There are many theories about how to answer Needham’s question. Perhaps it was religion? Governmental structures? Language? One answer that some Chinese educators discuss is Western-style liberal arts education. The argument is that a humanities education that teaches critical thinking is a source for the kind of creativity that leads to technological advances. Most of Chinese education as it now exists is rote learning, with a heavy emphasis on solving engineering problems. There is no room for spending time wondering about human life, or even asking how the scientific and mathematical formulae that are to be memorized came about.
My school in China was experimenting with a humanities approach as a contrast to ordinary Chinese education to see if critical thinking would lead to creativity. Perhaps this was the way to surpass the West technologically at last, as was only right! The authorities were very much aware, however, that critical thinking was dangerous to good order. The spotlight of critical thought could be turned on the government just as easily as on a problem in physics.
The experimental program at my school in China, although the students loved it, has not survived the increasing authoritarianism of the present Chinese regime. Experiments like it will be back though, I am sure. Reason is a universal solvent and nothing can contain it.