China recorded a total surplus of over US$100 billion in trade in technical equipment during the first eight months of 2017, according to data from the China Machinery Industry Federation.

Advances in China’s manufacturing capabilities are most evident in the slew of indigenous, cutting-edge warships, warplanes and weaponry that have been rolled out for the Chinese military in recent years. Such items – which include, for example, the Dongfeng-41, a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of up to 15,000 kilometers – have been widely hailed by party mouthpieces.

Yet there exists an inconvenient truth – that while China, as the world’s factory, now churns out high-tech products for the global market, it still depends heavily on imports of many other products, including items as “low-tech” as bolts and ballpoint pens.

As reported by Global Times, Tan Jianrong, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a lead scientist for China’s National Basic Research Program, told a forum at the end of last month that “bolts for precise instruments have to be imported from overseas because our factories simply can’t make them.”

To be sure, Chinese manufacturers crank out low-end fasteners, bearings and all sorts of other industrial components and parts for export, usually at razor thin margins. But the country still has to import top-notch fasteners and bearings from places such as Japan, Germany and the United States as there are no homemade alternatives of comparable quality.

iStock-586056452
China as the world’s factory still cannot make a high quality rotating ball point. Photo: Getty Images

Take the example of ballpoint pens. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has reminded people more than once that the world’s second largest economy remains unable to produce those tiny rotating balls that are fitted to end of pens and dispense ink as one writes. 

Chinese pen manufacturers – who produce, or more correctly assemble 38 billion ballpoint pens each year – import such balls from Germany, Switzerland or Japan.

The reason why the world’s largest exporter of stationery has not mastered the rotating ballpoint is that China lags behind Japan, Germany, Switzerland and so on in high-precision metalworking lathe technologies. And such machine tools produce not only tiny metal balls for pens but also a whole host of precise parts for civil and military use.

In the case of pens, there is also the problem of China’s inability to produce the highest quality of steel materials.

Today the country still relies heavily on high-quality steel alloys imported from Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States to build its high-speed railways, bridges and even aircraft carriers and submarines.