Can China Let "A Thousand Flowers Bloom" Again?

Campaign designed to encourage dissent and dialogue did, in fact, result in dissent and even protest. Although the so-called elite never seriously entertained the propaganda program, it ended soon and dissent was squelched

by / August 1, 2006
John Eger -- who was telecom advisor to the Nixon White House and visited China in that capacity following Nixon's ground-breaking meeting with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in 1972 -- recently returned from a 17-day, nine-city tour of China. Eger, a frequent contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO, is president of The World Foundation for Smart Communities and holds the Endowed Van Deerlin Chair in Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University.

At one point in Chairman Mao's long rein, he launched a short-lived campaign to appease the "intellectuals" and assure them that changes he was implementing were good for the future of China. Called "Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom," the campaign was designed to encourage dissent and dialogue throughout the country. It did, in fact, result in dissent and even protest. Although the so-called elite never seriously entertained the propaganda program, it ended soon and dissent was squelched.

Now China has made it clear over the last several weeks that they are not going to be simply a manufacturing center or sub-assembly and processing factory for other multi-national corporations. Rather, it is staking out new ground as an "Innovation Economy" -- one that makes its money generating new inventions and innovations to existing products, not merely assembling products for others.

To accomplish its goals, the Chinese government will authorize over 70 billion Yuan, or $8.5 billion, for investment in science and technology next year, and every year thereafter. This itself represents an increase of nearly 20 percent annually. The Chinese, however, have more in mind than R&D spending. A huge propaganda campaign is planned to educate the Chinese masses, to include online discussions and the formation of an "innovation demonstration team" to tour the country and promote the idea. The government is also talking of the need to reform the financial and tax systems to provide incentives for the growth of cutting-edge industries.

Not surprisingly, China wants creativity to "bloom" again, as creativity is the key to innovation. This, however, calls for a climate where freedom and openness are commonplace. Ironically -- despite its continuing efforts to intimidate foreign news organizations, and agreements with Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to block access to certain Web sites -- China is now looking for ways to encourage creativity and innovation.

Factory 798, just outside of Beijing, for example, is unique because it is the only corner of Beijing to be "transformed by artists," according to the China Daily, an official English-language publication of the Chinese government. "798 could become a model for the alternative way to develop cities," said the publication.

The Factory was originally designed to turn out subassembly and other strategic electronic components. It is now evolving into a hub of cultural and artistic activities and attracting cultural and urban elites from virtually every point on the planet. Some galleries even poke fun at the damage that Mao created with his so-called "cultural revolution."

One painting on the wall makes clear that the pen is mightier than the sword and says in effect "there can be no innovative, creative economy without art." Elsewhere artists and gallery owners make clear that art can only survive in an environment of freedom. It is clear in Factory 798 and other galleries -- and importantly, at universities throughout China -- that there cannot be an innovative economy unless there are significant changes in China's attitude toward the cultural and creative side of life.

In cities across China there is hope again that the repressive measures of the past are completely gone -- and that new policies will allow a greater freedom for all to enjoy art and culture and life itself. It is not at all clear, however, that China can have both a rigid policy for controlling the creative human spirit and a so-called "innovative" economy.