New IPPR report delivers some interesting ideas about the eastward shift in power

But significant doubts remain over its conclusions


Professor Michael Barber has teamed up with the think tank the  IPPR to deliver a vision of the future.  Their   report Oceans of Innovation   says  ‘We face some truly fundamental challenges that need to be overcome  if the nine billion people living on Earth in 2050 are to lead fulfilled lives  – the nature of the economy, the health of the environment and the  avoidance of catastrophic conflict, to name just three. We also know that the pace of innovation will continue to accelerate in science and technology, posing all of us the challenge: can the search for social solutions – that seize the good from science and technology and  prevent the harm – keep up?’

Key to the future is the rise of China ,the Asian Tigers and Pacific rim  economies and the shift of political and economic influence eastward . But particularly China. The perceived dominance of China  though puts other Pacific countries in the shade.President Obama  has called China’s rise “a Sputnik moment”

The report says  ‘ All this is happening in a G-zero world in which a historic transition from  Atlantic global leadership to Pacific global leadership is evidently taking  place. Meanwhile, the nature of global leadership itself is changing as the problems we seek to solve become more complex and less amenable to the diplomatic means of the Cold War and before.’

And what about the impact on education ? The report states ‘What is clear…is that education – deeper, broader and more universal – has a significant part to play in enabling humanity to succeed in the next half century. We need to ensure that students everywhere leave school ready to continue to learn and adapt, ready to take responsibility for their own future learning and careers, ready to innovate with and for others, and to live in turbulent, diverse cities. We need perhaps the first truly global generation; a generation of individuals rooted in their own cultures but open to the world and confident of their ability to shape it.’ Meanwhile, the report continues  ‘ innovations which transform societies can and will happen anywhere. Leadership, in short, will be widely dispersed and will require increasing sophistication. The report concludes ‘ It is in these circumstances that the Pacific seems destined to become the focus of global leadership. The economic and educational achievements of the Pacific region in the past 50 years are spectacular – unprecedented in fact. They lay a foundation for the next 50 years – a much better foundation than exists in many Atlantic systems – but the mix of factors that brought those achievements will not be capable of meeting the challenge ahead. Among other things, an education revolution will be required. It will need to be based not just on the growing evidence of what works, but  on the capacity of the systems to innovate. It will need to unleash the leadership capacity that the next 50 years will demand. The Pacific  region’s future and its capacity to become an Ocean of innovation is being shaped today, tomorrow and every day in the classrooms of  Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne and Valparaiso, San Francisco  and Vancouver, Vladivostok and Shanghai, Hong Kong and Hanoi. On the success of those endeavours, all our futures depend.’

Heady stuff, indeed .The claim though  that this is   ‘unprecedented’ is debatable . If  this means massive  and rapid economic expansion and trade  in a relatively narrow time frame, this  clearly has happened before at various stages in History and  in different regions.

I yield to no man in my admiration of Professor Barber and what he has contributed to education thinking and reforms in the UK, if not productivity. Focusing on Asia and in  particular China,  it is pretty obvious to many economists and social scientists that much of   this extraordinary growth is  from a pretty low base  and many of these economies are simply catching up .It is also clear that  most are  highly centralised and ‘ extractive ‘  with both political and economic power  concentrated in a small elite   with little diffusion and considerable inequity.  There is also precious little evidence that the region or individual countries are either prepared or willing to deliver the kind of responsible global leadership that is being looked for.

There is   also evidence that they are less creative and innovative than perhaps  they should be, ( some including China have  anarchic attitudes to intellectual and physical property rights  and patents  which serves to obscure their deficiencies in innovation and creativity) and one has to ask why?.

There are of course reasons for this. Their economic and political institutions are  in economists   parlance  ‘ extractive’, rather than inclusive and plural. This means that, rather like the Soviet Union between the 1950’s to 1980s that they can  grow impressively for  a period   but then will struggle to sustain the growth . If you want to know the reasons for this I   strongly recommend a book Why nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson. Far from seeing China as the clue to spreading prosperity (and innovation for that matter), Acemoglu and Robinson see it as yet another instance of a society rushing into a dead end. China is not, on their analysis, on course to dominate the world and become a hegemon (which seems to be the proposition underpinning Barbers analysis). Their argument is that the modern level of prosperity rests upon political and economic institutions and the relationship between them. Prosperity is generated by investment and innovation, and creative destruction (ie old industries being allowed to wither as new ones replace them to drive growth) but these are acts of faith: investors and innovators must have credible reasons to think that, if successful, they will not be plundered by the powerful. Incentives must be in place. If you believe that your property or profits are not secure because of the possible actions, or indeed inaction in certain circumstances, of government, you are not going to innovate or invest.  In the Western Enlightenment, the whole logic of democratic law-making and  ‘the rule of law’  was to stop laws from being applied selectively, to one groups advantage at the cost of others,  so that kings couldn’t create different rules for you and for me. The Enlightenment killed off absolutism. Arbitrary action from local or national governments kills prosperity, innovation and investment, over the longer term.  And in China, for example, laws are selectively applied. If you set up an enterprise perceived to be in competition with some local party boss..  or the party more generally you had better beware.

For the state to provide reassurance, two conditions have to hold: power has to be centralised and the institutions of power have to be inclusive and plural in nature. Without centralised power, there is disorder, which is anathema to investment.

China most certainly has centralised power and order in spades. But China resoundingly fails to tick the box of inclusive institutions. Acemoglu and Robinson quote a summary of the structure of Chinese political power: “The party controls the armed forces; the party controls cadres; and the party controls the news.”  The party also controls the free movement of labour and more general access to information (look at their control over the internet) . Even basic information on its economy and the way it manages its currency lacks transparency. The Yuan is non-convertible. If you want to invest in China property is about the only option, and there is a property bubble.  Its system of justice lacks transparency too,  with show trials  not uncommon, in which you know the verdict before the trial  even begins. In education  academic freedom and free speech  is limited and there is a party office on each campus. There is no freedom of information. And the  Communist Party of China has, from its very inception,  actively  encouraged strong anti-foreign sentiment.  As one commentator put it recently ‘Fevered nationalism is one of its cornerstones’.  If you dont think this is true take a look at what is happening  in the dispute with Japan over some small islands, technically owned as it happens , by a Japanese businessman.

Acemoglu and Robinsons argument is that order without inclusive institutions may enable an economy to escape poverty, but will not permit the full ascent to sustained modern prosperity. They also point out that there is no natural process whereby rising prosperity in an autocracy evolves into inclusion. Rather, it is only in the interest of the self-serving  elite to cede power to inclusive institutions if confronted by something even worse, namely the prospect of revolution.

I would suggest their analysis is sound. I see evidence that much of China is not sharing in its economic miracle and that growing inequities combined with rising aspirations and a highly centralised and high- handed political system is fundamentally unstable.  Growth looks, in any case, to be slowing down. Look at the growing unrest too  in rural areas, often concerning property disputes and heavy handed party officials.  Nor do I see any evidence that China is prepared, any time soon,  to provide the kind of  responsible leadership  on global issues that a power of its size and clout  should already have been  providing . So the chances of China becoming part of the ‘ Ocean of innovation’ and leadership over the coming years is at best an outside bet.. As for the other countries in the region- Malaysia and Indonesia look unlikely to fill the void, and South Korea is too pre-occupied with North Korea (and tied to the US-as is Japan). Singapore, is  too small but is  frequently cited as having a brilliant world class education system. Here is what one teacher who taught in Singapores system wrote in this week’s Times Education Supplement  :’The intense desire to win is summed up by a Singapore word “kiasu”. Translated from Chinese Hokkien dialect, it means “fear of losing”. In this race for riches, Singaporean parents invest huge sums in private tuition to give their children a head start. This, not the state-funded system, is one of the main reasons for the country’s high performances in international league tables. The official school starting age is 6, but for many children, tuition kicks in well before then. Tuition after school hours is the norm and takes precedence over play’.   Small wonder, then, that Singapore is worried about the lack of creativity in its students. Vietnam is making progress but is also too small and   a late developer anyway (also relying heavily as it happens on after school private tuition).

Many Asian countries are also deeply suspicious of China and its growing   territorial claims and sabre rattling, fuelled by its need for raw materials and energy, and so will probably be  reluctant to accept its leadership. And as already stated the Communist party is deeply and historically anti-foreigners.

As for education, do not be fooled that Shanghai’s recent stellar performance in PISA tests represents Chinas whole education system. It doesn’t.

Certainly great strides have been made in education in Asia over the last generation but hot- housing and the need for out of school private tuition to meet the necessary standards suggests significant structural problems.  Many, probably most,  students are diligent and hardworking   but too many also  lack creativity, flair, a capacity for  independent thought and some of the non-cognitive skills required to compete in the global employment market. It would be wrong to adopt a deterministic view about the inevitability of a shift in leadership and innovation eastwards. One also wonders where  the cross cutting  regional institutions  are to help provide this  coherent strategic leadership?

Certainly the East has been on the rise but its rise has to be placed firmly in perspective,  with  its sustainability  by no means  guaranteed. And crucially  there is no obvious cross cutting  institutional framework to  enable such  leadership to develop.




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