Ballpoint pens roll off the assembly line of Shanghai Platinum Pen's factory in Shanghai. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, keen to innovate China's manufacturing industry, is on a quest to find out why China can't make a good quality pen. The answer, says one Chinese pen manufacturer, is a domestic market that doesn't demand it.
Ballpoint pens roll off the assembly line of Shanghai Platinum Pen's factory in Shanghai. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, keen to innovate China's manufacturing industry, is on a quest to find out why China can't make a good quality pen. The answer, says one Chinese pen manufacturer, is a domestic market that doesn't demand it. - 

It seemed like an innocuous question: “Why can’t China make a good ballpoint pen?” But it carried a much deeper meaning thanks to the man who asked it: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. At a seminar in Beijing earlier this month, Li complained to those gathered that Chinese pens felt “rough” compared to pens made in Japan, Germany, and Switzerland. Li said China’s manufacturers at the lowest levels should focus on innovating their technology.

It wasn’t the first time China’s Premier had complained about his country’s shoddy ballpoint pens.

After he grumbled about Chinese pens last June, state-run broadcaster CCTV devoted an hour-long program to the topic, a talk show where three CEOs of China’s most innovative and successful manufacturers sat onstage alongside a host. Sitting nervously at a table in front of the studio audience was Qiu Zhiming, president of one of China’s largest pen manufacturers. Qiu explained to the other CEOs that China supplies 80 percent of the global market for pens.

The core technology of each pen — the stainless steel ball and its casing — is imported from Japan, Germany, or Switzerland, said Qiu. Only Switzerland, he said, has a machine with the precision required to make the best ballpoint pen tips. China, Qiu said sadly, hasn’t developed a machine like this.

Dong Mingzhu, the CEO of Ge li (Gree), 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 have! 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.

Inside the Platinum Pen factory in Shanghai.

Inside the Platinum Pen factory in Shanghai. 

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 think Li Keqiang is basically trying to shame his people into not being complacent,” says Jim McGregor, China CEO of APCO.

McGregor says Premier Li is sending a message to Chinese manufacturers: making cheap products is no longer good enough. “He wants them to step up and innovate which I think some companies are doing.” 

Companies like Tencent which makes WeChat, a communications app that seems far ahead of what foreign apps can do, or Huawei, the world’s largest telecoms company that’s a hub for cutting-edge technology.

But where does that leave China’s ballpoint pen makers?

Forty million pens roll off the assembly line each year at Platinum Pen’s factory in Shanghai. Company president Huang Xinghua says he’s heard Premier Li’s complaints about China’s dismal ballpoint pens.

“I guess he must have used a crappy pen,” says Huang. “He was probably angry. How come foreign pens are smooth and this Chinese pen leaked ink all over my hands? But not all Chinese pens are bad. Some companies make very good pens.”

Huang 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 that’ll be sold in China only once, because Chinese consumers are more price-conscious,” explains Huang. “The pens that’ll be exported to Japan? We click them twice. They’ll 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.

“In the past, the government praised the big companies that export the most and have the biggest profits,” says Huang. “They seldom praise companies that truly make good quality pens.”

The question of quantity over quality came up during the CCTV program devoted to ballpoint pens. The host asked the three Chinese CEOs onstage a simple question: “Take three seconds and think of an innovative product that is uniquely Chinese.”

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.

Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz