China is indeed mounting considerable efforts on the innovation front. However, many of the pundits seem to confuse inputs with outputs
The ‘inputs’ for innovation are impressive. China’s R&D expenditure increased to 1.5% of GDP in 2010 from 1.1% in 2002, and should reach 2.5% by 2020. Its share of the world’s total R&D expenditure grew to 12.3% in 2010 from 5.0% in 2002, placing it second only to the U.S., whose share remained steady at 34-35%. According to UNESCO, China now employs more people in science and technology research than any other country.
At first blush, data on ‘outputs’ also look impressive. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, Chinese inventors filed 203,481 patent applications in 2008. That would make China the third most innovative country after Japan (502,054 filings) and the U.S. (400,769).
Yet there’s less here than meets the eye. Over 95% of the Chinese applications were filed domestically with the State Intellectual Property Office. The vast majority cover Chinese ‘innovations’ that make only tiny changes on existing designs. In many other cases, a Chinese filer ‘patents’ a foreign invention in China with the goal of suing the foreign inventor for ‘infringement’ in a Chinese legal system that doesn’t recognize foreign patents.
A better measure is to look at those innovations that are recognized outside China─at patent filings or grants to China-origin inventions by the world’s leading patent offices, the U.S., the EU and Japan. On this score, China is way behind the others.
According to the OECD, in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, there were only 473 triadic patent filings from China versus 14,399 from the U.S., 14,525 from Europe, and 13,446 from Japan. Data for patent grants in 2010 by individual offices paint a virtually identical picture.
Starkly put, in 2010, China accounted for 20% of the world’s population, 9% of the world’s GDP, 12% of the world’s R&D expenditure, but only 1% of the patent filings with or patents granted by any of the leading patent offices outside China. Further, half of the China-origin patents were granted to subsidiaries of foreign multinationals.
Policy makers have a strong penchant for megaprojects backed by individual ministries and give R&D grants based largely on political clout and connections rather than scientific peer review.
As Yigong Shi and Yi Rao, deans of Life Sciences at Tsinghua and Peking Universities respectively, observed in a recent editorial in Science magazine, for grants ranging from tens to hundreds of millions of yuan, ‘it is an open secret that doing good research is not as important as schmoozing with powerful bureaucrats and their favorite experts.. . . . China’s current research culture . . . wastes resources, corrupts the spirit, and stymies innovation.’