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Going West and Climbing Higher?

Some recent evidence suggests that a profound transformation of the industrial landscape in China is under way. First of all, migration of mass manufacturing activities from traditional export centers in Southern and Eastern coastal cities to the inland is accelerating. The world’s largest PC makers and their contract manufacturers are establishing new factories in the Southwest: Hewlett-Packard (No.1 PC vendor by shipments), Acer (No. 2) and AsusTek (No. 6) have chosen Chongqing, while Dell (No. 2) and Lenovo (No. 4) have chosen Chengdu of Sichuan Province. When these new plants run at their full capacity, industrial analysts expect that Chongqing and Chengdu will become the world’s largest manufacturing base for notebook and tablet computers, respectively. China’s populous Chongqing and Sichuan Province, once characterized as poor and rural and the country’s major sources of migrant workers, are going to be transformed into immense industrial hubs.

The drivers of this large-scale industrial migration are a sharp rise in labor and land costs as well as labor shortages in established manufacturing centers in Eastern and Southern China. In addition, the new manufacturing locations are well-serviced by infrastructure after a decade of government investment under the campaign of “Developing the West”. This migration of mass manufacturing presents a new challenge of growth for the developed coastal cities. While shifting manufacturing to the inland, multinationals are also transferring more managerial and R&D functions to China, with some cities being better positioned than others to attract this high-end employment. Regional headquarters of multinationals in Shanghai rose to 305 in 2010, up from 224 in 2008, according to the Shanghai statistics bureau (Financial Times, May 25). Intel has just sent an executive vice-president to Beijing as chairman of its China operations, a clear sign of the expansion of higher-end activities in the country.


Other cities may not be so lucky. According to recent Chinese reports, eighty percent of the Shanzhai cell phone manufacturers in the Shenzhen area have gone bankrupt since the beginning of the financial crisis. Although started as local-made lookalikes of foreign brands as the Chinese characters suggested, some scholars of industry have characterized the Shanzhai cell phone makers as a “Chinese way of innovation”. Based on turnkey solutions for combined chip, platform and third-party apps (provided by Taiwanese company MTK), clusters of small cell phone suppliers had been very successful in making cheap phones with gaudy features and shiny looks that pleased low-income Chinese and foreign consumers. Some 200 million unbranded Shanzhai cell phones were sold in 2010, and a large portion went abroad. Yet the faster than expected conversion to 3G-capable smart phones has destroyed the Shanzhai business model; at this stage at least, it is difficult for chip suppliers to commoditize the sophisticated smart phone platforms. The small Shanzhai manufacturers that used to implement incremental innovations on less advanced technologies in the 2G era now have neither the capability nor the financial resources to develop 3G smart phones.




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