Back in the early 1950s, Mao Zedong told Indonesia’s then president Sukarno: “Frankly speaking, we haven’t got a lot of things for export apart from some apples, peanuts, pig bristles and soybeans.”
Much has changed since then. Over the past 30 years China has become one of the world’s great exporting engines, leading the world in the manufacture of everything from trousers to laptops. In the process China has also gained the reputation of being the manufacturing brawn to both Japan and the West’s R&D brain.
But recent studies have started to dent this image. In fact, China is moving up the innovation value curve much faster than many in the West anticipated. Thomson Scientific reckons that China will become one of the world’s leading innovators in the coming years, and will lead the world in new patents by 2012.
It predicts Chinese patent registrations will grow by 34% annually, passing current number one Japan by 2011. Partly-driven by government incentives – which can include a year’s salary as bonus for inventors who receive new patents – China has seen patent registrations growing at a faster rate than in any other country in the past five years.
In fact, Huawei topped the list in 2008 for international patent applications. According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, it filed 1,737 patent applications – beating out Panasonic, which filed 1,729.
And according to the OECD, China’s corporate research and development spending (R&D) grew by 23% between 2001-6.
The hard work is starting to show pay off. In early February, for example, a Chinese research team cloned five human embryos – which will be used for the harvesting of cells for treating serious diseases. That’s a long way up from making shoes in Wenzhou.
China is also producing more engineering graduates than any other nation and becoming a leader in engineering research, according to the Institute of Scientific and Technological Information of China. It says the country contributed 78,200 engineering papers to quality academics journals in 2007, an increase of 20% from 2006. On current growth rates China will rank fifth in published (English language) engineering papers by 2011.
One such engineer is Qu Daokui, the Shenyang-based owner of SIASUN Robot & Automation. His firm now makes 30 types of robots for car factories – with his AGV assembly system even bought by GM. According to China Business Weekly, visitors to his offices are greeted by 60cm tall robots which have the intelligence of two year-olds.
The 48 year-old Qu jokingly draws comparisons between what he is doing and the movie The Terminator – but says he is beating foreign competitors in domestic robots sales because his cost half as much. With 400 research staff, Qu’s next big push? “We are developing intelligent robots to take care of the old and disabled.”
Robots occasionally make it into the countryside too. Wu Yulu has built a homemade chaffeur (see photo).
Technical progress means China is becoming keener on intellectual property. Motivation increases when it is your own IP that needs protecting. The recent revisions to China patent law – passed on December 29 – are part of these efforts.
Another positive indicator: in a recent case, a Beijing court ordered Zhongwei Passenger Bus to pay Rmb20 million ($2.92 million) plus costs to Germany’s MAN Group.
The court upheld the foreign firm’s claim that Zhongwei, and its parent, Zonda Group had copied its Starliner model. In what is reckoned to be a landmark case, the Chinese firms were ordered to immediately halt production and sales of the offending Zhonda A9 buses.
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