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Premature prognosis

There’s a tech wave sweeping across China, but can it really overtake the US?

Arnab Mitra | Print Edition: July 13, 2008

Silicon dragon
Rebecca A. Fannin
Tata McGraw Hill

Pages: 183
Price: Rs 495

China’s growth story has spawned thousands of books, mostly by American and European authors awe-struck by the inexorable rise of the communist nation. A majority of them are rah-rah accounts of what Beijing wants the world to see along its eastern seaboard, and air-brushes the stories of deprivation, mass dislocation and unrest that are brewing in inland China. Silicon Dragon, How China is Winning the Tech Race by Rebecca A. Fannin is another such book and details how China is set to overtake the US as the world’s engine of technological innovation.

So far so good! But the book suffers from more than a few deficiencies. Fannin uses facts, which, while not inaccurate, are taken out of context in order to make her case more compelling than it should be. For example, she tom toms the fact that China has the world’s largest mobile phone subscriber base (of more than 500 million) and three times as many engineering students and a dozen more billion-dollar tech firms than the US. The book weaves in such nuggets of easily available information, with stories of “technoprenurial” success to make claim that China is on the verge of overtaking the US as the fount of technological innovation.

Yes, tech whizkids like Robin Li and Jack Ma have launched and made successes of ventures like Baidu.com and Alibaba.com. Yes, China’s tech industry has spawned its own set of home-grown dollar billionaires and many thousands of dollar millionaires, but claiming that it will overtake the US in the foreseeable future is completely OTT.

Having said that, the book does have its pluses. It provides insights into the entrepreneurial wave sweeping across China. It is now considered a no-brainer that China will soon become the world’s preeminent industrial power. In a converging world, it is again a nobrainer that a large proportion of that pre-eminence will have to come from technological prowess. Obviously, much of this will have to be home-grown.

Fannin’s book introduces and profiles several young technopreneurs who have already become famous and rich in China. Given the vast amounts of venture capital chasing new opportunities in emerging markets, it is quite likely that many of them will list their companies abroad (mostly in the US) and a few of them may even go on to become big players in the emerging new tech order. But that’s true of other emerging markets—most notably, India—as well. Fannin does her readers a great service by introducing these emerging tech leaders to a wider audience. But one can’t help get the feeling that her prognosis of the future is a little premature.

The three trillion dollar war
Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes
Allen Lane
Pages: 311
Price: Rs 595

The guns-versus-butter debate is as old as the hills. But The Three Trillion Dollar War by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes steers clear of the tired old arguments. The book is a severe indictment of US President George W. Bush’s Iraq war. The authors have carefully calculated the cost, not only of military equipment, but also of the damage caused to infrastructure in Iraq and the deferred cost of caring for injured combatants and civilians.

These show that the cost of the war, which the US officially calculates at $50 billion (Rs 2,15,000 crore), is actually 60 times the stated figure. At a time when the global economy is slowing down, the induction of such a massive sum into “productive avenues” could have, the authors argue, spurred growth and increased prosperity not only in the US but across the world.

Stiglitz’s opposition to the policies of the current US regime is well known. Here, he makes a compelling case for an immediate, and overdue, course correction. With Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama considered the favourite to win the race for the White House later this year, maybe Stiglitz and Bilmes will find influential takers for their views.

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