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What comes after gunpowder, paper, the compass, and printing?

by Adam Segal
October 7, 2010

The Four Great Inventions

The New York Times had a short piece yesterday, based on a longer report by Thomson Reuters, about how China is now poised to become the world leader in patent filings by 2011.  There has been a massive expansion of the number of patents filed in China–279,298 in 2009.  More importantly, Chinese firms are now filing within China at a rate almost two times higher than foreign firms.

Now while it is important to take a second to be impressed by the scale and speed of growth, few readers of this blog will be surprised that I am more skeptical about what those numbers actually mean.  In fact, both the New York Times and the Thomson Reuters study mention the difficulty of determining the quality of patents in all of that quantity.  The study provides some specific details of how government policies have inflated the number of filings, in particular by subsidizing the filing fees for inventors.  The study also quotes Chen Naiwei, the director of the Intellectual Property Research Center at Shanghai Jiaotong University, who says that many of the patents filed are for new designs or appearance, and have little to do with improvements in product or process.  Moreover, a large number of the patents are what the Chinese call utility patents, which are easier to prepare and file and do not undergo substantial review.  So it seems very likely that most of the patents filed will not come anywhere near the impact of the “four great inventions.”

This should be a whole other post, but the New York Times, almost in a throw-away line, suggests that the more innovative Chinese companies become, the more likely the government will be to protect intellectual property rights.  This is the common wisdom, but one that I question in my book Advantage.  In a great article that appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in 2005, Anne Stevenson-Yang and Ken DeWoskin argue that IPR protection in China has very little to do with the level of development, but instead with the state’s involvement in the economy and government efforts to develop indigenous technology.  The state essentially pays for companies to rip off others, and in the case of patents, submit filings that have little to do with technical improvements and more to do with government targets.

Photo courtesy of, “The Four Great Inventions”

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Don

    What comes after? Hmmm… Use paper draw the US on the world map, print it, use gunpowder to make a bomb, and use a compass to shoot it in the right direction.

    The only consolation I’ve got is that the rest of the world figured out math before the Chinese. I hope we still have some smart people left who can find a way to win the great game!

  • Posted by hughes

    Your article makes some very good points about current Chinise patents and innovations. But it also implies that China is incapable of innovation. This is also a theme that runs through many China articles from around the western world. I happen to object to this theory. And here is the reason why: From the 1960s to 1980s, I remember our media and people laughing at Japanise and Korean made products. The theme was the same then as it’s now for China. That both countries were incapable of innovation. We used to laugh at their cars, but today, Toyota is the largest automaker in the US. And many Japanise innovations dominate our own markets. The point I am trying to make is that China and Japan are not that different from one another. The only difference is that Japan reformed its economy much earlier than China did.

  • Posted by jim


    I don’t think it was implied that China is incapable of innovation. It’s just saying that having the most patents in 2011 is not the same thing as leading the world in innovation by 2011. It is less about China’s future capabilities and more trying to say that going from an economy based on industry to one based on innovation is not something that happens overnight. Most Americans believe that China will one day be one of the world’s leading economies in all areas including innovation. Nobody is laughing at China in my opinion.

  • Posted by Charles Frith

    Toyota isn’t an invention. It’s also not Chinese.

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