Needham never fully worked out why China’s inventiveness dried up. Other academics have made their own suggestions: the stultifying pursuit of bureaucratic rank in the Middle Kingdom and the absence of a mercantile class to foster competition and self-improvement; the sheer size of China compared with the smaller states of Europe whose fierce rivalries fostered technological competition; its totalitarianism.In the United States we have a shrinking middle-class, a government hell-bent on becoming more and more totalitarian every day, and finally a school system driven by rote-memorization, stultifying state-control, and an intolerance of creativity from teacher or student.
With its unreformed one-party system, its rote-learning in schools and state control of big businesses, “new China” is hardly a haven for innovative thinking. Yet the Chinese continue to fret about the Needham question. A Communist Party chief of a middle school in central China recently said that it deserved deep thought and that the answer lay in an education system that fails to emphasise improving “character”. A former government minister also referred to Needham’s lament that China had produced no idea or invention of global impact for more than 500 years. Its contribution henceforth, the official said, should be “harmony”.
The signs all point to trouble. Does anyone care?