Efforts pay off for Chinese inventors at Geneva exhibition

For a man whose country had just won 35 medals, four of them gold, and two special prizes, Jin Guofan was not overly pleased. ``Not bad,'' said the somber-faced professor from Peking's Qinghua University, ``but we have to work harder to get the grand prize next year.''

The Chinese weren't the only winners at the 14th annual International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva last week. The coveted grand prize went to native son Walter Schupbach for his single speaker cabinet stereo system. More than half of the 20 countries represented carried home one or more medals for special merit. (It is interesting to note that, although the exhibition bills itself as the most significant of its kind, Japan did not participate, and the United States had only two entries.)

For sheer competitive spirit, the People's Republic of China was clearly unexcelled. A flag-draped and flower-strewn fa,cade set the Chinese delegation apart from other exhibitors, but so did the unalloyed zest with which the inventors demonstrated their devices and pressed brochures and business cards into passing hands. Videotapes set to Muzak displayed the efforts of innovators who couldn't be present, including the work of Wang Xuan of Peking University, who garnered a gold medal for his computerized Chinese character editing and typesetting system.

The delegation was notable, too, for its size, consisting of 44 entries, compared with 19 in 1985, the first year China participated in the Geneva event.

``The Chinese are interesting,'' says A. M. Alves dos Santos, a Portuguese entrepreneur. ``Last year they came to sniff it out. This year they are here in force. Just look at all their promotional material. The photos aren't good and the printing is lousy, but all the same they have made a tremendous effort.''

The effort paid off in three other gold medals: to Zhao Naigang of the Anhui aquaculture department for a new breeding technique for mitten crab; to Zhuang Yongcheng from Shanghai for an oil and water emulsifying device; and to Zhang Kaixun, of the Ministry of Machinery, for his highly sensitive micro thermometer.

Mr. Zhang was also awarded the prestigious Geneva Canton Prize, while Liang Xudong of the Peking Astronautical Instrument Plant earned the title of Outstanding Inventor from a Developing Country for his cyanide-free gold brush plating technology.

Unlike delegation leader and jurist Jin, many of the winners could not contain their enthusiasm. Waving the silver special prize platter over his head, the exuberant Zhang gave an exultant, ear-to-ear grin worthy of center-court Wimbledon.

For the record, the Chinese played down personal achievement and, like other exhibitors, spoke of ``making a contribution to mankind.'' But they also confessed to having more pragmatic motives.

``It fits with our new economic policy,'' said Kang Dian, an economist with the five-year-old China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC), which was established to foster joint ventures and foreign investment in China. CITIC provided much of the marketing know-how for the delegation, while the newly created China Association of Inventions determined which contestants deserved to come to Geneva by means of an all-China competition. ``We need economic development and we want to make a profit,'' he added.

Exhibition organizers estimate that contracts valued at $15 million were negotiated for the sale, manufacture, distribution, or marketing of 40 percent of last year's inventions.

Not least among the factors spurring the Chinese to make a good showing this year was the array of awards, including the grand prize, taken by Taiwan in 1985. The give-and-take between the two delegations this year has been considerable. ``We think we may be able to do business with them, not formally, but through Hong Kong,'' said one Chinese inventor with a wink.

``Yes, we've been over there talking to them quite a lot -- and not about politics,'' quipped Lu Boxiang, a computer optics specialist from Shanghai who has designed a new identification system for credit and identification cards.

Mr. Lu noted that the Taiwanese entries catered more to the consumer -- including such novelties as a pop-top can with built-in straw, an automatic pitch table tennis machine, more easily pivoted roller skates, and an electronic register for clocking racing pigeons.

``Perhaps their approach is the correct one,'' said Lu. Still, the Chinese were not without some more light-hearted inventions of their own, among them an electric dulcimer and a heated bed.

Rivalry between the two Chinas and among the Pacific nations in general made for delicate diplomacy in the awarding of the special Asian delegation prize. In the end, however, the situation was defused by the presentation of the prize to the inventor of a safety valve for gas containers -- a fellow by the name of Geoff Foster, from Australia.

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