According to the "World Intellectual Property Indicators 2012" released by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo) this month, China tops the world (in 2011, the most recent year for data) for patent applications, with some 526,400 filed, followed by the United States with almost 503,600 and Japan with 342,610.
China also does well in trademark applications, with more than 1.4 million filed out of 4.2 million worldwide, which itself is a record number. Industrial design applications similarly reached a record level, with China accounting for 90 per cent of all growth from 2009 to 2011.
A great deal of caution needs to be exercised in making international comparisons on the basis of aggregate data. In particular, the figures do not reveal the quality of technologies embedded in individual applications.
Nevertheless, China's achievement is significant. As Wipo director general Francis Gurry noted in his foreword, "In the 100 years before 2011, only three patent offices had occupied this position (of top patent filer) - those of Germany, Japan and the US."
As far as China is concerned, the following findings are instructive:
Between 1995 and 2009, China led the US in percentage contribution to worldwide growth in patent applications - 37.2 per cent to America's 28.6 per cent. From 2009 to 2011, China's percentage lead (72.1 per cent) became even more marked compared with the US (16.2 per cent).
In regard to patents granted in 2011, China was in 3rd place (about 172,100) after Japan (238,300) and the US (224,500). In terms of percentage contribution to worldwide growth from 1995 to 2009, China had a lead (32.8 per cent) over Japan (22.1 per cent) and the US (17.3 per cent), but during 2009-2011, the US led in contributing 30.4 per cent to worldwide growth, followed by Japan (23.9 per cent) and China (23.3 per cent).
In terms of origin counts, some fourth-fifths of China's patent filings are resident, compared with about half of the US filings.
In the category of international protection under the Patent Co-operation Treaty, China (16,400) trailed fourth after the US (close to 49,100), Japan (38,900) and Germany (18,900). In terms of filings from individual applicants under the treaty, however, Chinese conglomerate ZTE took the top position, followed by Japanese giant Panasonic and another Chinese conglomerate, Huawei.
There has been a sharp rise in Chinese patent applications for complex and discrete technology patents. Rising rapidly from an index of 1 in 1995, China's complex applications leapt past index 30 in 2008 then dropped slightly to index 28 in 2010, while discrete applications reached about index 11.5 in 2008, before dropping to about 8.5 in 2010.
As for research and development productivity, China shows a rising curve of resident patent filings per R&D expenditure, from a base of 1 in 2000 to an index of 1.6 in 2011, compared with the US attainment of about 1.2 in 2010 from the same base.
As for trademark applications, filings from China's offices between 2004 and 2011 contributed to 46.6 per cent of growth worldwide, compared with the US (5.9 per cent). The application figures were mirrored by registration data. In the same period, China accounted for a lion's share of 49.3 per cent of trademark registration growth worldwide, compared with the US (6.5 per cent) and Germany (0.4 per cent).
China was particularly dominant in industrial design patent applications, with some 521,500 filings in 2011, towering above all other countries including South Korea (58,600) and Germany (54,000).
What do these numbers mean? Up to now, China has developed very little of the world's cutting-edge technology, let alone produce a home-bred Nobel science laureate. Chinese world brands are extremely rare and the country's higher-technology exports imbed a large proportion of foreign-owned patents and trademarks. So China cannot yet claim to be the world's technology or innovation leader.
But, if China stays the course of innovation, the country has a good chance of overcoming the "middle income trap" common in developing nations as growth stalls and productivity fails to catch up with a dwindling pool of cheap labour.
China now produces some 7 million university graduates every year, the vast majority of them in engineering and sciences. There has also been a rapid rise in outward direct investment in enterprises and assets of strategic economic importance.
After a slowdown following the global financial crisis, China has returned to a more healthy growth rate of about 8 per cent, so its target of 7.5 per cent growth for this year is almost certain to be achieved.
Provided an average annual growth rate of 7 per cent is maintained this decade, China's aim of nearly doubling its gross domestic product from US$5,500 to US$10,000 to become a middle-income country by 2020 doesn't seem far-fetched.
The Wipo report also clearly shows that on the long road to innovation, China has passed a milestone to take the baton of the world's top patent filer from Germany, Japan and the US, the first time in a century this has been achieved by a developing country.
Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong