Companies Are Leaving China, It Doesn’t Mean What You Think

Here’s a popular story: After decades of outsourcing to China, many companies are having second thoughts. Trade wars with the United States, political interference from the Communist Party and the threat of war over Taiwan are making China a riskier place to do business, and companies are looking abroad.

AirPods maker Goertek is expanding its facilities in Vietnam and considering a move to India. iPhone-maker Foxconn is reportedly planning a $700 million factory in India. Volvo has committed to a new factory in Slovakia. BYD Electronic, which builds iPads in China, is opening a factory in Vietnam.

This is meant to be a story about Chinese decline. The symptom of US commercial pressure and Communist Party error.

But, is that the right conclusion to draw? Airpod maker Goertek is a Chinese company. Billionaire founder Jiang Bin was elected to China’s National People Congress last week. Volvo is owned by Chinese automaker Geely. BYD is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. What does it mean for Chinese power if Chinese companies are part of the exodus?

A few thoughts:

  • It (partly) reflects the success of Chinese development: Factories are moving offshore for the same reason they left Britain’s north or the US rust belt, the workers are well paid. And Chinese workers are well paid because they’re rather good at what they do. This isn’t new. Back in 2010, rising wages in coastal provinces had companies moving inland looking for cheaper labour.

    The days of low-cost manufacturing in China are probably numbered. The number of workers employed in Chinese industry peaked in 2012. “Made in China”, just like “Made in Japan” before it, is shedding a reputation for poorly crafted, cheap goods. In its place: cars, bullet trains, mobile phones. China is now the world’s largest automaker, a notoriously difficult technology to master (when did you last see a Proton?).

    So companies are leaving China, in part, because it is wealthier, more educated and more productive. The exodus is a symptom of Chinese strength. By joining the emigration, Chinese companies prove themselves globally competitive businesses. Apple still works with Goertek, it just wants the AirPods package to say “Made in Vietnam”.

    I don’t want to overstate the case. Clearly, there are companies leaving China to avoid technology theft, harsh rules or geopolitics. And many companies aren’t Chinese. Foxconn is Taiwanese. Samsung, which is cutting back it’s China footprint too, is South Korean.
  • Could it birth a new type of firm? A Chinese company building widgets for an American client across Shenzhen, Chengdu and Zhengzhou has different priorities to one building widgets in India, Vietnam and Cambodia. Networks of Chinese manufacturing plants across south and east Asia—what the Economist is calling Altasia—could create a constituency within China that is pro-China, pro-business and pro-trade. It’s a vision for the region quite at odds with the cold-war-decoupling-trade-blocks one.

    It’s also why I find the Altasia v China binary from yesterday’s otherwise excellent Economist article from yesterday insufficient. If Altasia does develop, then Chinese companies will be part of it.
  • The ambiguous impact of commercial pressure: Apple is worried worsening US-China relations put it’s factories in China at risk. Apple asks Goertek to open a factory in India. Goertek makes AirPods in India and exports them to the US. Is this a success for the US? In one sense, yes. If China invades Taiwan, the AirPods factory in India continues as normal.

    But there’s also a sense where the US attempt to stymie China’s economic power has failed. Goertek is making money. Some of that money is paid in Chinese taxes. China spends that money on missiles or advanced semiconductor plants, which the US would rather it didn’t.

There’s lots more on this to discuss!