China and the Ball Point Pen

An example that highlights hurdles that need to be overcome

Shefali O'Hara
3 min readMay 29


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.

This became a point of pride for China, but it also highlights a fact that should ease the concerns of Americans worried about a Chinese military confrontation.

While China does manufacture some high tech equipment these days, including stealth fighters, it still is unable to manufacture essential high end chips without importing equipment from countries like the Netherlands. This is because, in order to manufacture these chips, lithography must be used. An essential element in the process is photoresist. This is a photosensitive material invented in the 1920s which evolved through the work of American, Japanese, and European scientists.

So while China produces chips, it can only produce a limited number of low-end products on its own. In order to manufacture high end chips, it must use technologies such as photoresist that it imports from competitors such as the United States and Japan.



Shefali O'Hara

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