Image of Photo of Prof Yasheng Huang and image of book cover, The rise and fall of the East

The Rise and Fall of the EAST: how Exams, Autocracy, Stability, & Technology brought China success, and why they might lead to its decline

The China Forum lecture on Tuesday 14 March 2023 was delivered by Professor Yasheng Huang (Epoch Foundation Professor of International Management, and Professor of Global Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management).

Professor Huang’s lecture was based on his forthcoming book, ‘The Rise and the Fall of the EAST’ (Yale University Press, 2023). First, he introduced his conceptual framework, which links ‘exams, autocracy, stability, and technology’ (EAST) together. He argued that a country’s pace of technological development depends on the balance between ‘scale’, which includes the size of the land area, population, and government, and ‘scope’, which includes ethnicities, socioeconomic conditions, ideas, ideologies, economic and political structures. Second, he examined the impact of China’s civil service exam (keju), which shaped the nature and the durability of Chinese autocracy, and thereby determined the pace of technological development. In Professor Huang’s view, China was most inventive but less stable when the country was politically and ideologically heterogenous. He argued that the homogenizing impact of the keju system inhibited technical progress. Third, he introduced the data sources that he employed in order to identify long-run trends in Chinese innovation. These were Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ A History of Chinese Science and Technology. He used these data to construct a technology database containing 10,350 entries on Chinese inventions from the fifth century BC until the nineteenth century AD. He assigned an equal weight to all of the 10,350 inventions, irrespective of their impact. He used a ‘Chinese Dynasty Inventiveness’ (CDI) score to measure inventiveness. According to the data presented by Professor Huang, China’s inventiveness declined after the Han-Sui interregnum (220CE-580CE). Finally, Professor Huang drew lessons from history and the implications for the USA and China today. He argued that the US needs to ‘fix its scale problem’ through enhancing the coordinating role of government, while China needs to ‘fix its scope problem’ through worldwide technological collaboration by its firms.

The following issues were raised in the Q&A session:  the degree to which China’s population data undermines the validity of the Chinese Dynasty Inventiveness (CDI) score; the problems raised by assigning an equal weight to 10,350 inventions; the relationship between population size and inventiveness; the extent to which Chinese inventions were applied to solving practical problems; how to evaluate the impact of western ideas upon China’s technological development after the late Ming Dynasty.

Yasheng Huang is Epoch Foundation Professor of Global Economics and Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. From 2013 to 2017, he served as an associate dean in charge of MIT Sloan’s global partnership programs and its action learning initiatives. His previous appointments include faculty positions at the University of Michigan and at Harvard Business School.

Professor Huang is the author of 11 books in both English and Chinese and of many academic papers and news commentaries. He is collaborating with Chinese academics on a book project, Reframing The Needham Question, based on a comprehensive database on Chinese historical inventions and politics. He is working on Statism with Chinese Characteristics (Cambridge University Press), a book that examines economic reforms and economic performance of China since 1978.

He is a co-Principal Investigator in a large-scale multi-disciplinary research project on food safety in China. Professor Huang founded and runs China Lab, ASEAN Lab  and India Lab, which have provided low-cost consulting services to hundreds of small and medium enterprises in these countries. From 2015 to 2018, he ran a program in Yunnan province to train women entrepreneurs (funded by Goldman Sachs Foundation). He has held or received prestigious fellowships such as National Fellowship at Stanford University and Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Fellowship. National Asia Research Program named him one of the most outstanding scholars in the United States conducting research on issues of policy importance to the United States. He has served as a consultant at World Bank, Asian Development Bank and OECD, and serves on advisory and corporate boards of non-profit and for-profit organizations. He is a founding member and is serving as the president of Asian American Scholar Forum, a NGO dedicated to open science, protection of rights and well-being of Asian American scholars.