Global Ignorance of Innovation

October 31, 2010

Many who live in Western democracies love patting themselves on the back and feeling superior to the rest of the world.

In The Economist for October 16, I found Innovation in China — Patents, yes; ideas, maybe, which demonstrates how ignorant some are about China. 

Since The Economist’s home office is in London, the magazine represents more than the American media—it represents the Western media and this piece was written in Hong Kong.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about China’s reputation for trampling intellectual-property rights and that an authoritarian government couldn’t possibly compete with a democracy when it comes to innovation.

However, the conclusion points out that China is becoming more innovative and is starting to be serious about protecting intellectual property rights through China’s changing legal system.

What The Economist piece misses is that democracies do not hold a patent on innovation. For more than two millennia, innovations were rampant in an authoritarian China ruled by emperors without much of a legal system. The usual form of punishment was decapitation.

In fact, the list of innovations from ancient China is long and historians are starting to revise the textbooks to show that most of what we have today came from an authoritarian China.

To learn more about the innovations that originated in Imperial China then found a way to the West centuries later, I suggest reading Paper, Printing, Gunpowder, Crossbow and other Inventions, Machines of China, and China Points the Way.

I’m sure there are those who will deny the West “borrowed” these innovations from China and claim that the West reinvented them, but the evidence shows that these ideas traveled West along both the north and south Silk Roads as early as the Roman Empire more than two millennia ago. It just took time for the West to learn how to copy what the Chinese invented then claim it was the West that came up with the ideas.

Too bad that the patent laws, lawyers and courts of today didn’t exist then. Imagine the settlements over these ancient Chinese innovations, which revolutionized the world we live in today.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. 

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