By Aaron Pressman and Clay Chandler
August 8, 2018

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The U.S.-China trade war has rekindled the old debate about whether China is capable of genuine technological innovation. This time around, though, some of the most strident skeptics of China’s achievements are Chinese.

An early sign of the turnabout came in April, after the Trump administration slapped a ban on U.S. sales to ZTE, China’s second-largest telecommunications manufacturer. To many in China, the ban was a kind of “Sputnik moment” because it revealed that one of China’s proudest tech leaders was almost entirely dependent on American microchips.

In the wake of the ZTE ban, President Xi urged the nation to “abandon illusions and rely on ourselves” for breakthroughs in science and tech. But it was unclear which “illusions” he meant. Was he reproaching those who imagined that China no longer needs foreign technology? Or was he just warning that China could no longer count on buying that technology from overseas?

Xi himself has drawn criticism for China’s technological failures in recent weeks following an viral post on WeChat that stoked public anxieties about a vaccine recall by one of China’s largest drug companies. The post alleged deliberate falsification of health data by a web of unscrupulous executives, scientists and regulators. The government launched a high-profile investigation—and clamped down on online discussion. But the incident sparked nationwide outrage that, for all China’s vaunted advances in science, its citizens live in constant fear of fake vaccines, fake baby formula, toxic food, and foul air and water.

Such outrage helped fuel a vehement attack in social media this month against Hu Angang, director of the center for China Studies at prestigious Tsinghua University and author of China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower. Hu’s critics have denounced him as a “triumphalist” who exaggerates the nation’s economic and technological prowess. Meanwhile, Jack Ma’s South China Morning Post this week published an essay by Zhang Jun, dean of the school of economics in Fudan University, arguing that in sectors like semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and automobile manufacturing, China is “nowhere near the technological frontier,” and more than 20 years behind South Korea and Japan when it comes to getting results from investments in research and development.

Not everyone has been swept up in the triumphalist backlash. Baidu CEO Robin Li took a moment to taunt Google on his social media account following reports that the U.S. search giant is eying a return to China. Baidu was already trouncing Google in 2010, Li noted, and will be even harder to beat now. We’ll “win again,” he crowed. Robin to Sundar: come at me bro’!

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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