NOVA on PBS is, in my opinion, the best science show on TV for general audiences. (Not counting the highly technical YouTube videos, etc., meant for specialists.)
The newest NOVA, “Inside China’s Tech Boom,” is well worth watching. The program begins with the 5G rollout with particular emphasis on Huawei. (Huawei has been translated as “splendid achievement” or “China is able”, which are possible readings of the name.)
Since I’m not @WatchingTheHerd I will try to put the show in a nutshell.
China’s government has succeeded in supporting several high-tech industries, including internet telecommunications, solar panels, transportation and others. Many third-world countries use Chinese equipment and have no American equipment.
Due to national security issues, the U.S. is tearing out Huawei communications equipment all over the country. Unfortunately, U.S. equipment costs 3X as much, leaving some areas without internet.
Chinese manufacturing is organized and motivated using militaristic-style ideology. Chinese workers work hard for long hours. The program didn’t mention it, but Chinese youth unemployment is around 25% so the employers can be selective.
The Shenzhen manufacturing area has tremendous hands-on experience in manufacturing, enabling fast prototyping and construction of equipment. The factories include R&D departments where new ideas for incremental improvement from the factory floor can be tested and incorporated in the process. The U.S. has lost an incredible amount of manufacturing experience since the 1980s and has nothing comparable. One example is the reliance on Chinese manufacturing for face masks during the Covid pandemic.
China’s most striking weakness is in advanced semiconductor chip manufacturing. They are working on it very hard since the U.S. cut them off from advanced semiconductors, devastating Huawei’s cell phone manufacturing. The current centers are in the U.S., South Korea, Japan…and, of course, TSMC in Taiwan. NOVA didn’t mention it but TSMC is the crown jewel that could tempt China. However, the manufacturing of advanced semiconductors is extremely sensitive. It would be the height of stupidity to destroy TSMC in an attempt to steal it.
Since NOVA is a science program there were no financial numbers. A different show, “Frontline,” would have addressed this but the NOVA show is science.
The NOVA show made the point that hands-on experience is essential to make processes work. An inexperienced cook in the most advanced restaurant kitchen with a cookbook in hand probably wouldn’t be able to fry an egg successfully.
The decline of hands-on training in U.S. schools has produced generations of graduates who can’t cook a meal, sew a seam or fabricate metal. The entire generation of trained factory workers is retiring.
The 2022 CHIPS Act is providing $280 billion over the next 10 years for semiconductors and science.
The long-term impact of the U.S. running gigantic import deficits with the loss of manufacturing competitiveness has yet to be seen. China has always seen itself as the greatest power in the world. China’s history consists of the rise and fall of dynasties in waves so they are familiar with this dynamic. They have every intention of displacing the U.S. as the primary superpower.
As a brash new superpower, the U.S. still has plenty of hubris. Will we follow Rome, Venice, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and England into the mediocrity of once-great commercial empires?
I recommend “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000,” by Paul Kennedy for a broader perspective.