Papermaking, the compass, gunpowder and the printing press are known as the “four great inventions” of ancient China, which have had profound implications for human civilization.
Now we hear about China’s “four new great inventions”, which the country’s officialdom has been promoting since May this year as the new game-changers in the global economy.
China is referring to the high-speed rail system, the mobile payment platform Alipay, bike-sharing and online shopping.
Undeniably, these “inventions” have not only changed the way of life of mainlanders but have also begun to exert their influence globally.
However, calling them China’s “four new great inventions”, as pitched by the Communist Party’s propaganda machine, doesn’t sit well with some people, who point out that none of these was actually invented by the Chinese people.
What China did was to adopt these new technologies and improve on them.
These “four new great inventions” lack the creativity and degree of influence on human civilization that the electric light, the steam engine, the automobile and the reading glasses have had, and as such, they hardly meet the common criteria for judging “new inventions”, the critics say.
The critics seem to have a point; it appears that the Chinese people have been running out of creativity and innovation over the past several centuries.
According to a recent study by Jack Challone, an academic with the Science Museum of Britain, China was a global powerhouse of technological innovations in ancient times, having contributed 18.4 percent of the 163 inventions that helped shape the modern world before the year 1500.
However, as regards the 838 breakthrough inventions that have emerged since 1500, none was invented by the Chinese people.
That said, improving on imported technologies is not a bad thing, but compared to Japan, China has a lot of catching up to do.
The Japanese are known for their tradition of craftsmanship and constant enhancement of product quality and features.
For example, even though China has remained the world’s biggest manufacturer of compact and folding umbrellas, churning out almost 2 billion pieces each year, it is Japan that has truly excelled in designing and making high-quality folding umbrellas. In fact, they have become one of the most hotly sought-after items even among Chinese tourists themselves.
Perhaps our leaders in Beijing should spend more time and money on improving everyday technologies and making them available to the average mainland consumers rather than on promoting the “One Belt One Road” strategy and the “four new great inventions”.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 14
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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