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Gangster capitalism and the American theft of Chinese innovation

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Image Credits: Thomas Peter – Pool (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

It used to be “easy” to tell the American and Chinese economies apart. One was innovative, one made clones. One was a free market while the other demanded payments to a political party and its leadership, a corrupt wealth generating scam that by some estimates has netted top leaders billions of dollars. One kept the talent borders porous acting as a magnet for the world’s top brains while the other interviewed you in a backroom at the airport before imprisoning you on sedition charges (okay, that might have been both).

The comparison was always facile yes, but it was easy and at least directionally accurate if failing on the specifics.

Now though, the country that exported exploding batteries is pioneering quantum computing, while the country that pioneered the internet now builds planes that fall out of the sky (and good news, we’ve identified even more planes that might fall out of the sky at an airport near you!)

TikTok’s success is many things, but it is quite frankly just an embarrassment for the United States. There are thousands of entrepreneurs and hundreds of venture capitalists swarming Silicon Valley and the other American innovation hubs looking for the next great social app or building it themselves. But the power law of user growth and investor returns happens to reside in Haidian, Beijing. ByteDance through its local apps in China and overseas apps like TikTok is the consumer investor return of the past decade (there’s a reason why all the IPOs this seasons are enterprise SaaS).

It’s a win that you can’t chalk up just to industrial policy. Unlike in semiconductors or other capital-intensive industries where Beijing can offer billions in incentives to spur development, ByteDance builds apps. It distributes them on app stores across the world. It has exactly the same tools available to it that every entrepreneur with an Apple Developer account has access to. There is no Made in China 2025 plan to build and popularize a consumer app like TikTok (you literally can’t plan for consumer success like that). Instead, it’s a well-executed product that’s addictive to hundreds of millions of people.

So much as China protected its industry from overseas competitors like Google and Amazon through market-entry barriers, America is now protecting its entrenched incumbents from overseas competitors like TikTok. We’re demanding joint ventures and local cloud data sovereignty just as the Communist Party has demanded for years.

Hell, we’re apparently demanding a $5 billion tax payment from ByteDance, which the president says will fund patriotic education for youth. The president says a lot of things of course, but at least the $5 billion price point has been confirmed by Oracle in its press release over night (what the tax revenue will actually be used for is anyone’s guess). If you followed the recent Hong Kong protests for a long time, you will remember that patriotic youth education was some of the original tinder for those demonstrations back in 2012. What comes around, goes around, I guess.

Development economists like to talk about “catch-up” strategies, tactics that countries can take to avoid the middle income trap and cut the gap between the West and the rest. But what we need now are developed economists to explain America’s “fall behind” strategy. Because we are falling behind, in pretty much everything.

As the TikTok process and the earlier Huawei imbroglio show, America is no longer on the leading edge of technology in many key strategic markets. Mainland Chinese companies are globally winning in areas as diverse as 5G and social networks, and without direct government intervention to kill that innovation, American and European tech purveyors would have lost those markets entirely (and even with those interventions, they may still lose them). In Taiwan, TSMC has come from behind Intel to take a year or two lead in the fabrication of the most advanced semiconductors.

I mean, we can’t even pilfer Chinese history and mythology and turn it into a decent god damn film these days.

And the fall-behind strategy continues. Immigration restrictions from an administration hell-bent on destroying the single greatest source of American innovation, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, have fused into the largest single drop in international student migration in American history.

Why does that matter? In the U.S. according to relatively recent data, 81% of electrical engineering grad students are international, 79% in computer science are, and in most engineering and technical fields, the number hovers above a majority.

It’s great to believe the fantasy that if only these international grad students would stay home, then “real” Americans would somehow take these slots. But what’s true of the strawberry pickers and food service workers is also true for EE grad students: proverbial “Americans” don’t want these jobs. They are hard jobs, thankless jobs, and require a ridiculous tenacity that American workers and students by and large don’t have. These industries have huge contingents of foreign workers precisely because no one domestic wants to take these roles.

So goes the talent, so goes the innovation. Without this wellspring of brainpower lodging itself in America’s top innovation hubs, where exactly do we think it will go? That former aspiring Stanford or MIT computer scientist with ideas in his or her brain isn’t just going to sit by the window gazing at the horizon waiting for the moment when they can enter the gilded halls of the U.S. of A. It’s the internet era, and they are just going to get started on their dreams wherever they are, using whatever tools and resources they have available to them.

All you have to do is look at the recent YC batches and realize that the future cohorts of great startups are going to increasingly come from outside the continental 48. Dozens of smart, brilliant entrepreneurs aren’t even trying to migrate, instead rightfully seeing their home markets as more open to innovation and technological progress than the vaunted superpower. The frontier is closed here, and it has moved elsewhere.

So what are we left with here in the U.S. and increasingly Europe? A narrow-minded policy of blocking external tech innovation to ensure that our sclerotic and entrenched incumbents don’t have to compete with the best in the world. If that isn’t a recipe for economic disaster, I don’t know what is.

But hey: at least the youth will be patriotic.

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