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China's Innovation Problem: Why The Wok Can't Compete In An iPhone World

Wok in progress
Wok in progress
Betty Ng

Despite the rise of the China's economy in recent years, many people still doubt that Chinese enterprises will be able to develop innovative products or new manufacturing methods or business models.

The Financial Times recently published an article in which it referred to two Chinese corporations, Haier and Huawei, which have learned and rapidly adapted themselves to the Western management model, but nonetheless still fail to bring to the world any fresh sets of products or break new ground in how companies are run.

Many so-called innovations or inventions are in fact just popularizations.

When it comes to the arrival of automobiles, we often think of the American Henry Ford, who built his first car in 1896. But it was actually Germany's Karl Benz who was the inventor of the world's first petrol-powered automobile. When we talk about the light bulb, we are most likely to think of Thomas Edison who demonstrated his light bulb in 1879. However, the English physicist Joseph Swan showed a similar incandescent lamp a year earlier. Meanwhile, before him, the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta has also showed a set of glowing wires decades before.

Likewise, when it comes to computer operating systems we think of Bill Gates, but before him there were all those engineers who had written and designed other programming languages and operating systems.

The reason why we connect certain people's names to certain inventions isn't because they were the inventors but because they had successfully popularized the products or concept. Henry Ford was an industrialist rather than an inventor. His contribution was to have developed the assembly line production technique so that the efficient manufacturing of the car could make it a mass-market product.

Similarly, the success of Thomas Edison lies in his use of a carbon filament that considerably reduced the price of the light bulb, and with its lower electricity demand and longer life span it came to be widely used. Edison's creation and invention in essence came from irrigating seeds sown by others.

Bill Gates followed this American tradition of mass commercialization. The key to his success lies in his adaptation and development of an operating system to be applied to personal computers while at the same time retaining the product's copyright.

Innovation is often simply a well-timed improvement...

All these examples show that sometimes it's difficult to differentiate innovation from improvements, upgrades or even switching. The truly revolutionary creation, invention, discovery and insight are rare indeed.

Function over form

China has brought to the world the compass, paper, printing, gunpowder and silk, just like the United States has brought to the people the telephone and camera. Compared with other nations, China is a vast land with a massive population. In its long history, there has been no lack of real innovation and invention.

However in modern times, China has shown a lack of inventions or innovative business ideas to spread around the world.

There are probably two reasons limiting the popularity of Chinese products: a) the country's massive domestic market; b) the emphasize of function over form, as well as the lack of brand-building and packaging capacities.

Traditionally, China attaches great importance to standardization, the mass-oriented and the functional. For instance, left-handed people have always been encouraged or forced to use their right hands to adapt themselves to the tools designed for the right-handed. It is a society that caters to the majority.

As early as the Qin Dynasty, the emperor Qin Shi-Huang had already standardized the measurements and the axles on carts across the whole country. Mandarin, a Beijing dialect originally, became China's national language in the 20th century so as to promote communication among provinces. The Chinese characters were simplified within mainland China in the 1950s with the aim of improving people's literacy.

The emphasis on universality and functional application is the traditional symbol of Chinese cultural development.

But the huge population means that Chinese companies have access to a massive domestic market that provides considerable profits and growth. Even for multinationals such as Haier, overseas business accounts for only a small part of its total revenue and benefit. Unless the domestic market is saturated Chinese corporations might lack the motivation to develop other markets and make products for a global consumer.

In addition, in having to deal with an enormous population, Chinese products and inventions tend to emphasize practicality, and often ignore aesthetics, which can limit attractiveness to consumers.

The quintessential example of this is the Chinese wok. This cooking device is actually similar in certain key ways to an iPhone - they are both multi-functional and a wonder of engineering. Strictly speaking, the iPhone was also not an innovation. It was a re-packaging of existing tools - the mobile phone, camera, music player and computer, then simplified in use and made convenient for users.

Wok and rolls

So is the Chinese wok. The Chinese use it to steam, fry, braise and stew, unlike in the western kitchen where various pans and pots are used for different preparations. The round bottom design allows heat to be distributed evenly to every part of the wok. This cookware is a great example of the universality of Chinese efficiency.

However, compared with the iPhone, the wok is clearly neither cool nor attractive -- plenty of bulk and very little beauty. This is probably why it has never been widely accepted in other parts of the world.

In the face of current globalization, appearance and packaging are part of a universal language that crosses borders and sells to diverse customers. The recent spreading of Japanese cooking and ingredients around the world, regardless of whether it really tastes better than Chinese food, is a testament to the attention given to the aesthetics of culinary tradition.

To create momentum behind Chinese products in the world, not only do their innovators have to be innovative, but must also pay more attention to design, branding and packaging.

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.

• Aye aye, CAP'n: HAPPY CAPS LOCK DAY, FOLKS!

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.

👮🎮  IN OTHER NEWS

Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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