China’s Tech History

Can you guess which Asian Country has made the following innovative and unique technological advances in the last decade?

Sound Activated Musical Water fountain
Piano Gloves Capable of Playing Beethoven’s Compositions
Life Size Animatronic Dinosaurs
Folding Credit Card Pocket Knife
Lightweight Automatic Wearable Pet Collar Camera
Mini and Full Size 3D Printers
Star Shadow Flying Wing Drone
Brushed Aluminum Tube Video Caller
Briefcase Unicycle Cheap Portable and fits on the metro
Floating Solar Powered Water Treatment Plants
High Tech Roads Designed for Electric Cars
Advanced Micro Computer Chips
Artificial Intelligence

If you guessed China for the first and last items, you would be correct!  In fact, China is responsible for the development of all the above tech gadgets. In June 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping revealed his vision for China to become the leading player in science and technology. The Chinese government is encouraging and funding development in areas from tech toys to artificial intelligence, electric cars and computer chips.

Speaking at the national congress of the China Association for Science and Technology, he said the country must be on course to being a leading technology innovator worldwide by 2030. According to a post on the Chinese Academy of Science website, Xi said: “Great scientific and technological capacity is a must for China to be strong and for people’s lives to improve,” adding that the country and even humankind “won’t do without innovation, nor will it do if the innovation is carried out slowly.” There are many examples of technology that show that the president’s vision is on track. But if you ask people in the US or Europe to tell you what they know about products made in China, they will usually say that the country makes cheap toys, and copycat stuff. This view is completely wrong.

For example at the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) meeting last year held in Shenzhen, the internet worked noticeably faster and Chinese attendees were paying for everything via AliPay on their smartphones.  There were amazing smart technologies on display at PayPal, Google and Dolby sound studios.  At a tech company called Huawei, 40 per cent of its 170,000 staff are working on pure research, and the foundation has been laid for rollout of 5G across the whole of China by 2020.

Hardly a week goes by without fresh reminders of extraordinary technological developments occurring on the mainland – many unique to China. Take the bike-sharing boom that has gripped Shanghai and other mainland cities over the past year. Many cities worldwide have bike-sharing operations, but none like those offered by Mobike and Ofo in Shanghai: find your colored bike (there are an estimated 450,000 of them parked around Shanghai), open the Mobike app on your phone, scan the QR code on the bike, and you are away. AliPay charges you a security deposit, and user charges per hour. The bikes are GPS-tracked. This e-payment revolution has left the rest of the world in the dust. China’s digital payments market is already 50 times larger than that in the US.

More seriously, look at the 500-metre-wide radio telescope in Guizhou province that has joined the global search for extraterritorial life. Or the Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer which is by far the fastest in the world. Or lithium battery development. Or 3D-printed blood vessels made from stem cells…the list goes on.

What is awesome is the speed and effectiveness with which they have built this technology from scratch. A total of 19 data labs have been established in universities across the country and STEM education (science, technology, engineering and maths) is being prioritized countrywide. A “Qianren Jihua” (Thousand Talents) scheme is trawling the world to attract brilliant scientists.

But if we think back, historically China has been home to innovative and unique technology across history.  Among the earliest inventions were the abacus, the “shadow clock,” and the first lanterns. The Four Great Inventions – the compass, gunpowder, paper making, and printing – were among the most important technological advances, only known to Europe by the end of the Middle Ages 1000 years after they were introduced in China.  So next time you are tempted to believe that China produces novelty junk items, you better think twice!  They are the tech leader of the world!

-B

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