So why can't we say "The Chinese have invented the printer"?
But in some contexts, that kind of sentence can be said. It can be said in a context where the speaker thinks that the past situation (the invention of the printer) has relevance to the present.
There are many uses for the present perfect construction. The present perfect is used when the past time situation has current relevance to the present time. There are normal contexts that would make your example sentence completely acceptable.
When the present perfect is being used, the past situation doesn't have to occur recently in the past. It could have occurred a long, long, long time ago. (Note: And for your example, the Chinese don't even have to still be inventing stuff.) What matters is that the past situation has current relevance to the present time in the mind of the speaker.
Here are some (made up) examples, which will also show that the past time situation does not have to have been recent.
- A: "Class, tell me, what have the Chinese invented?"
- B: "The Chinese have invented Chinese checkers."
- C: "The Chinese have invented Chinese food."
- D: "The Chinese have invented gunpowder."
All of the sentences above are standard English, and are acceptable in that context.
- A: "What have you accomplished in your professional life?"
- B: "I have climbed Mount Everest."
- A: "When was that?"
- B: "Twenty years ago when I still had two legs."
- A: "What did Tom accomplish in the past that makes him so special?"
- B: "Tom has met the President."
- A: "So what? Many people have met the President. Keep trying."
- B: "Tom has killed a bear with his bare hands."
- A: "Oh, well that's different. When did he do that?"
- B: "Forty years ago when he was a mere child of twelve."
GRAMMAR: The present perfect is a compound tense. Both a present tense and a past tense is in it. The present perfect is used to place a situation (or part of it) into the past, which is one of the uses of the past-tense; and that past situation has relevance to the present time in the mind of the speaker.
In the appropriate context, the present perfect can be used; and in some contexts, it might be expected or preferred over the simple past-tense.
Many grammars distinguish four major uses of the present perfect:
- the continuative,
- the experiential (or 'existential') perfect,
- the resultative perfect,
- the perfect of recent past.
Your example seems to be involving the usage of the experiential perfect.
The present perfect is a compound tense. It is a construction that involves two tenses: a primary present tense and a secondary past tense (the perfect). To understand grammatically how those two tenses work together in a present perfect construction, it's often safer to rely on a decent grammar source, a source that has already been vetted by well-respected professional linguists.
It would probably be simpler if I copied here some related excerpts from reliable grammar sources.
Here's some related info from the 2005 textbook by Huddleston and Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Pages 48-9:
6.1 The present perfect
The present perfect, like the simple preterite (the non-perfect preterite) in its central use, locates the situation, or part of it, in past time:
 - - - PRESENT PERFECT - - - - - SIMPLE PRETERITE
- a. She [has read] your letter. - - b. She [read] your letter.
The difference in meaning results from the fact that the present perfect is a compound tense combining past and present, whereas the simple preterite is purely a past tense. The former includes explicit reference to the present as well as the past, whereas the latter does not. We can see the significance of the present tense component in two ways.
(a) Time adjuncts
. . .
(b) Current relevance
With the present perfect the past time situation is conceived of as having some kind of current relevance, relevance to the present, whereas the preterite does not express any such relationship. Compare:
i.a. She has lived in Paris for ten years. - b. She lived in Paris for ten years.
ii.a. She has met the President. - - - - - b. She met the President.
iii.a. The premier has resigned. - - - - - b. The premier resigned.
iv.a. You've put on some weight. - - - - b. You put on some weight.
. . .
In [ii.a ], a natural interpretation would be that we are concerned with her past experience as it affects her status now: some past experience of hers at some indefinite time puts her in the present state of being among the relatively small class of people who have met the President. If I use [ii.b ], on the other hand, I'm simply reporting a past event, and it will typically be clear from the context what time period I am talking about.
. . .
Here's some related info from the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum (et al.), The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL). Pages 142-6:
5.3 Present perfect vs the simple preterite
5.3.1 Present perfect as a compound tense
. . . The difference in meaning and use between the present perfect and the simple preterite reflects the fact that the former is a compound tense combining past and present, whereas the latter is a simple tense, just past. . . .
5.3.2 The experiential perfect
Grammars commonly distinguish four major uses of the present perfect: the continuative, the experiential (or 'existential') perfect, the resultative perfect, and the perfect of recent past. These can be thought of as a classification of the main ways in which the concept of a time-span up to now can be involved in the use and interpretation of the present perfect -- or as different ways in which the past situation may have 'current relevance'. The continuative has been dealt with already, and can be distinguished reasonably sharply from the non-continuative: compatibility with such expressions as ever since provides a criterion. The three categories within the non-coninuative are not mutually exclusive, but they are useful nevertheless.
The experiential/existential perfect is seen in:
i. I 've finally finished. - - We 've now walked ten miles.
ii. [This is / That was] the best meal I 've had all week.
iii. His sister has been up Mont Blance twice.
This use of the present perfect is concerned with the occurrence of situations within the time-span up to now. The connection with now is clearest and most direct when the completion of an accomplishment takes place at (or virtually at) Td, as in [i ]. The possibility of having present time adjuncts like now or at present shows clearly that we have present time meaning as well as present tense form. These bear some resemblance to continuatives -- the walking ten miles, for example, has occupied a period up to now. However, they cannot take continuative adjuncts like ever since ( *We've now walked ten miles ever since we started), and they are interpreted perfectively, not imperfectively.
The connection with now is also apparent in [11.ii ], illustrative of a common type involving superlatives or ordinal numerals (cf. It's the first/third time you've said that today). There is an actual or potential series of occurrences within the time-span up to now (with first only one is actualized, but there could have been more). In the this is version of [ii ] the meal is presumable still taking place, but it is nevertheless presented perfectively (progressive I've been having would be out of place), for the issue is its ranking in a series, which applies to it as a whole.
The connection with now is less direct in [11.iii ]: the ascents could be quite a long time in the past. The focus, however, is not on their occurrence at some particular time in the past but on the existence of the situation within the time-span. The connection with now is the potential for occurrence, or recurrence, of the situation at any time within the time-span up to now. Thus [iii ] implicates that his sister is still alive, while I haven't been to the market yet implicates that the possibility of my going to the market still exists (it hasn't closed down). (fn 37)
footnote 37:: The implicature may be weaker: that the same kind of situation is still possible. Nixon has been impeached, for example, can still be acceptable even though Nixon has since died, given a context where the issue is the occurrence within the time-span of situations of the kind "impeachment of a president".
. . .
5.3.3 The resultative perfect
. . .
5.3.4 The perfect of recent past
. . .
ASIDE: Often times there is confusion as to the use of past-time adjuncts with the use of the present perfect. Many easily available textbooks on grammar have over-simplified or over-generalized their grammar "rules" on this topic, and so, are often wrong. But that will hopefully be a topic for another day.