Why I think Stanford professor James Landay's piece on computing in China in 2011 exposed his idiocy
I dittoed his blog post on my LiveJournal too, see https://gmachine1729.livejournal.com/175023.html. For the original, see https://dubfuture.blogspot.com/2011/12/china-will-overtake-us-in.html.
I'll write a rebuttal to parts and pieces of his blog post here.
I have spent 2½ years living in China and in that time I have: worked at Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA), the top research organization in the country, taught at Tsinghua University, the top computer science department in the country, and organized several major technical research events in China. Before coming to China, I earned my PhD at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the top computer science departments in the world, earned tenure at Berkeley (another top department), founded a start-up, ran a ubiquitous computing research lab for Intel, and served as a professor at the University of Washington (another top computer science department). More detail on my background is here. I think this experience puts me in good position to make an informed assessment on computing in China. You be the judge. I’m sure I’m not right on everything and these are just my opinions, but after two years I’ve seen quite a bit, talked to many people, and I’m starting to have a good feel for what is going on here in China.
Tsinghua University and Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) are actually quite far from mainstream Chinese society. Even in computing related stuff, they are only a part of what goes in China. There is also that Tsinghua and MSRA are among the more "Westernized" of places in China, so it's far from a representative sample. Also, I would hesitate to say that MSRA is the "top research organization in the country" and that Tsinghua University is the "top computer science department in the country." Ranking schools or departments is really crude because computer science is quite a broad subject, schools have their relative strengths and weaknesses and their own style of doing things, so the judgment has quite a subjective factor.
Five to ten years ago, one would almost never see papers at the top academic computing conferences from China’s researchers, with the exception being papers from Microsoft Research Asia, which was started in Beijing back in 1998 by a group of Chinese and Taiwanese researchers who were trained in the US and worked in the US before returning to Asia. Today, there are many Chinese researchers who are publishing papers at top research venues. But, the number is still quite small given the large number of universities and researchers that are pursuing computing research in China. Computer Science & Technology is the largest undergraduate major in China and some estimates I’ve heard say there are over 1,000 computer science departments in China and over 1,000,000 computer science majors at a time across these departments. This is huge! The government is clearly making massive investments in computing.
That is much due to China's much lower level of integration with the West, a legacy of the Cold War, and those conferences are very much based in and run by computing researchers in the West, in particular the Anglo world. Also, I would also in many cases question the value of academic computer science, given that the field is mostly an engineering. China also created domestically vacuum tube and later transistor computers in the late 50s and 60s, with minimal direct influence from the West and a little from the Soviet Union. Landay might be wrongly giving an impression that China has to be part of this so called
"international community, more like Anglo world in order to do modern computing when that is far from the case.
In my own subfield of Ubiquitous Computing (ubicomp) and Human Computer Interaction (HCI), China is still in its early stages. Ubicomp has been around since 1991 and in those 20 years China has had almost no presence in the field (for example there were no papers from China at the 2010 UbiComp conference). This year I co-organized the conference with my colleagues at Tsinghua University and we held UbiComp 2011 here in Beijing (link). There were over 300 papers submitted and only 50 were accepted for presentation at the conference (a highly competitive 17% acceptance rate). Although this year we saw 38 papers submitted from China (last year there were only 10), only 3 of these papers with primary Chinese authors were accepted (and all of those were from Microsoft Research Asia). There were many US universities that alone had as many or more papers than all of China (e.g., Carnegie Mellon had seven and UW had four!).
Ubiquitous computing and human computer interaction are like half bullshit fields.
This trend is very similar at other top computing conferences: China had almost no representation 5 or 10 years ago and now there is a smattering of papers (e.g., 1-3 papers/year – out of a 30 paper program – the last couple of years at each of the top systems and networking conferences: SIGCOMM, NSDI, and SOSP). Again, the majority of these papers are coming out of Microsoft Research Asia, not the top Chinese universities.
Systems and networking should be more about creating technology that people actually use than conference papers. There is often quite a gap from the academic paper/conference stuff and an actually engineered system with many or important users. So again the value is questionable.
Landay is literally trying to encourage China to waste its time in pointless stuff. Like, what's the point of trying so hard to get papers accepted to conferences run by others who are culturally, ethnically, and politically quite different from you. Instead, China does stuff like high speed rail that visibly creates vast benefit and enhancement of productivity for Chinese people in China.
So we see China starting to be represented at major computing conferences, but Chinese researchers are at this stage no more impactful than many other smaller countries (e.g., France). Given the large number of universities and researchers pursuing computing in China, the interesting question is whether this a straight line that is going to continue its meteoric rise of the last few years (similar to China’s economic growth of ~10% for ten years) or is China’s impact in computing research going to start to grow at a much more modest rate (similar to many predictions of its economy growing at still fast yet more modest rates).
Again has to do with lack of integration with Anglo world and West, not to mention that the value of those conferences, often a pointless academic circle jerk is questionable.
Research Creativity: Students, Faculty, & Academic StructureCreativity, innovation, and “design thinking” have been some of the most overused buzzwords bandied about in the US business press over the last 3-5 years and this has especially accelerated in the few months since the passing of Steve Jobs. In computing research as well as in industry, creativity and innovation are also important topics. These hard to measure attributes are what we all believe lead to “impact”, which is also hard to measure, but is that which we are all after! Counting papers at top conferences or patents does not measure impact, but people (including me above) tend to sometimes fall back on this counting exercise, as it is easy to measure.
Having interacted with many top Chinese students while here in China, at both MSRA (the top place to have an internship for a computer scientist in China) and at Tsinghua (the top CS department), I’ve gotten a chance to observe the level of creativity and innovation in these top students. We’ve also attracted some of the top design students in China to our lab (in addition to hiring top designers from the US and Europe). I’ve also been lucky to interact with the top Chinese research computer scientists (i.e., folks who already have their PhDs) at MSRA and at the universities.
The simple fact is, the level of innovation and creativity in this cohort is much lower than in similar cohorts in the US. And in fact, the ones that are the best on the “creativity” scale almost invariably are folks who received their PhDs in the US/Europe or worked in the US/Europe. This is not to say those who haven’t left China for their education aren’t doing good work – as I mentioned above MSRA is one of the top places in the world for CS research and the researchers there are publishing at the top venues, but many of the most successful of these researchers have spent years under the tutelage of computer scientists who were trained in the West – almost going through a 2nd PhD while working at MSRA.
As for design and human computer interaction, at least since 2018, I've found the user features and user interface in software and websites much better in Chinese ecosystem than in America. I'm not that sure about 2011, but I started going on Baidu and Chinese internet in 2007, and I had nothing to complain about user interface wise. I actually find the fact that you cannot edit or delete messages or easily search them on Facebook very annoying and disrespectful for the user. WeChat and Russian vKontakte are much better in that regard. Again, Landay thinks that there has to be some level of "internationalization" or integration with American system for a product or place to be good; that is not the case.
The simple fact is if you are educated in the Chinese system, from primary school through university, you have a much harder chance of practicing being “creative” than if you were educated elsewhere. This is not a genetic trait (as many Chinese educated in the West have clearly shown), but a trait of the Chinese educational system, which is based on over a thousand years of Chinese culture.
Landay's knowledge of "Chinese culture" seems to be a bunch stereotypes from the English media. Also, in the already very technologically developed 21st century, being "creative" in high school and also undergrad for the most part is extremely unrealistic when you basically don't know anything, in a world with significant prerequisite knowledge. Putting a big poster of Einstein's "imagination is more important than knowledge" in a high school math class is quite misleading to the high school students, and does not change the reality.
There are many articles (link) on how cultural underpinning of the Chinese educational system does a good job with the basics (e.g., the students in Shanghai beat the entire world on the PISA Test a year ago), but many here in China question whether the pervasive emphasis on memorization, test taking, and a cultural imperative that almost requires copying the teacher (link art article) and the past “masters” leads to a population that cannot think “outside of the box” (link).
In Chinese middle school and high school, students are actually required to prove things rigorously in mathematics, including on the math section of gaokao. It's actually American middle and high school education that is too much in terms of superficial memorization.
Again, this lack of creativity is cultural and obviously there are folks who don’t fit the system and are creative and innovative (the art scene in China is growing by leaps and bounds). For many years, the top students in China have left the Chinese system for graduate school in the US. Although some of these students start out in America as brilliant and hard working students, many do not show much creativity when they start. They have learned not to question the professor, or others in positions of authority, and they are used to being told what to do rather than coming up with ideas on their own. But, many soon rise above this after a few years of practice and have turned into some of the top stars in the field (e.g., my own classmates at Carnegie Mellon, Harry Shum and Qi Lu, are now two of the top executives at Microsoft (links)).
Those who go to America are in an alien environment after all, and they mostly don't have money or connections in America, so they have to be more cautious as failure for them comes with more consequences. Also some in China have said that Chinese who go to American are exceptional mostly in a derivative way. In contrast, many Chinese in China are at least subconsciously aware that it's Jews and whites (and to some extent Indians and blacks) who run the show in America, so they don't bother wasting their time trying to "make it" in America. China fought a bloody war with America in Korea from 1950-1953, the result of which cemented China's geopolitical position in the world. American academics by saying that Chinese are afraid to question the professor and others in positions of authority only indicates their own insecurity and reluctance to face reality.
I have personally advised students like this that have gone onto great computing careers, relying on their innovation and creative skills everyday. But this was only after 5-6 years in the “American” higher education system. My colleagues have often told me of similar examples. Now many Chinese are also aware of this key difference in our educational systems. The latest trend among middle class and wealthy Chinese is to send their kids to the US for their undergraduate degrees or even their high school education (some 200,000? were studying in the US this year alone link).
From what I've seen, many of those kids from wealthy Chinese families are not smart enough to compete in China.
Now this trend by itself would cause one to believe that China will overtake the US in computing as this massive cohort of students return to China after earning their degrees. Although the “sea turtle” trend of returning to China after several years of working in the US continues, it doesn’t appear as common as some would believe. Many Chinese students become very accustomed to what is still an easier life in US cities and often choose to remain in America. In fact, a more important “glue” for these students might be the far more streamlined US corporate life (many Chinese companies are still fairly byzantine in their politics and structure and corruption is still a major problem). In fact, recent reports show that most wealthy Chinese are starting to secure homes and passports in the West, often for the educational opportunities outlined above, but also to avoid environmental degradation, corruption, and find access to healthcare (link report).
At least for me, life in China is much easier, with better food options instantly coming to mind. The cafeteria food where I did undergraduate in America was absolutely shit, in stark contrast to in China; not only that, it was overpriced. Also, in China in the workplace I don't have to deal with obnoxiously bullshitting nepotistic Indians, especially when such bosses are bosses very much because of cultural and geopolitical reasons, as opposed to objective merit. Chinese software companies don't do scrum either, and provide a free quality lunch and dinner (and breakfast too), including snack with fruit in afternoon.
Of course, maybe I am biased in that I mostly dislike English language and culture and in general the American way of doing things. There is also that I am unapologetically in favor of ethnic cultural preservation and dislike an excess of interaction with people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds, which is a mindset that immigration to America selects against obviously. Liberal Chinese are free to go to America or Singapore or what not. What I don't want is their returning to culturally contaminate the Chinese homeland.
Last Spring I attended a major National Science Foundation workshop on computer science research collaboration with China (http://current.cs.ucsb.edu/nsf-uschina11/). Of the 80 attendees, over half were Chinese who were now professors at American universities. In computing research, many Chinese with US PhDs might be staying in the US for the prospect of working at a better university and with better graduate students than they can in China. Will this change soon?
One of the major differences I’ve noted between Chinese universities (and in fact Chinese organizations in general) and American universities is the power structure exposed in the academic hierarchy. American universities are hierarchical in that Full Professors make decisions about Associate and Assistant Professors, and Associate Professors in turn also make decisions (e.g., tenure) about Assistant Professors. But, I’ve also noticed that in the top departments I’ve been in that the more “senior” faculty understand that a lot of the innovation and best work occurs in the groups led by the “young” Assistant Professors and we in fact “protect” them so as to allow them to better develop and get this great work accomplished (e.g., we do not give them a lot of tedious committee work to do and we encourage them to teach advanced courses in their specialized areas rather than large, general undergraduate courses).
In Chinese universities, there is far more power and money concentrated in the hands of the senior faculty. In many universities the Assistant Professors are just that – they assist a senior faculty member and have no true independent agenda of their own. In a fast moving field like computer science, I believe this structure is bound to fail and cannot keep up with the changes in technology that occur so rapidly. Certainly more rapidly than the 10 years or more it will take a hotshot young faculty member to rise to the top of that hierarchy.
No direct experience here in China. But in the old days in China, at least from 50s to 80s, everybody who made the selection after undergraduate or masters had tenure. Chinese universities did not grant PhDs until the 1980s.
Today’s computing technology is nothing like it was 10 years ago! I believe this structural impediment makes it hard for anyone to name a computer science researcher in a Chinese university that they would say is one of the top in the world in their subfield (other than the few famous names, e.g., Andy Yao – a Turing Award winner, who have been “imported” to Chinese universities).
Computing technology in 2001 is not actually that much different than in 2011. There was World Wide Web in 2001 (and I believe there was already then Ajax) though websites were not all that fancy and many people especially in China still didn't have internet access. Processors were not all that much slower, for most purposes, there was pretty much no difference. And in 2011, the neural net and mobile phone revolution was only taking off. The core principles and technology (such as semiconductors and integrated circuits, and operating systems and programming languages) were pretty much the same in 2001 as in 2011, only with integrated circuits smaller and with higher transistor density.
This means that unless the Chinese universities change this system, it will take many years (15-20) before their CS departments could even have a chance of being stocked from top to bottom with world-class computer scientists. And that would assume they start producing the top scientists here in China (which hasn’t happened yet) or start importing them from abroad (only a few have come so far). Again, this is not to say there aren’t good people here already. There are plenty of good people working in Chinese universities. For example, Prof. Yuanchun Shi, my co-chair for UbiComp 2011 from Tsinghua, is doing lots of great research in her group at Tsinghua. These folks are just spread thin and not a single Chinese computer science department has the strength of even a top 25 or maybe even a top 50 computer science department in the United States. This will be hard to change anytime soon without a massive change in hiring practices as well as in how those people are treated when they come on board.
No direct experience with Chinese academia, so no comment.
StartupsAlthough academic computer science research in China isn’t yet all it can be and has some major impediments to its continued improvement, I believe the start-up scene is a bit healthier. Although I am not an expert on this, I try to keep up by following the top China tech blogs and writers on twitter (cite niubi, wolfegroupasia, tricia, kaiserkuo, affinitiy china, china law) and pay attention to what is going on at the key start-up events (e.g., TechCrunch Beijing was the most recent such activity).
These bloggers and writers are pretty much all overseas Chinese.
In addition to these traditional spaces for innovation, there are other cool things that happen in China that are an outgrowth of its manufacturing innovation. In particular, the entire Shanzhai market (link), which started with fake name-brand goods, including phones and purses, has quickly moved into making novel new products. Again, they tend to be useful tweaks (e.g., multiple SIM card phones, new shapes, etc.) rather than major innovation. This might be where lots of the creative engineers end up in China as these types of folks may not have conformed with the rigid educational system to get into the elite schools.
All of that is product design as opposed to actual technology, and Landay might fail to account for the fact the nature of market demand in China is also different, including people's aesthetics. Major innovation is pretty rare in the 21st century, when science and technology has much reached its bottleneck, including in America. A lot of software and product design is basically useful tweaks to make it more convenient or more aesthetically pleasing, it's the same in America too.
This criticism for copying and tweaking rather than innovating is probably overblown, but continues to be said in and about the Chinese computing industry. One of the biggest names in China Tech funding, Kai Fu Li, founder of Innovation Ventures and former Google China Head, Microsoft Research Asia head, and all around Chinese high tech success story (from Taiwan), now has the nickname in China of “Start-Copy Li” (check for proper translation) for the propensity of companies in his venture portfolio to simple copy a popular western web site and give it some minor Chinese characteristics. For instance, there were hundreds of Groupon clones in China just a few months ago.
There is not much actual "innovation" in a web site which is mostly a business thing. Also, in terms of consumer service based web sites, China vastly exceeded America after 2011 at least. From food delivery, to house cleaning, to home rentals, there is much wider range of choices in China than in America. Not to mention the mobile payments.
2) I think that even if things are copied it doesn't mean China doesn't need to innovate. Look at the iPhone/iPad. They've tried to copy and it doesn't give China much at all. Certain things are easier to copy than others. First movers often get large pieces of markets and will get world markets. Yes, China's market is huge and companies will get big there but will they become truly international corporations? It seems to be happening in hardware (Huawei), but software/internet seems different.
Huawei now has captured such large portion of global smartphone market. And unlike the iPhone, the battery actually stays alive when exposed to the cold. Keep in mind that Northeast China, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, it's often as cold as 20 degrees celsius below zero in the winter. In Beijing in the winter, it's often below zero, and I switched to Huawei when in December, my iPhone died while I was outside trying to find the place to meet another person. Though, I have to be fair and say that Huawei a major player in the smartphone market was after 2011.
As for software/internet, there is a big language/culture/geopolitics factor. Not to mention that software/internet is not rocket science, so marketing and soft factors matter way more. Look at America trying to ban TikTok and WeChat now. Also, the reason why Europe sans Russia does not have its own internet ecosystem is mostly geopolitical vassalage to America.
3) The Great Fire Wall (GFW) is a real problem for innovation. You cannot access most western blogs without a VPN. It is a hassle for many to have a VPN in China and the government has been actively blocking them. Blogs are very useful for finding technical information. This is just one example of how the GFW hinders technical innovation for universities and small companies (larger international firms get around this).
Most of the highest quality content is not on blogs or Wikipedia. For instance, learning physics from Landau's textbook, which I downloaded from libgenesis, is much more efficient than learning from blogs. I also recently read parts of a solid state physics textbook in Chinese published in 1966, which was a combination of thorough and straightforward. Sure, as a programmer in China, dealing with firewall related network problems when running the likes of Docker, Kubernetes entailed some inconveniences and extra time that would not have been the case in America, but it was nothing major. In fact, I like the Chinese firewall, because it protects me from all the toxic media distraction from America. I have VPN installed only on my Apple laptop, and not on my mobile phone or my Windows machine for a good reason.
Academic learning wise, I have benefitted much more from information from pirated papers and books downloaded from sites based in Russia than I have from information from any site blocked by the Chinese firewall, excepting maybe Wikipedia, which is for more superficial knowledge.