sphere.
But local Chinese entrepreneurs that I’ve spoken with often sing quite a different tune. Rarely do they cite their education or societal preference for financial security as the roots of non-creativity. In fact, many of them argue Chinese entrepreneurs are equally as creative as their western counterparts. The difference is that those truly creative people don’t receive investment or support. The real reason we seldom see disruptive startups coming out of China’s woodwork lies with the venture capitalists and angel investors, who favor startups that use tried-and-tested western models adapted for local markets. As a result, outsiders often only see the copies.
Neither argument should be axioms that guide our judgments about China’s startup ecosystem, nor are they completely without merit. Most successful Chinese entrepreneurs have at least some experience, in education or otherwise, living overseas. As we’ve noted before, going abroad is good advice for any prospective entrepreneur if feasible. I’ve also spoken with entrepreneurs who have trouble hiring good talent because the top graduates are being snatched up by giant companies with deep pockets.
That doesn’t mean that born-and-raised native Chinese are less inclined to be creative, though. When AngelHack CEO Greg Gopman visited Beijing for a hackathon last weekend, he was surprised at just how innovative the ideas were, many of which he said were unique in his 100-plus hackathon experience. Some local entrepreneurs I’ve talked to have even expressed an interest in going abroad to seek investment for their startups because they don’t have faith in investors in China to support new ideas.
It’s a catch-22 argument: investors don’t reward creativity, so the Chinese have no impetus to be creative. The Chinese are less creative, so investors can’t reward creativity. Neither is an infallible excuse, but both contain a grain of truth.
In the coming years, as the startup ecosystem – and the country as a whole – continues to develop, both arguments will begin to fade. Until then, we should realize there are two sides to this argument, and neither deserves all the blame.
(Photo credit: Flickr user ruben alexander)
(Editing by Josh Horwitz)