Friday, October 28, 2005

What happens when the technical terms are in Mandarin?

Qian Qichen, a Retired Chinese Communist Party Vice-premier and Principal architect of China’s foreign policy after the Tiananmen Square crackdown said,

The 21st Century is not the “American Century.” That does not mean that the United States does not want the dream. Rather it is incapable of realizing the goal.

Today's New York Times has an article headlined, China Luring Foreign Scholars to Make Its Universities Great.

Maybe in 20 years M.I.T. will be studying Qinghua's example," says Rao Zihe, director of the Institute of Biophysics at Qinghua University, an institution renowned for its sciences and regarded by many as China's finest university. "How long it will take to catch up can't be predicted, but in some respects we are already better than the Harvards today.

In only a generation, China has sharply increased the proportion of its college-age population in higher education, to roughly 20 percent now from 1.4 percent in 1978. In engineering alone, China is producing 442,000 new undergraduates a year, along with 48,000 graduates with masters' degrees and 8,000 Ph.D's.

It was noted on the Greenville Chamber's recent intercity visit to Austin, that one of the things that makes Austin so highly innovative and entrepreneurial is that because of several large, top-rate universities nearby, Austin benefits from a brain drain to Austin from other places resulting 55 percent of the population in Austin having a college degree. Because United States has many of the world's preeminent universities, for the better part of the last century the United States as a whole has benefited from a brain drain from the rest of the world to the United States.

Ten years ago, I had an investment in Specialty Electronics in Landrum, which had a plant in Singapore. I was meeting with the domestic Singapore plant manager, who was discussing working with a subcontractor in Taiwan. I asked what language someone from Singapore spoke when he went to Taiwan. "Oh," he said, "we speak English during the day because the technology vocabulary of information technology is English, and it is easier to do business in English than it is to translate technical terms into Mandarin. At night when we go drinking, we speak Mandarin."

That is the power of having the standards invented in the United States, even if the products are manufactured somewhere else. A large part of America's global competitiveness is based on the fact that technology is invented here and the leading research and ideas are in English.

Since 9/11, the brain drain to the United States has slowed considerably. Part of it is travel restrictions from 9/11, but an even greater part of it is the fact that the quality of the top universities in other parts of the world are increasing considerably and students no longer have to leave home to get a top flight education.

If we think it is scary that the Chinese work cheaper than we do, we ought to have nightmares about what happens when the technical terms are in Mandarin, and as a result the leading research and ideas are less accessible to Americans.

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