What do “the four great inventions of China” bring to mind? If you ask this question in present-day China, the answer will probably be completely different from the one you’ll find in textbooks – paper, the compass, gunpowder and printing.
A likely response in the present day is high-speed trains, bike-sharing services, mobile payment systems, and e-commerce – things China boasts about being ahead of the rest of the world in terms of convenience. The Chinese government and media call these the “new four great inventions” to differentiate them from the ones of old.
But Japanese and European technology was used for China’s high-speed trains, and the QR code – essential for using bike-sharing and mobile payment services – originated in Japan. For this reason, their definition of “inventions” appears to be debatable. At the very least, using the phrase “new inventions” smacks of a desire to dominate the world in the future.
The Chinese media has pointed to instant noodles, headphone stereo products, karaoke and handheld consoles as Japan’s four great inventions, paying respect to the global success of these things.
China’s high-speed trains are considered prominent among its new inventions. These trains now operate on about 25,000 kilometres of railway – more than the rest of the world’s high-speed railways combined.
More than 60 per cent of China’s high-speed railways have been built and become operational since the inauguration of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration.
A plan has been steadily implemented to extend the total length of railway to up to 30,000 kilometres by 2020 and to raise its coverage to more than 80 per cent of the distances between major cities.
China has promoted its high-speed trains externally as something on which countries along the routes of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” – an initiative to create a vast economic zone – can pin their highest hopes, engaging in competition against such rivals as Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train to win contracts.
The Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper once cast Chinese high-speed trains as speciality goods. These high-speed moves surrounding China’s high-speed railways are also coming to symbolise the “new era”, a key phrase of the Xi administration’s second term.
China’s new-generation Fuxing (rejuvenation) train made its first run last year, prior to the party congress held once every five years. The train operates at 350kph – the world’s fastest, among trains that run on railways – and covers the 1,300km distance between Beijing and Shanghai in about 4 hours. It is said to be able to run as fast as 400kph, and is touted with such descriptions as being “manufactured without help from” foreign countries. It is also widely noted that China possesses “the complete intellectual property rights” for the train.
In China, politics cannot be missed even in the names of trains. The country’s previous leading train was Hexie (harmony), named after the “harmonious society” slogan of the administration of former president Hu Jintao.
Then, the Fuxing appeared, with its name deriving from the Xi administration’s slogan of a “great renaissance of the Chinese nation”. It even appears to embody the current administration’s stance of dashing forward to become a strong country – rather than seeking cooperation – which is in line with the slogan’s core messages that China will restore its glory and authority as a global empire, like it was in the past, by erasing its humiliating history of invasions by world powers.
The Fuxing’s service life is said to be 30 years. President Xi has set a goal of developing China into a “great modern socialist country” standing on par with the United States by the middle of the 21st century – around the same time the flagship train is expected to be replaced by a new model.
If the “renaissance” dream comes true, what will China’s next goal be? Studying this question is worthwhile – although it may be a little too hasty – together with China’s moves to build a new world order under its leadership.