To the vaunted title of ‘most powerful nation’ China is now looking to add that of ‘most innovative nation’, thanks to its pool of creative inventors who are now filing twice as many technology patents as researchers in the United States, China’s prime competitor.

China surpasses US and Germany in patents filed

In 2015, China is way ahead of its main competitors when it comes to filing technology patents. This is the main finding of a survey carried out by German research organisation the Fraunhofer Institute, in collaboration with the technology department of the University of Stuttgart. China’s progress on the patents front is especially marked in the field of Industry 4.0 – the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, which is based on the Internet of Things. China is apparently no longer merely an economic power, but has become a creative force and innovation leader. Since 2013, Chinese inventors have filed over 2,500 patents in the field of Industry 4.0 with the relevant official bodies. This figure greatly exceeds that of the country’s two nearest rivals – the United States, with 1,065 patents, and Germany, with 441 patents filed.


    Number of ‘Industry 4.0’ patents filed in China, in Germany, and in the United States since 2013

This rich vein of patent applications, and thus of inventions for which patents are needed, now reflects China’s actual economic power. This vast country has been regarded for some time by international corporations as a highly valuable market to sell into, but has recently also aroused great interests on the innovation side, and major western firms now scrutinise Chinese patents in great detail. Multinationals in fact use patent analysis to predict the needs of China’s market going forward and to draw up strategies for working with the giant.

In addition, the Chinese government is now doing a lot to encourage innovators. Beijing has set up a government plan called ‘Made in China 2025’, whose purpose is to promote Industry 4.0 technologies, at a time when some developed countries such as France are still having difficulty drawing up a plan. The Chinese authorities urge entrepreneurs to showcase their inventions to international audiences, as witness the fact that over 600 Chinese firms took part in CeBIT 2015, the largest new technologies fair in Europe, held in Hanover, Germany in March. Chinese entrepreneurs at the event showcased inter alia Big Data analysis solutions, Cloud-based systems, and products and services linked to the Internet of Things.

Over 300 Chinese firms and research institutes have filed patents in the area of Industry 4.0, among them such major players as smartphone manufacturer Huawei, telecoms equipment supplier ZTE, and the prestigious Chinese universities of Shanghai, Huazhong and Chongqing.

It is of course true that innovation does not always equal success and the number of patents filed from any one country does not necessarily reflect genuine innovation capabilities. The Fraunhofer/Stuttgart survey points out that only 35% of all Chinese patents applied for are deemed to meet the criteria to be officially registered. Out of those 2,541 patents filed in China since 2013, only 515 have actually been granted patent approval, while the number of approved patents in the United States was 1,467, a figure which means that the US is still out in the lead.

Number of patents granted by the official bodiesSo there has understandably been some concern over the large increase in the number of patents filed. This flurry of activity could potentially flood the offices responsible for granting patents on inventions submitted to them, with the result that the quality of patent scrutiny could fall.

By Anthéa Delpuech