Mr. Shangkong

Chinese innovation lost in the shuffle with Beijing's blessing

When everything from mooncakes to pancakes is given the label, what hope for Internet Plus?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2015, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2015, 10:20pm

Here's my advice for those who are in the public relations business: think twice before you write the word "innovation" in your press release because the word is already widely overrated.

I've received dozens of emails from different company PRs trying to promote their new products in the past week, especially during the first Asia-focused Mobile World Congress Shanghai event. When they tried to introduce their new products, "innovation" (or "innovative") was so often cited that I quickly lost sight of what the word really meant.

There have been countless smartphones that look almost identical to Apple's iPhone and they all describe themselves as "innovative". I even got a press release from a five-star hotel that claimed it would soon launch its "innovative mooncake".

During the week of MWC Shanghai, a local media friend also shared a real-life story with me. There is a well-known pancake snack stand near a top university in Shanghai and the owner and cooker is a grandmother-like woman.

One day a computer science student helped her create a website and smartphone app and now students can order pancakes online and she will send someone to deliver. As a result, they claim they have created a new O2O business with potential for fundraising and eventually public listing. Innovative?

O2O means "online to offline", for example, you can order something online and someone will deliver it to you offline. Uber, the popular taxi hailing app is also an O2O business and is clearly a game-changing business. But for the grandmother's pancake business to go online and be called an innovative O2O business is overusing the term. It gives me growing doubts about how innovative Chinese economic restructuring can really become.

Premier Li Keqiang has been calling on everyone to think about innovation and starting his or her own business in recent months. As a result, commercial banks have been also under pressure to give loans to start-ups, most of which are so-called micro enterprises.

A branch manager at a state-owned bank in Shanghai told me many banks had been assigned loan quota to particularly support such enterprises, especially internet-related business, following Li's announcement of the central government-backed "Internet Plus" strategy earlier this year.

On Saturday, the central bank, and 10 other departments, issued an official guideline to support internet finance business, calling on banks, insurers and other institutions to launch online platforms to boost public financing.

Clearly, the whole "Internet Plus" story is just beginning and the core part of it will be about innovation. But if innovation is already overrated in China, then what next will come really?


George Chen is managing editor of SCMP International Edition. For more Mr. Shangkong columns: or follow @george_chen on Twitter