24 October 2016
China has more submarines than the US but their technology is not up to par. Photo:,
China has more submarines than the US but their technology is not up to par. Photo:,

What a ball pen tells us about Sino-US R&D rivalry

Questions about if and when China will surpass the United States in science and technology always invite frenzied debate and the views are poles apart.

Recently, I came across two interesting commentaries whose conclusions are the exact opposite of each other.

The first one, by a Ph.D researcher in the University of Science and Technology of China, presents a rosy outlook that even though China is not in the same league as the US, it is catching up and it’s just a matter of time — three to nine years according to some key indices — before the mainland is on par with the US, even overtake it.

One gauge of China’s R&D strength is its weighted fractional count (WFC) as ranked by the British interdisciplinary scientific journal Nature, one of the world’s most cited scientific publications.

The US usually dominates the table of country output as measured by WFC, followed by China, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, France and other innovation powerhouses.

And recent trends suggest the US output has been shrinking while China continues to gain momentum.

Another piece, The Once and Future Superpower: Why China Won’t Overtake the United States, by two professors of politics at Dartmouth College, argues quite the opposite: the Chinese economy is still labor-intensive despite its size.

Even with its rising defense spending, resources and talent, it hardly stacks up against the US.

China has made notable breakthroughs in a few fields such as the Dongfeng (東風)-41, a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of up to 15,000 km., among the world’s longest.

Yet, its latest nuclear submarines, noisy and easily detectable by the enemy, are antiques compared with the US Navy’s Virginia-class submarines.

The two authors prefer the impact factor of papers, the number of peer citations in particular, than just the volume of output.

Data from the US National Science Foundation shows US scientists account for almost half of the top 1 percent of science and technological papers that receive most citations.

The conclusion: the US rules the roost in the world’s scientific advancement and its lead can hardly be challenged.

My observation is that China trails in a number of respects.

One example is ballpoint pen manufacturing.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) once made a shocking revelation that the world’s second largest economy until now is unable to produce the tiny rotating ball fitted to the tip of a ball pen that dispenses ink as you write.

Each of these tiny metal balls has to be imported by Chinese pen manufacturers from Germany, Switzerland or Japan, even though China produces, or more precisely, assembles 38 billion ball pens each year.

This truth may be even more worrisome than the fact that China has to import less advanced combat aircraft engines from Russia because it is unable to produce its own engines.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 26.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

What a ball pen tells us about China’s manufacturing weakness (Jan.22, 2016)

– Contact us at [email protected]


Until today, China cannot make the tiny steel tip of a ball pen. It imports these parts from the West. Photo: Internet

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter