There’s a persistent urban legend going around since 2017 that China “invented” four modern innovations that have impacted modern times, namely: mobile payment, bike sharing, e-commerce and high speed railways.
Here’s the plain truth: none of the above innovations were invented in China, although China did pave the road for all of them to be widely implemented worldwide.
But the question remains as to what’s actually behind China’s claim to have invented these four technologies?
China’s state media occasionally publishes articles about these “four new great inventions.” Lately, Pony Ma, China’s richest citizen and CEO of Tencent, the country’s largest internet company said to journalists at the National People’s Congress (NPC) “We have a new phrase called the ‘new four great inventions’ in China, including high-speed railway, online shopping, mobile payment and sharing bikes.”
However, none of these innovations started in China, and some have actually been used in other countries for not just years but decades. It seems that the claim started because of a survey conducted at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, where the students of different nationalities were asked to enumerate the technologies they experienced in China that they wanted to see in their own countries.
As can be surmised, the top four answers were high-speed railways, mobile payment, bike-sharing and e-commerce. This caused China’s press and even government officials to extol these as the country’s “four new great inventions” to modern life.
This is an interesting and deliberate parallel to ancient China’s “four great inventions” of the compass, gunpowder, printing and paper making. The parallel is no accident either, since China desires to become an “innovation nation” by 2020, and has therefore greatly emphasized technological advancement.
Xinhua, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China, said “After years of subordination to the technological supremacy of developed nations in the West, China has come to realize the importance of developing core technologies on its own. Only by doing so can it truly gain independence and win respect from both partners and competitor.”
On a global scale, next to the US, the Chinese invest the most on research and development. More than 20 percent of the $2 trillion spent on R and D came from China, per the World Economic Forum.
But, let’s do some myth-busting and set the record straight on where these inventions really began.
- Mobile payments can be said to have begun in Finland in 1997, when Telecom Finland found a way for vending machines to dispense drinks and jukeboxes to play music through dialing a pay phone. But mobile payments really took off with Apple Pay, which began four years ago, in 2014.
- Bike sharing started all the way back with Provo, the Dutch counterculture movement, in the 1960’s. But since thievery of bikes were on the rise, the police disallowed the practice from continuing. It did make a comeback on a large scale in the 1990’s in Copenhagen. However, it was the Chinese who innovated “dockless” bike sharing, with companies such as Ofo and Mobike allowing users to find bicycles using their smartphones, and then leave them in random places.
- E-commerce began with Michael Aldrich, a British man who in 1979 started the concept of online shopping. Mr. Aldrich connected a TV set to the computer of a local store via a phone line. In the 1990’s, with eBay and Amazon, online shopping became part of our modern lives.
- High speed trains, ones that operate at at least 250 kilometers per hour, have been operating in Japan since 1964, with their famous bullet trains. It was not until 2008, the year of the Beijing olympics, that China began operating it’s the high speed rail from Beijing to Tianjin.
Although these new technologies did not start in China, what the Chinese have done is taken these innovations and run with them, adopting them widely throughout the country. Professor Xu Gongcheng of Xiamen University writes, “Some may argue that the technologies the ‘four new great inventions’ are based on did not originate in China. That is true, but it is China that used the technologies to come up with the new inventions.”
China now generates more than $12 trillion in mobile payments, which is the highest in the whole world. The country also boasts 23 million shared bicycles, with 400 million bike-sharers. China’s 700 million internet users makes it the largest e-commerce market in the world. And finally, when it comes to ultrafast trains, China has the biggest network of high speed rails on the planet—covering 25,000 kilometers, a distance that it hopes to double by the year 2030.