China's surge in patent applications and impressive R&D spending mask a lack of genuinely groundbreaking work, according to a Wall Street Journal article:
Over 95% of the Chinese applications were filed domestically with the State Intellectual Property Office. The vast majority cover Chinese "innovations" that make only tiny changes on existing designs. In many other cases, a Chinese filer "patents" a foreign invention in China with the goal of suing the foreign inventor for "infringement" in a Chinese legal system that doesn't recognize foreign patents ….
The most compelling evidence is the count of "triadic" patent filings or grants, where an application is filed with or patent granted by all three offices for the same innovation. According to the OECD, in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, there were only 473 triadic patent filings from China versus 14,399 from the U.S., 14,525 from Europe, and 13,446 from Japan. Data for patent grants in 2010 by individual offices paint a virtually identical picture.
Starkly put, in 2010, China accounted for 20% of the world's population, 9% of the world's GDP, 12% of the world's R&D expenditure, but only 1% of the patent filings with or patents granted by any of the leading patent offices outside China. Further, half of the China-origin patents were granted to subsidiaries of foreign multinationals.
The authors go on to examine the causes of the hidden gulf between R&D spending and real innovation, including highly political resource allocation and widespread academic fraud.
See also China’s Long March to Innovation Success at Forbes.