For those who have not flown into Shanghai in recent years, the Maglev is a magnetically levitating train linking Pudong airport to the city’s financial center. Initially developed by Siemens, it is one of the few commercially operating magnetic train in the world – it has yet to provide financial viability.
In addition to being a technological showcase, Maglev is becoming a political experiment. In 2007 relocation plans for thousands of residents was announced in order to extend the track to the other side of Shanghai. The new middle class, a crucial constituency in the country’s future political development, have shown signs of a willingness to take political action when the government’s top-down infrastructure plans have threatened their economic interests.
Since organized demonstrations tend be politically sensitive, residents (mostly white-collars) along the planned line have gathered on Shanghai’s People’s Square to express their opinion using the method of “taking collective walks”. Proof that the topic disturbs: the Internet police has banned it from the Chinese cyberspace.
Here we go again… Every five years, China’s government agency in charge of economic development – the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – publishes a five-year plan which reads a bit like a Christmas wishlist. This time, the 11th “Five-Year Plan for High-Tech Industrialization”, which covers the 2010-2015 period, includes 16 high-tech industrialization projects.
Among them, one can find integrated circuit, the next-generation Internet, new-generation mobile communication, digital audio-video frequency, information safety, bio-medicine, bio-medical engineering, satellite application as well as modern traditional Chinese drugs! The plan suggests fostering a number of backbone enterprises (aka national champions) to industrialize these products. In other words, the Chinese government puts its money where its mouth is.
Sceptics may wonder whether a top-down, government-led approach is the best way to come up with technological innovation. Be it for the roll-out of telecommunication networks or the launch of a taikonaut, Chinese government agencies (granted, with a little help of statistical creativity) have often reached, if not gone beyond, planned objectives.
What really differs this time is that the success (or failure) of the technological projects will have a strong impact on technological innovation in the West. China has now emerged from the catching up mode: it intends to set trends and create its own intellectual property.
For those of us who were thinking that only developing countries were entitled to technological leapfrogging, we may be in for a surprise with the development of the next-generation broadband wireless mobile communication network (aka 4G).
In the “old days”, telecommunication standards were set by Western multinational companies who would then roll out their products in their markets (mostly in the West). Developing countries would follow (or not) and from time to time leapfrog… This time, the International Telecommunication Union has been discussing the allocation of spectrum for 4G with China already considering three spectrum segments to be used for 4G.
Can we actually speak of a revolution? Rather an evolution. On one hand, China had already started working on the development of FuTURE (Future Technologies for Universal Radio Environment) as early as 2001. On the other hand, the development will most likely entail cooperative agreements involving international leaders in the field and Chinese companies: Datang Telecom said it has set up a 4G mobile technology research center in Beijing with Ericsson. Some analysts have even been arguing for some time that it makes sense to go directly to 4G on the grounds that there is no business case for 3G in China!
While MIT’s Negroponte and Intel’s Otellini wage their battle for a USD 100 laptop (aka XO vs. Classmate) a Chinese company has announced plans to market PCs costing less than USD 200 in the Philippines. Lenovo – the leading Chinese PC manufacturer - is hoping to establish a foothold in the market with low-cost, entry-level PCs before pushing its full line of products there.
Even if the success is not assured, Lenovo’s PC could prove a serious rival to the laptops. Because of insufficient demand, the XO currently sells for USD 188 and the Classmate for USD 350 (with an installed version of Microsoft Office). Moreover a number of countries have always been very critical of the USD 100 computer from the outset. India even unveiled plans 3 years ago to develop its own low-cost desktop (Mobilis).
P.S.: Lenovo also unveiled a USD 260 PC for Chinese farmers. It doesn’t come with a mouse or a keyboard. Instead, the box comes with a handwriting recognition pad