China invented gunpowder, paper and the compass. Yet it is often accused of a failure to innovate. US frustration over the theft of intellectual property (IP) is at the heart of last week’s promising but inconclusive trade talks. But Chinese patents are growing at a startling rate. China gets more than twice as many patent applications as the US, having overtaken it in 2011. Its critics may have to accept that copycats can innovate too. Not so fast, say sceptics. Government policies tend to emphasise quantity over quality. Only a fifth of Chinese patents could be classed as inventions, rather than minor design tweaks or other incremental changes. In any case, a high proportion of patents granted in China are to foreign multinationals wanting to protect themselves from knock-offs. The middle kingdom’s success in building up an innovation economy is unprecedented, experts say. China was the only country whose companies notched up an increase in US patents in 2018, it emerged last week...

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