BBC carried this article in its 10 January 2016 release: Pen Power: China closer to ballpoint success. It began by saying “It [China] has sent rockets into space, produced millions of the world’s smartphones and built high-speed trains. But until now, one bit of manufacturing had perhaps unexpectedly eluded China: the ballpoint pen.
Some might see it as another China-bashing rhetoric by a western medium. I thought the article is being too polite!
China is still NOT there yet; that’s my point.
Apparently, the tip of the ballpoint requires high-precision machinery and very hard, ultra-thin steel plates. Without that ability, China’s 3000 penmakers have to import this component from abroad. The cost to the industry is actually minuscule – something like 120m yuan a year. But the symbolic implication is tremendous.
BBC spoke to Professor George Huang, head of the University of Hong Kong’s department of industrial and mechanical engineering, who explained that precision engineering was thriving only in certain sectors such as aerospace and defence where the Chinese government had placed a high priority. China simply lacks a culture of excellence in precision engineering.
Unless China can make watches like the Swiss do and medical optics like the Japanese, it still has a long way to go.
I visited the Three Gorges Dam a couple of years ago, many were held in awe by the scale of engineering there. But on closer examination of its control sites, you could straightaway conclude that notwithstanding the grandeur, China was still very much Third World in mentality and practice.
I spoke about this to my good friend Rocky Wong, a very distinguished engineer who has helped put up many big power plants in the region. He gave a hearty laugh.
“Chinese can churn out 300MW turbines like making sausages. These plants work well. But if you look at their control and instrumentation, they are really not up to scratch. And their operational manuals are horrendously compiled.
“I usually had to help address these two deficiencies if the investor was happy to settle for the Chinese power plants.”
This brings me to an experience I recently had with Chinese medicine. My principal rushed me a generous supply of Bien-tze-huang (see picture) after I had foot surgery at Singapore’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital. I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t make anything out of its English instruction. (My Chinese is half-baked.) The nurse cautioned me against taking it unless I had cleared it with my surgeon. A certain Dr Yong, who must have seen it many times before, just waved me to go ahead.
I must say, it really helped! The injured part began to “miraculously” granulate. And the wound appeared to heal quite rapidly. Later, a friend who is familiar with TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) told me that it was a form of natural antibiotics and highly sought-after for its after-surgery healing properties. It does not come cheap, though; a little box for one or two days’ use costs about USD100.
But another towering figure in Kuala Lumpur related a comment he got from some Chinese when this “bad translation” issue was brought up.
“Did you find operational manuals in Chinese for the America or German or Japanese you bought?”
No wonder! Friend, you are not able to produce things like these people yet!
Of course, quality of China-made things is better now. As much as 30% was sub-standard and ended up as throwaways soon after you bought them.
Jonathan Spence is a Yale professor who specializes in China’s Ming-Ch’ing to 1949 history. He is a prolific writer. Amongst the books that he has authored are: The Search for Modern China (1991), God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiquan (1996), Mao Zedong: A life (2006), Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-His (1998), Treason by the Book (2002), To Change China: Western Advisers in China (1980), From Ming to Ch’ing: Conquest, Religion, and Continuity in Seventeenth Century China (1981). He knows China and Chinese-ness more than many of us!