China and the Ball Point Pen

An example that highlights hurdles that need to be overcome

Shefali O'Hara
3 min readMay 29, 2023
Photo by Liviu C. on Unsplash

Once upon a time, China was one of the world’s most advanced civilizations. They invented several products that people still use today, including paper, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. Their medicine (along with India’s) was far more advanced than that of Europe.

Yet in the modern era, China is better known for copying and improving upon the inventions of other countries than in creating new technologies itself. It is accused of stealing or reverse engineering instead of building its own technical infrastructure capable of innovation.

This can be highlighted by something as simple as the ball point pen.

More specifically, the tiny metal ball inside the pen. While China sold billions of pens each year, until 2017, it imported these parts from Switzerland.

Then Premier Li Kequiang complained on national TV that his country, considered the “world’s factory”, couldn’t produce this humble part. Other countries, such as Germany and Japan, didn’t need to import these balls — they could produce their own.

Apparently, the precision required to create the metal tips of ball point pens is very high. It took five years before Taiyuan Iron & Steel produced one.



Shefali O'Hara

Cancer survivor, writer, engineer. BSEE from MIT, MSEE, and MA in history. Love nature, animals, books, art, and interesting discussions.