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5.2.2011 Big ideas wanted for China's hi-tech revolution

By Martin Patience

Wu Lulu was once a farmer with no formal education. He built low-tech robots made out of any scrap he could get his hands on.

It did not always go smoothly. On one occasion, Mr Wu, 50, mistook detonators for batteries, blowing up his house and burning his face.

But after more than two decades, his perseverance paid off.

He entered a TV competition for inventors - winning first prize, which included a cash purse.

His success ended the criticism of his neighbours who thought he should spend more time tending his crops and less time on his contraptions.

And now, Mr Wu has swapped his fields for a factory where he - and his team of 50 employees - design robots to order.

"I'm obsessed by building them," he says.

Spirit of creativity
Mr Wu has designed about 50 robots, which he names after himself.

His most popular model is the Wu 32 - a life-sized robot pulling a rickshaw. It has lips made out of sponge, eyes that roll, and ears that flap.

The robot also speaks, saying: "Hello everyone, Mr Wu is my father."

The creations have brought Mr Wu a degree of fame. He is frequently asked by schools and universities to give lectures.

"Young people nowadays are very interested in robots," he says. "I'm happy to teach them my skills and contribute to the economy."

It is his spirit of creativity that the Chinese authorities want to foster.

They are spending billions of dollars developing the country's hi-tech industries, believing that higher-paid jobs will improve standards of living.

Focus on design
In the past three decades, China has copied technology developed in other countries.

That has allowed the country to become the world's factory, producing cheap exports that have driven its remarkable economic growth.

But now the government not only wants to make products, it wants China to design them as well.

"Until now we've focused on manufacturing," says Gao Xudong, a professor of management at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"But for the next step, we need to spend more money on science, creating more knowledge, and contributing more to the world," he said.

At a solar panel factory on the outskirts of Beijing you can see how innovation is being encouraged.

There is a research and development laboratory where the panels are tested to make them more efficient. But ultimately the research team wants to create its own product.

The authorities here want to increase the number of patents registered by Chinese companies and individuals.

The factory's manager, Tian Jiang, says that the company is receiving tax breaks to pursue its research. He believes that the only way to remain competitive is to keep developing.

Thinking differently
But critics say that innovation needs more than just government and tax breaks.

It also requires an atmosphere in which creativity is encouraged.

China is an authoritarian state. And much of the teaching in the country is by rote-learning.

"One of the phrases that's often used in China is the nail that sticks up gets hammered down or the bird that flies first gets shot down," says Patrick Chovanec, an American economist based in Beijing.

"This is not an attitude that's going to get people to think differently. You have a society that's geared towards conformity, stability and predictably."

Back at Mr Wu's workshop, he is hard at work.

He says his dream is to build a robot that can do all the housework.

It may seem like an impossible task but the authorities here want people to think big.

They believe the spirit of Mr Wu - and others like him - can change China.