THE WRITE STUFF

The humble ballpoint pen has become a new symbol of China’s innovation economy

Obsession
China's Transition
Obsession
China's Transition

China has grown by leaps and bounds during its quest for greater domestic innovation, becoming a world leader in sectors like robotics-based manufacturing and consumer software. But one of its most recent accomplishments is in an area that’s considerably more basic: ballpoint pens.

In January, Chinese steelmaker Taiyuan Iron and Steel Co., also known as Taigang, formally announced (link in Chinese) that it had developed technology to manufacture the stainless steel tip cases found at the end of high-quality ballpoint pens. The feat shows how the Chinese government remains insecure about the country’s continued reliance on foreign technology, and the lengths it’s willing to go to overcome it.

China produces an estimated 40 billion ballpoint pens annually, but many of them work poorly. Domestic manufacturers wanting to make higher-quality pens must import tip cases from Japan and Germany made of a specialized stainless steel. According to Taigang, an 83-year-old state-owned enterprise based in the Shanxi province, that’s because in better pens the cone-shaped case that holds the ball requires both special raw material and special machinery (link in Chinese). To fulfill demand, Chinese pen makers have been importing more than 1,000 tons (link in Chinese) of the needed steel annually.

In 2011 Taigang and government bureaus allocated 60 million yuan ($8.6 million) toward researching the technology needed to develop the part independently. The company says trials began in earnest in 2014 (link in Chinese) and finally finished last year, when a set of 2.3-mm-tipped pens with the superior tip cases passed the ultimate test—the ability to write for 800 meters (875 yards) without interruption. The company will supply the tip cases to Beifa, a pen maker based in the city of Ningbo in the Zhejiang province. It’s unclear when the resulting pens will officially hit the market, or why Taigang is announcing the news now.

Taigang’s efforts didn’t come out of nowhere. A year ago in China a minor media frenzy erupted (link in Chinese) when premier Li Keqiang, a vocal proponent of bolstering technological innovation, lamented how China was producing 800 million tons of steel annually but still importing the specialized type of stainless steel needed to make the better tip cases.

He reiterated this point frequently during public appearances, adding that pens using domestically produced parts felt inferior to foreign ones. The ballpoint pen became a potent symbol for perceived flaws in China’s economy and technological capabilities. “That’s the real situation facing us,” Li said at a meeting with economists in December 2015. “We cannot make ballpoint pens with a smooth writing function.”

At one point last year, state-media outlet CCTV broadcast an hour-long program examining why China couldn’t make quality tip casings for ballpoint pens on its own.

News of Taigang’s pen-tip “innovation” has made waves on China’s internet in the past few days. An article about the company from state media outlet People’s Daily has so far attracted over 10,000 comments and 20,000 shares on Weibo, China’s Twitter-esque social media platform. “Wow, it had never occurred to me that I had been using ballpoint pens relying on foreign technology!” wrote one user (link in Chinese).

The Chinese government has repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping its domestic technology competitive with foreign alternatives. While that has typically manifested itself in R&D funding for the internet and semiconductor industries, the ballpoint pen has proven to be a more useful symbol for capturing the imaginations of ordinary Chinese.

But that’s not the only pedestrian product public figures have held up in the name of bolstering innovation. Last March Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun appeared at China’s annual “Two Meetings” political gathering to lament how Japan’s rice cookers were superior to those made domestically. Weeks later, his company announced a wifi-enabled rice cooker.

Beifa and Taigang say that making the quality tip casings in China will save about $15 million annually. But even comments from Beifa suggest that the decision was more political than financial.

“Frankly speaking, it’s not that China was incapable of developing the technology,” Beifa CEO Zhang Xuelian told Beijing News (link in Chinese). “This type of steel part requires a special type of steel [to make]. The market for it is not big. Only companies that make pen tips will need it.”

Additional reporting by Echo Huang.

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