Chinese Innovation – We Should Be Proud

On October 20, 2011, in Chinnovation, by Tan Yinglan

This is a guest post by Dee Mason, a professional writer interested in Chinese innovation.

Chinese Innovation – We Should Be Proud

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The Chinese have been innovating since medieval times – and it has taken others in the West centuries to catch up. When we were milling and weaving, not much was happening on the other side of the world; in fact, the geopolitical landscape that we know today was very different indeed.

We were the first to come up with gunpowder, the wheelbarrow, helicopters, kites, chained suspension bridges, cast iron and porcelain. Our porcelain is world renowned (not to mention gold craftmanship); everyone flies kites; and suspension bridges are in use worldwide. The helicopter has become a key mode of transport both in urban areas and war zones and can you imagine doing any construction project without a wheelbarrow? We also made great strides in medicine, and now alternative healers everywhere are turning to Chinese techniques to solve the ailments that conventional medicine fails to resolve.

World Changing Chinese Innovations

Of all our innovations, there are a handful that have made a difference to the way we live our lives. Paper was invented by Ts’ai Lun in the 2nd century and it took about 13 centuries to make it to the West. Paper, of course, was nothing without printing. Printing allowed people to transmit information easily and hand it down, rather than relying on word of mouth and fallible memories. Gunpowder, dating from approximately 1044, was not only useful for conquering the world but for shaping it. And the compass, invented sometime in the second century BC, assisted with the exploration of the world. And those are just a few of the inventions that are still in use – there are many more. Can you imagine today’s world without them?

Modern Innovations

So, from the start of our history to the end of the 15th century, we were the world’s greatest innovators – and now it looks like that time is coming again. In 2008 alone, Chinese inventors applied for more than 200,000 patents, just behind the US and Japan. By my reckoning, that makes us third in the world in terms of innovation – and that’s not a bad place to be.

Research is also high on our government’s agenda. Though many complain of corruption in the system, no-one can deny that our research and development budget is huge; growing at about 19% per year in the period to 2005, when spending was around $30 billion. Our inventors are also publishing more in a range of fields, especially nanotechnology. The presence of the Chinese Academy of Sciences ensures that our progress in science and technology will continue unimpeded.

Going into Space

For us, space is not the final frontier, no matter what Star Trek’s James T Kirk says. Instead, it’s the first of many. While others are winding down their space programs, we are ramping up, putting a man into space in 2003 and continuing to launch satellites as needed. We are a world leader in satellite recovery. Our telecoms companies provide strong competition for some of the major Western providers.

Our most recent achievement has been sending Tiangong-1 into space, carrying our first space lab. Our carrier rockets are another innovation and once again we are leading the way.  While Tiangong-1 is unmanned at the moment, there’ll be visitors next year. In the meantime, it will work independently until the arrival of a second lab. Eventually, we’ll be able to extend human knowledge of the moon by in-depth probing using technologies that were in their infancy at the time of the first landing. Advancements such as these give us good reason to be optimistic about China’s future in the skies (as well as back on Earth).

Inventive Technology

One of the things we Chinese are particularly good at is taking something and adapting and improving it. We are well known for boosting the performance of production lines, as in the case of CIMC which kept tinkering with the manufacturing process on a production line from Germany till it was able to achieve a 2000% productivity increase. We have built on ideas from other sources to create trains that are the envy of the world. The question is, why reinvent the wheel? If something exists that’s already working, see how you can make it better and adapt it to suit your needs. Sometimes you don’t need new; you just need better. But when new is needed, Chinese inventors are brilliant at that too.

And if something accidentally gets put to a new and unintended use, we are happy to go with the flow and reengineer the machinery to deal with it, as Haier did with the washing machine (it now also cleans sweet potatoes and peanuts).

Planning for Tomorrow

Some of the current priorities, apart from technological advances such as the world’s fastest supercomputer (tested last year), are focused on improving the urban environment. We have a lot of people to house and transport, so anything that makes that process easier is a good thing. And we’ve also been taking steps to do our part for the environment. Green technology is an increasingly important issue here in China – and we have an advantage over other countries in having a huge market as well as cheap labor costs. Those will help us to enable to more widespread use of solar power, wind energy and other clean technologies.

Looking Ahead

These days, our leaders have learned lessons from the past that will drive future Chinese innovation. The new model relies on making innovation attractive so that people will want to take part. And perhaps it’s working – a Chinese farmer recently invented a miniature submarine. Still in prototype, the sub was tested in September 2011 and the new inventor has already made his first sale. The government’s new stance on fostering innovation also means less interference from above so that inventors can get off the recliner and get on with doing what they do best – inventing the next generation of world changing technology.


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