China Landing on the Moon, and Good Luck

It is all the rage today in China.  The MOON!  Finally, against all odds and the laughter and snickering in the background, China has landed a rover on the MOON.  For China, it’s a big deal.  The rest of the World perhaps while not being so surprised by this development, is still impressed that China was able to get that little Jade Rabbit up there, albeit for only a brief time before it appears to have died.

What’s next you ask?  Well…it’s still the MOON of course!  And why not?  After all, haven’t we all internalized the growing ability and POWER of China?  Should we expect anything less?  

Methinks not.

We’re all waiting for the Big Show to begin.  The announcement from China on when it will pay respect to the elephant in the room.   We are waiting for China to send Astronauts to the Moon, ala Neil Armstrong. 

Small problem with that, and I’ll tell you why:  China won’t be “sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely” anytime soon.  No need to hold your breathe and gasp in awe.  It just ain’t gonna happen.  

It’s not that China has no sense of urgency about these things.  They do.  And maybe that’s the problem.  You see, as only China can so magnificently do, it’s bold talk and daring has only raised the expectations of the PEOPLE.    China has raised the ante, and the Masses are waiting.  What’s strange is not that failure will give China a big black eye in the eyes of the global community.   You see….we get it Beijing!

We understand that Space Exploration has it’s risks.   Just as the USSR and the USA both lost people in the crusade we call Space Exploration, so may YOU.   And…..we will not hold it against you.

However….thanks to that mercurial phenomena we call Chinese Psychology, it is a Big Deal.  

Failure to send Astronauts(or Taikonauts) to the Moon in a orderly fashion…or even worse, to send them there to DIE, would just rock the Chinese gov…..and Beijing still isn’t ready to look bad in the eyes of the people.   So you see, all this incessant talk (and success) has not only raised everybody’s hopes, but also heightened the likelihood of China’s leaders losing FACE, if something isn’t done soon.

It is here, where China needs to be careful.  Don’t rush.  Don’t hurry.  You are not ready to send astronauts to the moon, and bring them back safely.  Not even close.  And this is why:

Bad bicycles

How can China go to the MOON if it can’t even make a good bicycle?  For years, China was the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer.  Shouldn’t  it follow China should therefore have some of the World’s best bikes?  Shouldn’t it follow the most prodigious builder of bikes would know a thing or two about the technology? Might even be an exporter of them?  For 40 years China’s people had nothing but bikes and the public bus as a major mode of transportation.  

Alas, “building a better mousetrap” doesn’t apply to “building a better bike”.   Despite the more than plentiful experience China gained building bikes, they never really got any better.   One would think that the more a product is built, the more innovative the newer version would be.

And so goes with manufacturing products in general, and China’s inherent sloppiness. 

Shanghai Automotive had a JV with GM for years.  All to gain experience building cars.  Siphoning off ideas for its own products.  Develop engineering talent.  And to this day SAIC has yet to ship a single car to the States that has been organically developed.  Not one.  

China just doesn’t know how to build things very well.  Bridges anyone?

Seriously, if you never mastered advanced bicycle technology, and if your bridges keep falling down, what does that say about your mfg prowess?  Yes, China has lots of shiny skyscrapers.  That were designed by other, foreign firms…. But I ask you…what has China designed and built on it’s own?

Which leads us to…..

Organically developed vs Reverse Engineering

If you wanna make it to the Moon, you gotta get out of the habit of reverse engineering everything.   Conducting RE in itself is not an inherently bad thing to do.  It’s cheaper and it saves time.  However, RE only mimics abt 80% of the original products dimensions.  So right off the bat there will be something lost in the fit and perhaps functionality of a product, though you will gain in savings and leadtime. 

Still, a nation has to have a strong ethos of organically building product, ie creating new products from scratch.   A nation can get away from copying others dwgs and designs only up to a point.  After all, RE is only a step in the learning process, ie food for thought in terms of building an innovative product yourself.  

A nation can’t copy forever.  China is still in the copy phase.  Indeed, it’s apparently made this part of it’s national industrial policy.   A way to save on investment, sure, but not the best thing for your engineering  force.   Only by building original product and making mistakes, expensive mistakes, can a nation progress towards making original product.   China has conscientiously chosen not to do this.

Design vs Build

Related to the above, a country needs to be able to develop the ability to design it’s own product, not just build product that others design.  (I’m talking about exports to a sophisticated market.  One cannot organically make product unless it has the ability to design it’s own product. ) Then it has to have the ability to sell that product.

The key to America’s success(or any other country) is still it’s ability to design product.  I always laugh when I see folks focused on the US-Sino trade deficit.  Nevermind almost all of that US deficit is composed of US companies themselves building their own product in China and then shipping it somewhere else. 

I think China will not really be able to develop it’s Space Program until it can do the above.

Brain Drain

Don’t know about you, but an awful lot of smart Chinese live in my local community.  They all have graduate degrees and work for big name companies.  They are appreciated and highly sought after.  Akin to Chinese workers building the first American Transcontinental Railroad, they are a godsend to America’s workforce.  They dominate our IT labor force.  They are all either statisticians, mathematicians, etc.   

Every engineer I come across is one fewer that lives in China.  Simple as that.   I came across a pretty Mathematics Grad Student the other day.  First Female in this field I’d ever met.  And she was thinking of getting her Phd! 

Think she’s going back home anytime soon?  (Ha!)

I have to wonder as a result if China’s best and brightest are still in China or not?  I don’t think so.

As a result, I have to wonder if any of the many engineers in China’s Space Program aren’t thinking the same?  Why wouldn’t they?  It’s only natural for the most talented and ambitious to want to work in places where others just like them exist.   Where their talents will be more fairly rewarded.  

Money and Culture

While China without question has the passion to reach the moon, it has yet to make the true investment required to get to the Moon.  In the 60’s 5% of the American budget…(5%!), was dedicated to NASA.  People ask why the USA hasn’t gone back since the early 70’s.  See above.  Money.  In today’s dollar’s NASA’s yearly budget would need to equal over $200 billion dollars, in order to equal the annual investment of the 60’s.  

Today’s NASA investment is less than $20 billion.   Notoriously willing to spend great sums of money to advance a national cause(Olympics anyone?), does China really have the money available to spend such sums today?  Of course not.
And if it did, it obviously lacks the concentration of talent(brain drain, right?).

And even if it had the, money, and the talent(with the passion), it lacks the culture.  What do I mean?

China lacks both the entrepreneurial zeal, and the give and take within large companies that is needed to create original hi tech product of such stature.  Small companies will not be taking China to the Moon. (yes, it would be helpful if smaller companies that do have the entrepreurial focus were able to more easily get gov’t loans)

That’s really the difference between the West and China.  Smaller companies in the West lead innovation.   In China, it’s behemoth organizations are planned and directed by the State.  Yes, sure there are a few smaller companies in China doing ok.  Are any of them involved directly with critical industry?   The larger the company, the more bureaucratic.   The more bureaucratic, the less likely innovative ideas will rise to the top.   

Thus the influx of small companies in the West.

(if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know I’m not always a big fan of large organizations.  They’re all abt the next performance review.  Too many employees go to work not with the goal of creating value but with the goal of not fucking up.  People with passion all too often get dinged as being “impolite”, or not “harmonious enough”.   Thus the pressure to “conform”.   Value creation isn’t emphasized as much as “getting along” is, when you work for an American company.  That’s why talented people quite often leave and create their own firm. )

China is too guanxi focused, and it’s people too sensitive to negative criticism.  The concept of constructive criticism through all layers of society does not exist, accept amongst very good friends.   When in a factory setting I often see engineers from the same company, on the same project, come to near fisticuffs.   

The ability to calmly debate without taking personal offense, while hard in any country, is especially so in China.  The Chinese tend to hold grudges, more so than the West.  The concept of FACE simply is too strong an impediment to allow free discourse to flow.  And when there is a lack of discourse, the ability to solve problems disappears.

And this brings me to….

Habits are hard to die

China has poor societal discipline.  Nothing illustrates this more than China’s attitude towards litter.  Few things rile, or even amaze the laowai, when in China, as willful littering.  All strata of society within China brazenly litter.   Yet if one thinks for a moment, there is a logic to China’s habit of littering. 

Doesn’t China have more street cleaners than any other country you’ve visited?  Constantly cleaning the streets.  (Despite what one may think, recycling of plastic bottles is really very efficient here.  Hardly anything gets put in the recycle dumpster.  Sr citizens simply pick them out of the trash. )

When in a mall, or in my case, the vast electronic components markets of Shenzhen, though every single kiosk has it’s own wastepaper basket, the workers willfully just throw their paper trash outside the kiosk onto the floor!  Why do this when you have your own trash basket?  Because the workers fully understand someone will pick it up!  (Nevermind when) 

When the whole population has this mindset that someone else will clean this up, how does this lead to good societal discipline?   The sense of personal accountability takes a hit.  A nation cannot develop it’s own sophisticated mfg and design prowess, with original product that can be sold at nice margins, until it has this.

China will make it to the Moon.  It will bring Taikonauts back safely.  But I think for now, China has reached the limits of the “easy stuff”.    Give it some time.  I hope it succeeds.   The USA needs a perceived rival.   Only when China has successfully made it to the Moon, and brought it’s astronauts back, will the USA feel any sort of motivation to pick up the pace.


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