Chinese turning points

One of the lesser known historical figures is the 15th century Chinese admiral Zheng He. Although he was arguably one of the great explorers, on par with Columbus, da Gama, and Magellan, the memory of his journeys quickly faded away. The history of his discoveries is a story about the impact of policy on innovation, for good and for bad. It’s a story that innovation is not automatically invincible, that the clock can be turned back; it’s a story worth telling.

Zheng He set sail from Nanjing in 1405, commanding a fleet of more than 300 vessels and more than 27,000 sailors.  The largest of his treasure ships had nine masts, with a main mast higher than Columbus’ Santa Maria was long, and with a hull more than five times as long and two times as wide as Santa Maria’s length. Zheng He’s fleet, and even many of the individual ships, dwarfed anything European sailors had ever built or seen (and would see or built for more than a century to come).

Zheng He was ordered by Emperor Yongle, who pursued several objectives through sending out a treasure fleet to explore the coasts to the South and West. He sought to open up alternative trade routes as the Mongols had increasingly threatened exchange and commerce through central Asia. Along the way, he sought to establish diplomatic relations, which meant acknowledgment of the Empire’s superiority and direct tribute payments. And finally, he sought to increase the fame and honour of the Empire, and thereby enhance his own legitimacy.

Zheng He’s fleet was a formidable means to project the imperial power, though it was not a war fleet. And except a few instances, he refrained from the use of force. He had no interest nor need to establish permanent control over territories or peoples, as he could achieve his goals through temporal presence.

In seven journeys until 1433, Zheng He ventured into the Indian Ocean, travelled to India’s coast, to the Arabian peninsula, and along the African coast as far as Mombasa. At a time when the Europeans were busy in the Mediterranean, but well before they ventured west and south into the Atlantic, Zheng He’s journeys opened to door wide for China to dominate global trade for the centuries to come.

However, Emperor Yongle died already in 1424, and his successors and their advisors pursue different politics. As a result, the Empire turned its back on the oceans and focused its attention, energy, and resources on the steppe and the intruders from the west and north. To an extent you might say that the Great Wall took to role of the Great Fleet. Already by 1450, that fleet was not maintained anymore; and by 1470, most official records about the fleet and the journeys were lost. Before Columbus started his endeavour, the knowledge of Zheng He’s journeys and his achievements were already largely forgotten.

As China turned inwards, it left the stage open for the Europeans, who entered the Indian ocean only 90 years after Zheng He.  While they were technologically still clearly inferior, they were far more aggressive in their approach, in securing trade routes, and ultimately in building their own empires.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is comparatively easy to assess events that occurred 600 years ago in their wider context. Over that long distance, most outcomes are known; hence it is easy to see the impact of government policies (in this case: at the imperial court) on innovation (promoting exploration in one case, while undermining and prohibiting exploration in the other). It’s an entirely different challenge to judge current events in a similar way, when the impact cannot be known yet. Still, I’ll give it try.

In an earlier post on leadership, I had quoted a speech by (then Vice-) President Xi Jinping, in which he had highlighted the importance of innovation, and especially of science, for social progress. And while I am still in agreement with the main thrust of that speech, I was struck by Xi’s recent announcement (here or here) that Chinese universities should become strongholds of the Communist Party’s principles.

It is far too early to assess the full impact this new doctrine will have. But direct political control over the university teaching is poised to create the conditions for uncritical support to government policy, for policy-based evidence. University research would focus resources (money, facilities, brains) on a narrow range of topics, selected for their immediate political utility. Each of these trends alone could severely damage the innovation supply chain that is the backbone for the economic growth that is needed for the progress and cohesion of China’s society.

Time will tell whether this could be another Chinese turning point …


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