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Transforming from imitators to innovators

By Ben Shenglin | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-11-13 10:49

Transforming from imitators to innovators

By Cai Meng

E-commerce and e-payment, two of the "four new inventions of China", reached a new peak this year as the Singles Day sales on Nov 11 reached 253.97 billion yuan ($38.2 billion). China's "new inventions" can be more accurately described as "innovations", because there have been similar inventions in foreign countries before.

E-commerce emerged in the United States in the 1990s, but Amazon and other e-companies didn't develop as fast as their Chinese counterparts such as Alibaba and jd.com. And e-payment, for example, through PayPal was founded in the US in 1998, five years before its Chinese imitator Alipay.

In his report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, General Secretary Xi Jinping mentioned "innovation" 59 times, which highlights how important innovation-driven growth will be for every aspect of China's development. Innovations or inventions aside, China's prominence in these areas and their profound impact on the lives of ordinary Chinese people, business community and society as a whole have been universally acknowledged.

However, there is much less consensus on why China has leapfrogged the rest of the world in these new areas. Business leaders' answers would most likely be entrepreneurship, which is indeed vibrant in China. Tech companies will confidently and rightly assert the power and progress of China's technology sector as the enabler. Policymakers can claim that they have provided the right policy environment, by taking a remarkably tolerant, if not encouraging, approach toward some of the inventions. And ordinary citizens can proudly say that it is their collective enthusiasm of embracing new products and services, and in some cases their sacrifice of privacy, that has made the business models commercially viable.

Besides, many foreign competitors have attributed China's success to its ability as a great "imitator" to innovator.

In the academia, the views are no less diverse, with some observers questioning the very fact of China's inventions and new ideas while others have not been able to properly analyze the inventions as they have grown so fast that many of them defy conventional theories.

Even without rigorous scholarly analysis, it is probably still safe to say that each and every one of the above factors has contributed, in one way or another, to China's prominence in the age of "new economy". But it is also equally safe to say that each or a combination of them is not sufficient to explain what China has witnessed — the unfathomable magnitude and breathtaking pace of China's rise in these sectors — nor does it explain the timing of all these changes.

In fact, it is the combination of the sweeping changes in political, economic, social, cultural, and technological areas that has created a politically stable environment and powerful innovation ecosystem with Chinese characteristics, which paves way for the fast development in "new economy".

The author is a professor at the School of Management and dean of the Academy of Internet Finance, Zhejiang University.

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