Filmmaker Steve Nettleton looks at China's modern-day innovators and the determination that keeps them inventing - from backyard inventor Xu Ting Zhong, to Kong Weiming, the chief inventor of China's first registered innovation company Creatvow, and those who profit from the intellectual piracy trade.


When Xu Tingzhong leaves his cluttered 10-metre-square apartment in Nanjing to go to work, he often heads for the garbage dump.

From what others discard, he might find the perfect piece to complete his latest project – a portable electric bicycle that also folds into a simple bed.

Xu believes that one of his inventions is going to be a world success

"It is like a mobile chair or a simple bed or a compact shelter … it will be the cheapest, most efficient, most widely-used vehicle for the poor, like a car or a trailer," he says.

Xu is an inventor, but not just any inventor. With more than 100 patents under his belt, he has been called China's "inventor king".

At first glance, Xu seems an unlikely character to hold such a title.

He has no investors, no research grants and barely scrapes by on $30-a-month.

He has sold none of his creations, and several of his patents have been stolen by other companies.

Yet Xu trudges on, developing whatever his mind creates.

In 1985 alone, he patented 35 inventions, but he is most proud of a car that travels both on land and water.

China's farmer-inventor

Outside Beijing, farmer and fellow inventor Wu Yulu has come closer to financial success. From the age of 10, Wu wanted to create a robot.

Wu invented over 25 different robots

In the late 1970s, he got a job at factory making farm machinery, and the small income this provided helped him turn used sewing machine parts and some steel wire into his first robot.

"Until now, I don't know the theory of physics, but I knew that electricity can drive motors and power can be transferred to the robot's hands and legs with levers and wires," Wu says.

His fifth robot, the perfect host which brings tea, lights cigarettes, changes light bulbs and greets guests, captured the media's attention.

Wu won the first prize in a competition for farmer inventors, being labelled "China's smartest farmer inventor".

He was once given a $2,000 investment to create a robot that could clean windows. But the stress of the assignment led to a nervous breakdown and nearly cost him his marriage.

Innovation versus fabrication

On an individual level, Xu and Wu embody the ingenuity and creativity that once made China one of the world's most advanced ancient civilisations.

It was here that gunpowder, the compass and printing were invented. And from China, in the 15th century, a massive flotilla of ships set out on one of the most far-reaching naval explorations in history.

Yet today, China is considered less a nation of innovation as one of fabrication. It is the world's factory, providing the human capital and cheap resources to manufacture other nations' technologies, from toy cars to flat screen TVs. In the West, it is viewed by many as a centre for the piracy of ideas.

Historians have sought to explain why China fell so far technologically behind the West over the last few centuries.

Author Deng Yinke believes this was the result of a combination of factors: self-imposed seclusion from the outside world, an emphasis on literature and philosophy instead of science in traditional Chinese education and the impact of Western powers seeking to dominate Chinese trade, which left an imperial treasury in ruins.

"After Western nations invaded China, our tax system was controlled by foreigners. We didn't have the capacity to develop new technology," said Deng.

"During Mao's time, political ideology interfered with the development of technology and science. It was not until Deng Xiaoping's time, that the talents and intelligence of Chinese were once again put to full use."

Held back

Kong Weiming focusses on eco-friendly projects, like the solar-powered aircraft

Beijing wants to again claim the mantle of a nation of innovation.

It has launched a space programme that aims to see Chinese taikonauts on the surface of the moon as early as 2017.

The country is seeking to promote home-grown technology in industries ranging from aviation to telecommunications.

But is the country's political, social and cultural climate one that will encourage inventiveness, or is China being held back by its restrictions on expression, its deep-seated Confucian customs and a lack of investment?

With China promising to invest more in innovation, Beijing Creatvow Technology Invention Corporation should be one of the first to benefit. Creatvow is China's first registered company to focus on invention.

The company is made up of professional inventors, technical specialists and designers and is affiliated with Beijing University's Technology Zone.

Its innovations focus on eco-friendly projects, including a solar-powered aircraft that can stay aloft for months at a time, providing weather research and communications services.

Founder and chief inventor Kong Weiming is currently helping develop a 1000-metre-square multi-functional trailer powered by solar, wind, biological and thermal energy.

Kong says that "after 30 years of economic reform in China, we have accomplished capital accumulation. It is now the right moment for innovation," but he adds that government funding is not always efficiently used.

Designers and inventors are left short of the money needed to complete their research, he explains, and because Chinese companies are desperate to see benefits as soon as possible they rarely invest millions on something that has not been tested on the market.

Kong says it is easier for companies to simply copy technology from other countries and that the problem of intellectual piracy is an issue that threatens to undermine invention.

Intellectual piracy

Indeed, a different spirit of ingenuity and creativity seems to be developing, with little restraint, in manufacturing knock-offs and clones of other countries' brands, from DVDs to iPhones.

These products are known in China as "Shanzhai". The term literally means "mountain village," referring to the remote stockades of warlords or thieves that were far from the reach of authorities.

One journalist, Pei Yu, has made it his personal agenda to crusade against Shanzhai, becoming one of China's most vocal critics of intellectual piracy. He says the growth of this industry not only violates international law, but that it is also hampering the development of science and technology in China.

"Innovation is honourable. Plagiarising is shameful. So shanzhai is a national shame," Pei says. "The aim of China's development should not be to become a wealthy country, nor to become a strong country, but to become a modern country. This should be our direction and goal."

'A greater cause'

Many Chinese inventors think that the government should support them

"Inventor king" Xu Tingzhong believes the political climate in China does not encourage innovation. He says that Marxism and socialism interfere with the development of modern technology.

In 1975, he even wrote a letter to Mao Zedong, saying that Marxist-Leninist policies would only prevent China from becoming a leader of innovation. The letter cost him his job and he was nearly imprisoned.

Everybody told him to go back to his original career as a ballet dancer, but Xu believed he was "following a greater cause".

"It makes no difference if there is one more or one less dancer. But what would the world be like without Watt or Newton?"

Wu, the farmer inventor, says: "It is very hard for farmers to invent something, because they don't have the money and the equipment. I think the government should pay more attention to individual invention and grassroots inventors.

"I think China is lagging far behind foreign countries in terms of invention. The government should pay more attention. If every Chinese farmer was like me, you can imagine how the future would be."

Though individuals may keep China's innovative spirit alive, can the nation as a whole become a world leader in new ideas?

In this film, we explore what it will take for future global consumers to see Chinese products as not only "Made in China" but "Invented in China”.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera