Why Can’t China Make a Good Ballpoint Pen?

The title of this post comes from a terrific NPR Marketplace article of the same name. If you are doing anything related to manufacturing in China, this is the one article you should read this year.

The article is based on a question Chinese Premier Li Keqiang asked in Beijing earlier this month. Li went on to complain how Chinese pens felt “rough” compared to pens made in Japan, Germany, and Switzerland and he talked of how China’s manufacturers should focus on innovating their technology.

After a previous time Premier Li had grumbled about Chinese pens, CCTV put on a talk show with “three CEOs of China’s most innovative and successful manufacturers,” including Qiu Zhiming, president of one of China’s largest pen manufacturers. Qiu explained how China supplies 80 percent of the global market for pens but imports the core technology of each pen — the stainless steel ball and its casing — from Japan, Germany, or Switzerland. He then told of how only Switzerland has “a machine with the precision required to make the best ballpoint pen tips.” A Chinese air conditioner manufacture CEO then chimed in:

Dong Mingzhu, CEO of a Chinese air conditioner manufacturer, frowned at Qiu from her perch onstage. “Think about it. How much money have the foreigners made from us because they have better technology?” asked Dong. “You don’t have this technology and they’re taking your profits! You know what I’m going to do? I’ll have my best people make you a machine like the Swiss. I’ll make it in a year and sell it to you for half the price!”

The studio audience applauded loudly. Her promise seemed ludicrous – It took years of R&D for the Swiss to make a machine like this, and now she, an air conditioner manufacturer, promised to do the same in months. The CEO beside her onstage who runs a machine tool company pointed this out, but the CCTV host quickly shot him down, calling him jealous.

Pen maker Qiu shifted in his seat. He smiled uneasily, and knowing full well Premier Li Keqiang would be watching this program, he said the only thing he could muster to such an absurd promise.

“I thank you on behalf of the pen manufacturing industry,” he told Dong.

I am troubled by the air conditioner CEO’s promise because it reminds me of the many Chinese manufacturers that have promised my clients they could make something they do not have the ability to make.

But why can’t China make a good pen?

Platinum Pen president Huang Xinghua “says the problem is the Chinese market”:

To explain, he gives a tour of his quality control room, where workers do nothing but click brand new pens all day to make sure they work properly.

“We click the pens sold in China only once, because Chinese consumers are more price-conscious,” explains Huang. “The pens that go Japan? We click them twice. They will pay twenty cents more for a better pen.”

Huang has made pens for 42 years. He’s visited Japan, Germany, and Switzerland dozens of times to study how to improve his pens’ quality, and he’s done just that.

But China’s marketplace isn’t looking for better quality products, Huang says, and he’s glad Premier Li is addressing the issue.

During the CCTV talk show, the host asked the three Chinese CEOs to “Take three seconds and think of an innovative product that is uniquely Chinese.” Here is what happened in response:

First up was Qu Daokui, CEO of a robotics company. “If I close my eyes and try to think of a product that has Chinese characteristics and is recognized internationally,” stammered Qu, “I can’t think of one.”

Next, it was the machine tool CEO’s turn. “There are two things that only Chinese people can make,” explained Guan Xiyou, CEO of Shenyang Machine Tool Group, “The first is fireworks. The second? Folding fans. Foreigners still can’t make a good folding fan.”

Qiu Zhiming, the CEO of the ballpoint pen company, was no longer in the hot seat. He sat quietly, watching the CEOs onstage stammer answers to this essential question.

And he smiled.

Will China ever make a good ballpoint pen? Why or why not? If yes, then when? What about Chinese cars, do you just assume they are not as well made as their Japanese, Korean or U.S. competitors? And what about China’s new passenger jet? Will you be willing to fly that? Will you be a bit more worried than usual when you do?