The four great inventions of modern China


A summary of the top news in Chinese society and culture for August 11, 2017. Part of the daily SupChina newsletter, a convenient package of China’s business, political, and cultural news delivered to your inbox for free. Subscribe here.

The “four great inventions of ancient China” are papermaking, gunpowder, movable type printing, and the compass. Xinhua News Agency has now drawn on results from a survey (in Chinese) on youths from 20 countries along the Belt and Road to create a list of the “four new great inventions.” The “four greats” are the subject of Xinhua’s top Chinese language news item for August 11.

High-speed railways

Though the technology originated in Japan and Europe, China now has the world’s largest high-speed rail network, covering more than 20,000 kilometers; it is expected to more than double to 45,000 kilometers by 2030. According to Reuters, China’s ability to build high-speed rail projects more cheaply than its competitors also granted the technology a central place in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Online shopping

Ecommerce was not invented in China, but some might say it was perfected in China. With a massive online population of 751 million, China has the world’s biggest and fast-growing ecommerce market, with sales reaching $752 billion in 2016, accounting for roughly 13.8 percent of the country’s total retail sales. A series of online shopping events is scheduled throughout the year by various online shopping platforms. The extraordinary rise of ecommerce has also brought new opportunities to rural China. In 2016, online business owners in rural villages reached 8.11 million, creating more than 20 million jobs.

On-demand bikes

As we noted in March this year, China’s bike sharing — or, more accurately, on-demand bike rental — is a real Chinese innovation, and it continues to grow rapidly. In July, Ofo, one of China’s bike-sharing companies valued at around $2 billion (the other one is Mobike), announced a $700 million funding round from investors led by ecommerce giant Alibaba, Hony Capital, and CITIC Private Equity. On August 9, after launching its bikes in six overseas markets, including Singapore, the United States, and Britain, Ofo announced its expansion into Japan in cooperation with SoftBank, which will back the venture with $1 billion funding.

Electronic payments

Again, this was not invented in China, but China now leads mobile and internet payments in terms of user numbers and seamless technology. Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay are leading the charge toward a cashless society. The two of them together enabled $2.9 trillion in Chinese digital payments in 2016. However, even though electronic payments have become an essential part of daily life in China, the country “has not left cash behind completely,” according to a report by the Financial Times (paywall).

Earlier this week, Alibaba promoted a “cashless week” event to encourage use of its payment services, causing the People’s Bank of China to send a notice to its regional offices, ordering them to tone down such promotions for fear of misleading customers and interfering “with the normal currency flow of the yuan.” Meanwhile, the central bank has released a new regulation that requires online payment companies to connect to a centralized clearinghouse by October 15.