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Innovation runs from 5G wireless to wheels, wallets

By William Hennelly | China Daily | Updated: 2018-03-20 07:52

From Alibaba to ZTE, Chinese companies have been making waves in innovation.

They are the types of companies that can rebut the outdated question of whether China can make its own stuff, or, more precisely, can innovate and turn that process into profits.

Forbes' 100 World's Most Innovative Companies for 2017 included six Chinese enterprises: No 4 Shanghai RAAS Blood Products (between No 3 Amazon and No 5 Netflix); No 24 Tencent; No 47 Kangde Xin Composite Material Group; No 55 Ctrip; No 60 Baidu; and No 82 Jiangsu Hengrui Medicine. These innovative companies also have the benefit of the world's largest market. For example, Tencent's WeChat reached 1 billion users this month.

I use the WeChat app - the closest Western equivalent is WhatsApp - because my co-workers do. It never crashes and it also has a good sense of humor with its animated GIFs, or "sticker gallery". The call function is very responsive (although you have to be careful, because if you don't hit voice call, your face and that of the recipient's quickly pop on screen).

Chinese spend about one-third of their time on mobile devices using WeChat, according to a March 8 article in Forbes. So the app has expanded its vision to connect people to people, people to services, people to businesses, and people to objects.

With some 699 million Chinese - half the population - using smartphones, it's a mobile market with exponential growth potential.

China has embraced mobile payments probably more than any other place in the world. WeChat has WeChat Pay, and Alibaba has Alipay.

Transactions on China's mobile payment systems were worth $32 trillion in 2017, almost 30 percent more than in 2016, according to People's Bank of China, the central bank. The number of mobile financial transactions totaled $37.6 billion, up 46 percent year-on-year.

Western mobile-payment services require businesses to install equipment before customers can use them, but in China only a QR code and smartphone are needed.

The telecom company ZTE won Informa's Best Technology Innovation for 5G award for its technological innovation at the 2018 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, last month. The company, based in the southern city of Shenzhen, aims to become the first 5G commercial-equipment provider in the world.

At Baidu, researchers have created artificial intelligence they say can learn to mimic your voice after listening to it for less than a minute.

"From a technical perspective, this is an important breakthrough showing that a complicated generative modeling problem, namely speech synthesis, can be adapted to new cases by efficiently learning only from a few examples," Leo Zou of Baidu's communications team told Digital Trends.

China also has dived into the sharing economy, with ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing buying out Uber's business in China and fast-growing Ofo starting to offer bike rentals in major cities across the United States.

Fast Company, a US business magazine, named automaker BYD as one of the Top 10 Most Innovative Companies for Energy. The company, also based in Shenzhen, ranked No 2 on the list.

"The biggest electric-vehicle manufacturer in the world isn't Tesla, but ... BYD," the magazine said. "The company began as a battery manufacturer - and that expertise led it to electric cars and trucks, which depend on battery cost and performance."

Stella Li, president of BYD North America, told Xinhua News Agency in February, "We strive to create innovative ways to power and move the world with safe and sustainable technology."

It's not surprising that innovation is one of the key areas of the two sessions. Among the goals outlined in this year's Government Work Report to the National People's Congress were to boost the sharing economy and encourage Chinese students abroad to return home to pursue business and other innovative ventures.

China is the world's largest investor in artificial intelligence, while cities nationwide are opening innovation incubation centers and shared workspaces alongside plans to build smart, green infrastructure and transport systems.

Contact the writer at williamhennelly@chinadailyusa.com

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