China’s Four Great Inventions--papermaking, the compass, gunpowder, and printing--were innovations from bygone eras. When looking at China’s history over the past 50 years, it’s very difficult to find a single innovation that has made a significant impact on the world. Instead, the “Chinese version of something Western” phenomenon has characterized much of China’s recent product launches. For example, Taobao.com is essentially the Chinese version of eBay, and Youku.com is the Chinese version of YouTube.
Whether China can shed its copycat reputation and become a source of global innovation has become a constant source of debate. While the country’s economy has been growing at an astonishing rate, with an increasingly sophisticated domestic market, the country’s highly centralized government and weak intellectual property system have severely hampered China’s standing as a global innovator. It may be too simplistic to assume that the notion of innovation is understood, standardized, and commonly defined across the world. China is considered the world’s largest developing market, displaying characteristics of other emerging markets as well as its own wholly unique notions of success. The simple concept of innovation is very nuanced in China and can be deeply understood only by listening to Chinese consumers and analyzing what has and hasn’t worked in the marketplace thus far.