Ask Mei

What’s fuelling China’s tech advances?

China’s moved from imitation to innovation

Balinghe Bridge: one of the 85 highest in the world

Do you still think China’s economic edge lies in cheap and low-quality manufacturing and by copycatting Western technology? If the answer is yes, that means your impression is way out of date. The fact is that China has been making steady and substantial progress in improving its manufacturing quality, original designs and technological innovation in recent years, especially in areas such as infrastructure, space exploration, weaponry, robotics, telecoms and the internet/social media.

Just in the last few months, I’ve seen the successful launch of a rocket with a re-entry capsule, the development of a quantum radar system able to detect stealth planes 100km away, and Huawei’s smartphone processor Kirin960, which has been beating those of the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy Note 7 in launch speeds for the most popular apps in China.

The common feature of these breakthroughs are that they are all among the most advanced in their respective fields, and that they were all accomplished independent of Western collaboration.

Last week, I was WeChatting with an engineer friend called John Zhang, who received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University but is now based in China. I asked him why there are so many technological breakthroughs in China these days. He gave me the following reasons.

The first is the sheer brainpower. China’s universities produce 10 million engineers every year, more than India, the US, Russia, Japan and the EU combined. Equipped with fairly decent English comprehension, as well as internet and social media tools, these tech-savvy folk are keeping up with the latest developments in science and technology.

Secondly, China has become a huge market with increasingly sophisticated and diverse consumer demands. Therefore, it doesn’t have to rely on selling to the global market for innovative or higher-quality goods. With a growing capital market and legions of risk-taking private equity investors, tech start-ups can also secure financing much more easily than before.

Thirdly, the Chinese government at both the central and local levels has been rolling out favourable policies to foster scientific and technological progress in both the state and private sectors. “The whole country is like a chess board,” John says. “The invisible hand of the market combined with effective central planning has produced amazing results so far.”

He also told me about an impressive company in his hometown Changsha that few people have ever heard of. CTR is a leading robotics and automation company with a 38 year-old CEO and 400 employees, mostly in their twenties and thirties (each has at least one degree in engineering or science). The provincial branch of the National Development and Reform Commission visits the firm regularly to provide support and coordinate efforts with other technology companies across China.

The day after I spoke to John, I came across a popular WeChat posting highlighting China’s meteoric rise in high-tech bridge building. It mentioned that the $235 million makeover of New York’s Verrazano Bridge was outsourced to the Chinese in spite of a domestic outcry, because the only American company that can produce the required high-tech steel plates charges twice as much as the Chinese bidder. The article also mentioned the website highestbridges.com, which lists the 100 bridges around the world built at the highest altitudes and in the most challenging geographical locations. Guess how many of them are in China? 85!

It turns out that 52 of these bridges are built in the poor and hilly province of Guizhou in southwestern China. I have always wanted to visit Guizhou for its scenery and ethnic minority culture. Now I can add a spot of bridge-spotting to my itinerary to make the trip even more worthwhile!

Mei grew up in northeast China, attending an elite university in Beijing and graduate school in the US. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China in the media and at two investment banks. If you’d like to ask Mei a question email her at [email protected]


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