I get the need to reassure the markets. But at what point do government measures constitute moral hazard?
And does the government – more to the point, the Party – really care?
I get the need to reassure the markets. But at what point do government measures constitute moral hazard?
And does the government – more to the point, the Party – really care?
Planespotting at Reagan National
In a ten minute speech last month in London at the 50th Meeting of ICANN, Lu Wei, the Minister of China’s Cyberspace Affairs Administration, introduced a set of seven principles under which, according to him, the Internet should be governed. While not much attention was paid Mr. Lu or his speech outside of the confines of the attendees, we can assume that it was an official statement of government policy, and therefore worth understanding, analyzing, and discussing.
His principles, as I heard them, are:
The Internet should bring peace and security to all countries, instead of becoming a channel for one country to attack another;
The Internet should be more concerned with the interests of developing countries, because they are more in need of the opportunities it brings;
The internet should place emphasis on the protection of citizens’ legitimate rights instead of becoming a hotbed for lawbreaking and criminal activities, let alone becoming a channel for carrying out violent terrorist attacks;
The internet should be civilized and credible, instead of being full of rumors and fraud;
The Internet should spread positive energy, and inherit and carry forward the outstanding culture of human beings;
The Internet should be conducive to the healthy growth of young people, because that concerns the future of mankind.
There is a lot to grist in these, but what jumped out at me was this catchphrase “credible Internet.”
There is a ring to it that suggests that we are going to be hearing this much more in the coming months, but the aim seems clear. While in the past the boundaries of online expression have been defined by prurient content on the one hand and seditious content on the other, there is now a third piece to that troika: rumors.
This is worrisome: “non-credible” content implies a much wider scope for restriction than the modus vivendi we have enjoyed in the past, and opens to official censure a vast swath of online content. You can avoid posting prurient content rather easily by avoiding adult themes and illustrations. You can dodge seditious content by steering clear of domestic political issues. But “non-credible” content is in the eye of the beholder, and can easily extend to commercial content and company web sites as well as posts on Weibo or WeChat.
Watch this space, as I suspect we are going to learn more about where the authorities are going to be drawing the line. In the meantime, any company or individual producing a content-laden Chinese site or posts on Weibo or WeChat should err on the side of caution. Chinese law is unkind to those whom the authorities accuse of spreading rumors, and demonstrable veracity may not be enough to keep you out of the wrong kind of spotlight.
In the Shadow of the Pentagon
As more details about ties between the China operations of Edelman Public Relations and erstwhile China Central Television (CCTV) anchor Rui Chenggang are released, a wave of schadenfreude has risen amongst both Edelman’s rivals and the detractors of public relations. As happened when Edelman was caught in a similar ethical imbroglio when it hired ostensibly independent bloggers to post on behalf of Wal-Mart, PR‘s detractors believe that ethical lapses suffuse China’s public relations industry, while practitioners who don’t work for Edelman see this as a large, hubris-laden market monster getting its due.
Both are wrong.
Ethical lapses are common in PR in China, but “common” is a far cry from endemic. There are PR firms, executives, and teams in China who insist on the highest possible ethical standards. Rather than going broke, they discover that while some clients will shun them for these reasons, a growing number of clients, particularly MNCs, are insisting on high ethical standards and are willing to sacrifice short-term results for a clean reputation. Clean business is good: not only do these PR firms keep very busy, they have to turn opportunities away.
But while these firms are the future of the business, they are still the exception that proves the rule, and no agency executive or corporate PR manager should guffaw too loudly at Edelman’s expense. For far too long as an industry and a craft we have turned a blind eye to practices considered unethical, immoral, or even illegal in more developed markets, failing to see that China was developing and that a reckoning was coming.
Two issues prevent widespread improvement in PR industry ethics in China. First is a persistent exclusivist belief that because this is China, things are done the Chinese way, and always will be. Operating ethically is seen as naive at best, and culturally imperialist at worst (“how dare you impose your values on us!”)
The second issue is fear. PR executives and their agencies believe that if they don’t take advantage of every opportunity, however morally ambiguous, they will lose revenue and clients to competitors who lack – or opportunistically ignore – their moral compasses. The pressure is greatest among the larger agencies where the focus is exclusively financial performance. The accountants calling the shots in New York and London are not measuring ethical compliance: they measure revenues and profits. Faced with the choice of losing a sizable client or cutting some ethical corners, there is no contest.
But the persistent idea that China is an island untouched by ethical standards for the conduct of public relations is now demonstrably so much cow manure. Those who cling to such exceptionalism – and you know who you are – are dinosaurs whose time in this business is limited, regardless of the success they appear to enjoy today.
What happened to Edelman could have happened to any of dozens of local and international PR firms. Rui had made himself a target, and Edelman is the largest PR firm in the world. But the rest of us have now been given a shot across our bows. Either we bite the bullet now, change course and adopt ethical tactics and practices, or we leave our firms, our people, and our livelihoods at the mercy of government caprice. If we don’t, this will happen again, and when it does we will all find that it will not be a single firm in the spotlight – it will be every PR practitioner in China.
Letting the Sunshine In
Much of my March was spent working with clients who are thinking through some of the issues facing the growing data center market in China. For the uninitiated, a “data center” is a place that houses anywhere from one to tens of thousands of servers. This blog sits in a data center, your bank information sits in a data center, there are a lot of them, and these places are growing.
Little wonder. One delightful quote from Smithsonian.com suggests why.
“From the year 2003 and working backwards to the beginning of human history, we generated five exabytes–that’s 5,000,000,000 GB – of information.
By last year, we were cranking out that much data every two days.
By next year, we’ll be doing it every 10 minutes.”
That quote was from two years ago. Draw the curve in your mind, and you can figure that, conservatively, today we could be generating five exabytes of data every five minutes. Not all of that is going to sit in phones, laptops, external hard drives, thumb drives, or those little SD cards that we stick in our digital cameras. Much of it has to sit in data centers.
The Great Heat Sink
Which is fine, until you consider that data centers suck energy the way blue whales suck krill: in massive quantities, and with large amounts of undesirable waste at the end of the process. In the case of data centers, that waste comes in the form of heat, which then demands more energy to power cooling, which in turn generates heat. The bigger data centers get, the more heat we are talking about. And data centers are getting quite large indeed, measured in millions of square feet of servers stacked like so much electronic cord wood.
Some data centers have started addressing heat as a resource, rather than a waste-product: IBM’s Swiss data center heats a pool; Telehouse in the UK is heating homes in London’s Docklands district; and Notre Dame’s Center for Reserch Computing is heating the flowers of a local municipal greenhouse with the heat from a rack of high-performance computing nodes.
Not everyplace where there are data centers needs heat, though. Some places simply need energy. As any engineer will tell you, where there is heat, there is potential energy. The key will be to capture enough heat so that it can be efficiently turned into energy, for example through steam turbines. Energy generated like this – through the waste heat of data centers, we will call “data-thermal energy.”
China is a natural place for the development of data-thermal energy. The country is early enough in the cycle of development for data centers to start designing its largest server farms to capture and channel heat efficiently. And scale will not be an issue in China. Leaving out government-run data centers entirely, some commercial data centers, like one 6.3 million square-foot beast under construction in Langfang just outside of Beijing, will have more floor space than the Pentagon.
The ability to capture and use waste heat efficiently also opens the prospect of cutting down on air-conditioning costs. If the heat can simply be blown – or sucked – away from the servers and into a central collection point for energy generation, the need to actually cool the air should abate a bit.
There is considerable engineering work to be done, but this is a worthy (if not essential) direction of thinking for the people designing and growing China’s server farms. It will demand imagination and discipline: the old way of doing things – stack ’em high, chill ’em down, and blow the hot air out the window – is cheap and pervasive. As the costs of energy grow and sustainability becomes more important, however, Big Data will need to start seeing itself as a utility, not just a customer.
Near People’s Square, Shanghai
Skyline in Silhouette
Walking the floor at both CES in Las Vegas and Electronica China in Shanghai within a ten-week space provides one with a clear view of how far Chinese enterprise has come, and, equally important, the degree to which international technology businesses have lost their former dominance in China.
One could conclude from these impressions that multinational tech companies are in a state of permanent decline in China: Beijing’s unstated but ongoing policy of import substitution has succeeded, and foreign companies are fighting a losing battle. You don’t need to go to trade shows for anecdotal evidence. Just look in purses and backpacks: ZTE, Huawei, TCL, Lenovo, and Yulong are five of the top ten mobile device brands, and they’re gaining on the global giants.
But if you dig a bit deeper, as you can at a show like Electronica, you find that the opportunities for foreign tech companies have not disappeared: they have evolved. To understand why and how, it is useful to start by looking back on how the tech business developed in China.
From Buy to Make
Since the beginning of reforming and opening in China in 1978, the nation has essentially gone through three phases of foreign involvement in technology-based industries.
The first phase was imports, when the government focused on bringing urgently-needed products like personal computers, telephone switches, automobiles, machine tools, and other technology-based products into China. The need for these products, most of which were essential to ease key bottlenecks in the development process, was so urgent that key ministries were permitted the use of precious foreign exchange to purchase those goods.
China’s leaders always expected, however, that the nation would begin producing these goods on its own, preferably in local companies, but realistically in joint ventures with global technology companies who would bring three essential ingredients: the products, with their component technologies; production know-how, with process technologies; and the capital to build the production facilities. This was the second phase: the shift to local production.
By the mid-1990s, though, another shift began to take place. As the global tech giants ramped up production in China to a mass-scale, local firms began manufacturing their own technology goods. Local firms began to dominate production, using a “fast-follower” approach: “maybe we won’t be innovators, or even the first to market with a given innovation, but we will come to market so soon after the innovation leader that we will still reap our share of the market.”
By last year, the payoff of this shift had become apparent. Chinese high-tech companies were long past needing foreign manufacturers to teach them how to build high-tech products, to help them implement cutting-edge production processes, or even to finance the construction of factories. Those local firms unable to bootstrap their own capabilities and finance now had a vast stable of local and foreign companies ready to provide the necessary technology, and finance, thanks to cash flow and capital markets, was no longer a problem.
Innovation, however, remained a challenge. While a handful of local tech companies – notably (but not limited to) Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, and Leovo – had begun to innovate, widespread innovation that would offer a more sustainable competitive advantage (and a larger share of profits) still seemed a ways off.
Enter the Innovation Platforms
And there it remains today.
This gap between efficient production and value-driven manufacturing is the heart of the next opportunity for foreign firms. While the days of foreign brands utterly dominating technology markets in China may be past, more than ever China’s manufacturers need a steady stream of innovations upon which they can base their own innovating.
Technologies that serve as the foundation that allows others to innovate are what we can call innovation platforms. Five factors make innovation platforms stand out from other technical advances:
Significant – The core innovation is a genuine advance that is both useful and relevant;
Substantial – There is a obvious, large, and diverse market for products based on the innovation that offer substantial profit potential, and the technology is easily commercialized;
Shared – The company promulgating the core advance is more interested in creating an ecosystem than a monopoly, i.e., it is content with focusing on supporting and enhancing the core technology and not getting into the business of its customers/licensees;
Stable – Any subsequent changes in the underlying technology are likely to be iterative, not major, for several generations of products. This makes it economically viable for companies to invest in R&D based on the innovation platform.
Supported – Rather than serving as a glorified patent troll, the companies that develop innovation platforms invest heavily in resources designed to assist product developers create viable commercial products, such as on-site engineering support, system validation labs, extensive documentation, or developer groups. In addition, the company continues to invest in improving the core technology.
Early Innovation Platforms
Many innovation platforms take the form of acknowledged industry standards. Examples like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and USB could be considered a form of innovation platforms, in that their technologies enabled the creation of products and even companies.
But when we talk of innovation platforms, we are really looking at products and technologies that spawn not only products, but companies and entire industries. Some illustrative examples:
The Xerographic Process: Invented by Chester Carlson and later commercialized by Haloid/Xerox, which begat the photocopier, the laser printer, desktop publishing, and many specialized sectors;
The Intel 8000 microprocessor family, that together enabled the creation of the personal computers, stand-alone video games, and a half-dozen major industries;
Qualcomm’s CDMA: CDMA enabled the commercialization of the internet, created the telematics industry, and is on its way to recreating the automotive, trucking, and healthcare industries, among others.
Each of these companies took an indirect lesson from the failure of Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, an industrial trust that tried to control the film business as well as the manufacture of cameras and film stock. It was, arguably, Edison’s greatest failure. By exercising a modicum of control over the core technology, supporting it, advancing it, and making it available on reasonable terms, Xerox, Intel, and Qualcomm each fostered the creation of immense economic value.
Platforms for the Future
In a world where industrial and engineering capability is a scarce quantity, the easiest way to make a return on a major innovation is to create a vertical industry around it, building the components, creating the product or system, and distributing it under your own brand. The Bell System did this for nearly a century with telephones, and IBM and a handful of other companies did this for the first three decades of the computer industry.
But when the ability to design, engineer, and industrialize complex products is widely distributed, as it is today, robust companies are built on either using innovation to enable industries, or in building on innovation to create industries.
For the time being, Chinese companies are (generally) comparatively better at building industries based on key innovations, and European and particularly US companies are (generally) comparatively better at consistently creating core innovations that can serve as the platforms for those industries. This does not mean that no core innovations will come out of China, or that the US is no longer capable of product development and commercialization.
But it does suggest that the richest opportunities in China for foreign companies, particularly those in science, engineering, and technology-based industries, lies in licensing and enabling Chinese manufacturers, rather than competing with them.
The question facing tech companies, then, is whether and how to make use of the company’s innovations – or an ongoing stream of them – in order to serve as a profitable and indispensable platform for Chinese innovation. And for those of us who watch this market, the pressing question is “in which industries will the next round of innovation platforms emerge?
I leave the first question to the companies themselves. For the second question, my early research points to transportation, healthcare and biosciences, construction, energy, and the environment. I know: I have my chips on a lot of spots on the roulette table. In the coming months, I look forward to sharing with you why I think things are going that way.
The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel
October 23, 2013
Doing book research (and shifting as much of it from my bookshelf to Evernote as possible), I came across this little gem that had escaped my attention while I was on the road last fall.
James Fallows turned to some experts to help him come up with the 50 greatest post-wheel innovations, and while each deserves a book – or at least a long chapter – the list is intriguing for several reasons. My favorite: counting the innovations that first came out of China.
From the top 50, they are:
Two points fascinated me. First was printing press showing up on top, and the fact that the article does not ascribe an origin to the invention. People who have studied the history of Chinese innovation understand that the movable-type printing press was invented in China by Bi Sheng some 400 years before Johannes Gutenberg and Laurens Janszoon Coster argued about who of the two of them was first. History will out, though, and China gets credit for the most important innovation since the wheel.
Speaking of wheels, a sort of honorable mention on the list goes to the wheel barrow, a simple device created in China that allows a man to move heavier loads than he can carry without the aid of an animal. And I always search these lists for acknowledgement for China’s invention of investment casting, a process that turned complex metalworking from a handicraft to a mass-production process.
But these are quibbles. The point that the article brings home is that China was once far more innovative than we – and, indeed, Chinese – give it credit. While taking credit for four great innovations, China deserves credit for at least five, and probably more.
The perpetual challenge, of course, is how to make it innovative again. And to that theme we shall return in due course.
Texas Hill Country
Doing Agronomy 101
The debate over genetically-modified crops is reaching the boiling point among Chinese policy-makers, and the past several months have witnessed a spate of media coverage on the issue suggesting that the two sides are taking their case public to try to sway the issue.
One would hope that the science will win out in the end, but in the meantime I am doing a deep-dive on the GMO issue to a) understand where the scientific consensus lies, beyond corporate positioning and activist FUD, b) understand China’s interests in the area, so that I can c) start making some calls as to where this will go in the region.
Which is important because where China falls on GMOs is critical to the special interests cheering from the sidelines on both sides. As a massive and growing consumer of the world’s agricultural products, a ruling by China on GMOs either way could determine the future of genetically-modified crops worldwide. Yet as an increasingly important exporter of processed food, China does not want to get too far ahead of the world on the issue.
There are a ton of superb, science-based resources on GMOs, and Dr. Cami Ryan at the University of Saskatchewan has compiled an incomparable list of those resources. Some are technical, but most are highly accessible even for those of us who haven’t taken a science class since our freshman year in college.
“Next-shoring: A CEO’s guide”
Katy George, Sree Ramaswamy, and Lou Rassey
The end of China’s time as the uncontested factory floor of the planet has become something of a meme. If that has failed to come to the attention of any of the world’s CEOs, McKinsey’s consultants make sure they get caught up.
My take is that McKinsey is late to the party. I made most of these same points two years ago. I called it “right-shoring.” In such a circumstance, I would have thought that McKinsey, seeking to retain “thought leadership,” would have offered deeper insights. They don’t, even though they provide endorsement to my original thinking.
For the record, check out:
“The Beginning of the End of Outsourcing,” Silicon Hutong, February 7, 2012
“China and the Rightshoring Movement,” Silicon Hutong, December 4, 2012
Or, Top 10 Signs that Your Building Management Has Been Localized
Nursing the Party Secretary
A good friend and client of mine set up offices about two years ago in one of Shanghai’s better office buildings. The building housed some top professional services firms, including a cluster of subsidiaries of one of the world’s largest marketing services conglomerates. The building has been a prestige address, and is close to some funky local neighborhoods and two of my favorite hotels in the city.
Unfortunately, according to my friend, the owners of the building apparently decided to drop the global firm managing the property, choosing instead a local management company. Not long after, things began to get noticeably, well, grottier.
As our conversation progressed, I began to think about similar situations I’ve encountered with local building managers in China, and in the process I came up with this list of the top ten signs that your building management has been localized.
I post this as a public service, both for companies who are seeing the quality slip in their buildings, and as an encouragement to local management firms to up their game.
Sidebar: It is important to note that not all Chinese management companies are cut from the same cloth. Top Glory and its subsidiary Gloria Property Management (owned by the state-owned COFCO Group) in particular are a standout from the bunch, as are most of the management companies based in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Here are the signs that you may want to start hunting for new offices. “Red Alerts” are signs that it is time to get out now.
10. Advertising everywhere. Ads start showing up on almost every surface: lobby displays, floor stickers, elevator displays, video ads, ads in the toilets, and on the windows of the ground floor. Don’t get me wrong, a little targeted advertising in the right place doesn’t hurt, but when the decor becomes Madison Avenue Modern, it’s gone overboard. Red alert: when they start putting advertising on the handles of the doors into tenant offices.
9. Tragic Carpet. Stained or damaged carpet tiles stay stained or damaged for a long time. Only the most egregious stains (usually involving a very light or very dark substance spread over a large area) get taken care of promptly. Red alert: carpets are removed altogether, replaced with concrete or faux-stone tile floors.
8. Crass Cieling. Drop-down ceilings need constant upkeep. When they start showing stains, get broken, or go missing, your building has begun its long, slow slide into slumlord territory. Red alert: drop down ceilings are removed completely, leaving not an attractive “industrial” look, but just ugly pipes and ducts.
7. Security? What Security? The well-dressed, friendly, security folks sitting at the front counter and checking for appropriate badges or patrolling the floors have been replaced by surly gatekeepers who act like everyone entering the building is a terror suspect. Red alert: they stop checking ID completely, with “surly” exchanged for “not even paying attention.” Eventually even the pretense disappears, and security staff are let go.
6. Cleanliness is left for Tawdriness. Those friendly ayis constantly patrolling the public areas of the building start showing up once a week, if that. You have to start reminding the management to clean the windows. Door handles are sticky, and numbers on the elevator panel are impossible to read. Red alert: stairwells have a layer of dust so thick you could slip on it, and the doors stick.
5. Smoking in the Boys’ Room. Men’s toilets smell like cigarette smoke. Constantly. Red alert: you catch a goldbricking building employee smoking in a toilet stall. Double red alert: women’s toilets smell like cigarette smoke.
4. Cigarette Bloat. The reek of cigarette smoke starts pouring out of offices as well as bathrooms, and “no smoking” signs begin to disappear from public areas and elevators. Red Alert: building employees smoking while working.
3. Don’t Cry for Me, Cappuccino. Starbucks moves out, replaced by some poor-imitation no-name coffee or snack shop with crappy food and overpriced drinks, and probably run by the building manager’s sister-in-law. Red alert: the no-name coffee shop closes and the shell of the store just sits there, forlorn and gathering dust.
2. Vertical Transportation Gets the Shaft. It starts feeling like the elevators are offline a lot more than they used to be, and at least one is either shut down or under maintenance on a weekly basis. Red Alert: an elevator breaks down with you, a colleague, or a loved one in it and you are stuck for more than an hour.
1. Anchors (run) Away. The building’s prestige, or “anchor” tenants, usually multinational companies, start to depart, finding other places to set up, and replaced by more, smaller tenants. Red alert: the building’s directory is at least a year out of date, or has been removed completely.
Somewhere near Bengbu
Riding the Rails
If we have not witnessed the peak of mass production in China already, we will soon.
It is not just that costs are rising and production is moving elsewhere: the entire mass production model may well have jumped the shark. The growing costs of energy and commodities, as well as the coming end to the ability of enterprise to externalize the social costs of production will make mass production look increasingly wasteful.
We are leaving the age of “make enough so that everyone has what they want,” and coming into the age of “make just enough of the right stuff.”
Mass is Over…
With due respect to Henry Ford, we are witnessing the birth of a long-term trend away from mass production and toward an industrial model that manufactures a product only when a customer wants it, how she wants it, and where she wants to use it.
This will undermine the consumer model predicated on planned obsolescence, overproduction, and disposable components, and will ultimately destroy economies of scale as the means to lower costs and profit. That means moving the production closer and closer to the customer, and the growth of mass customization. That, in turn, spells the end of our reliance on mass production, and that will turn every shopping mall into a factory floor.
None of this should come as much of a surprise. Mass customization has been a meme of futurists for over a decade, and technologies like print-on-demand and 3D printing are but the harbingers of a new industrial revolution that will turn the point-of-sale into not only the point of production, but, increasingly, the point of design as well.
…So are China’s Days as the World’s Factory
But the implications for China are potentially immense. It suggest that, for most Chinese manufacturers, automation will only delay the inevitable. After all, who needs a factory in China manufacturing blue jeans when you can get yours custom sewed based on your measurements and preference right at the store? Or have your phone assembled for you at a local factory, shipped to you, then upgraded rather than changed when the time comes?
What applies to finished product applies to components as well. Fabric can be woven in custom lots as and when needed – it is not hard to visualize a Home Depot-sized warehouse store filled with machines that will knit, weave, and dye on demand, or a ballroom-sized microchip fab that turns out programmable or application-specific chips in tiny lots.
The future of Chinese manufacturing, then, lies not in producing consumer products for the world, but in producing consumer products for itself, and, I expect, building the machines that make local, personal production possible.
China’s Microfacturing Future
This will not happen right away: China’s mass-production manufacturers still have a long runway ahead as the world retools. It is also likely that the economies of mass production will continue to be essential for low-cost products for sale to developing nations.
But for producers catering to the developed world and the global upper- and middle-classes, that runway is not as long as some would wish. Our best guess: a decade at the outside, but likely less.
Watching this evolve will be fascinating. China, Europe, and the US will be scrambling for the lead as the world’s factory moves in next to the cash register, and it’s anyone’s horse race.
North China Plain
On the G11 HST Harmony
China has passed what I like to call “Peak Toil,” the point at which the size of the pool of labor available to manufacturing reaches its apogee and begins a long decline. Chinese workers are becoming more educated, their salary, benefit, and lifestyle expectations are rising, and because of the demographics of single-child families, their numbers are shrinking. If cheap labor isn’t dead in China, it is terminally ill.
In the coming decades, China will go from being “THE factory floor” to “A factory floor.” Many things will force that change – a shrinking pool of workers, growing local opportunities in services, tightening environmental regulations, and more expensive energy. The economics, in short, will change, and so must industrial China.
The Big Ones First
Manufacturers are facing a stark choice: raise prices, downsize, or automate. Raising prices isn’t an option in a Wal-Mart world where places like Malaysia, Bangladesh, Mexico, Eastern Europe and even parts of the U.S. are already offering competitive pricing. Downsizing only offers a short-term answer when economies of scale are driving manufacturing, and is really only an option for companies who can make the shift to higher value-added products.
Which leaves automation as the answer for large manufacturers, especially contract manufacturers like Foxconn, Flextronics, and Quanta. Unable to depend on masses of workers lining up at their gates willing to work for a modest daily wage, each is thinking long and hard about automation.
Robots Don’t Jump
Beyond rising wages, law and custom in China leave companies liable for a range of benefits. Robots, on the other hand, do not require the company to invest in the real estate for dorms, cafeterias, break rooms, and other facilities, enabling the company to utilize all of its floor space for production, logistics, and support. What is more, robots don’t get sick, charge overtime, demand bonuses, or require companies to pay the additional “social” costs to the state that it would be required to pay for each worker.
And equally important, robots don’t jump out of windows. The Foxcon story has proven that there is a perception liability that comes with a larger number of workers. Whether Foxconn has ten thousand workers or two million, a single suicide or accident affects hurts the company just as much. Statistically the likelihood of such incidents rises as the number of employees grows. The coverage given to the company’s HR troubles proves that more workers mean more problems, so the best approach from the company’s point of view is to hire fewer workers.
Not Just Tech
I talk a lot about Foxconn and the technology outsourcing firms, but they are not alone. The automobile industry is a global pioneer of robotics, and Chinese factories are increasing the number of robots they are using. The packaged foods sectors rely on automation.
It is fair to say, though, that every sector is considering automation. Until last June I lived about 400 meters from the Beijing International Exhibition Center, and in 2013 the second most popular trade show – right after the Beijing International Auto Show – was the production automation exhibition. That’s apocryphal, but it is telling, and industrial robotics is about to get very hot in China.
For Better or Worse
None of this is designed to pass moral judgment on automation. The social issues that surround the process are complex, and deserve a wider airing.
But it is safe to say that automation is the beginning of the end of The Factory Girl in China, and that this is a good thing. Having spent a lot of time in factories in this country, met some of the people on the floor, and having read Leslie Chang’s book and Alexandra Harney’s superb “The China Price,” it is hard to get sentimental about The Factory Girls passing from the scene.
For the first time in decades we now have more workers serving people than making things in China. As long as the economy keeps chugging ahead, China’s shrinking pool of young workers will have a wider scope of opportunities than their predecessors. The real question is whether China will provide these young people an opportunity to learn the skills they will need in a changing environment. Given the rigidity of the educational system, that’s an open question.
Even the most automated industries need people on the line. With respect to my friends in the software industry, there are some things that cannot be reduced to code. When it comes to quality, you cannot replace the human senses, especially a critical eye. Smart companies will reprogram robots to keep them flexible. And the best automated processes have humans watching at every step. But humans will need to improve their skills to be a part of that equation.
Whether automation works in an enterprise is a question of management. But the question of whether it will revitalize China’s economy and society or undermine them can only be answered in the realm of industry practice and government policy. The change is coming, and China’s leaders had best be ready.
In the Hutong
Beijing Youth Politics College
China COSCO Holdings, parent company of China’s largest state-owned steamship company, has reported a return to net profit in 2013, thereby saving itself from delisting. It was not a turnaround in markets or management genius that engineered this seeming turnaround, but financial legerdemain.
Through a series of one-time transactions (it sold chunks of itself to its own parent company), the company is showing a positive bottom line. But things aren’t looking good for 2014, the company is running out of financial tricks, and slow recoveries in Europe and the United States are likely to combine with the companies huge capacity surplus to keep the firm a non-performer.
Waiting for Profits
As a state-owned enterprise, the company has the implicit backing of the government: COSCO can afford to wait for things to turn around, unlike global competitors like Maersk, Neptune Orient Line, Hanjin, Mitsui OSK, and Evergreen.
Government coffers are not bottomless, however, and there is no guarantee that a turnaround in the industry will be sufficient to suck up all of the extra tonnage COSCO has added in recent years. Companies are moving manufacturing of large, bulky items closer to markets, and COSCO’s overshoot on dry-bulk capacity (for carrying everything from wheat to iron ore) may leave new ships idle for a long time.
At some point, Beijing is likely to have to take ships off of COSCO’s hands, or at least remove them from the commercial market. The obvious choice would be to sell the oldest ships to ship breakers. Yet COSCO’s older ships have already been turned into scrap, leaving a fleet that is much younger than before.
And none of this addresses the growing ranks of costly thumb-twiddlers at China’s shipyards. It is hard to keep upgrade an industry when demand is imploding.
PLAN for it
In short, arrows continue to point in a direction we suggested a while ago. China’s navy needs ships of every type. China’s admirals would rather spend their precious cash on boats that shoot rather than boats that schlep, but they need both. COSCO’s surplus of capacity offers the government an opportunity to create an entity that provides full-time contract sealift to China’s armed services, something akin to the Military Sealift Command in the United States.
The spare dry-bulk carriers would probably not be much help: the cost of refitting these to accommodate troops or military cargo would probably not be far off the cost of purpose-built ships. Container and Roll-on/Roll-off vessels, on the other hand, could serve as pre-positioning ships for extended operations outside of Asia (to support China’s UN peacekeepers, for example), shuttle ships for China’s precious few underway replenishment vessels (that by definition need to stay close to their assigned battle groups), or as amphibious support ships.
A move like this seems inevitable, and when it happens it will quietly signal that the People’s Liberation Army Navy has matured, and is clearly thinking about how to start projecting power as well as how to prop up its struggling merchant fleet.
Near Hollywood Beach
I read today with great interest Louise Watt’s superb AP story about microfilms, a new medium emerging at the intersection of online video, mobile media, and digital filmmaking. Louise explains how microfilms are growing in popularity in China.
What Watt touches, and fortunately does dwell upon, is how microfilms are still quite experimental in the PRC. Beyond the artistic sense, that means that there are no laws, regulations, or administrative rules in China that officially recognize microfilms as a medium, or that provide an official framework for their creation, distribution, and consumption. In most of the world, this would mean nothing. In China, it establishes the arc along which microfilms are set to develop. Or not develop.
A Different Media Market
By definition in China, the media is controlled by the Party. As such, media implicitly plays a different role in Chinese society than it does elsewhere: it performs the function that the Party sees fit.
And media is seen by the Party, first and foremost, as a tool of social administration: a means of communication between the Party, via the government, to the people, designed to support the Party’s goal of sustaining social harmony and support for the Party. Only after that is it seen as a means of conveying entertainment to the people, or as an industry to employ people and generate economic activity.
The mainstream media – newspapers, magazines, books, recordings, live performances, radio, film, and broadcast television – all began in post-revolutionary China in organizations controlled by the state. State control was axiomatic, and the Party created – and later, vetted – all content.
But when new media began emerging to challenge the state’s media monopoly – starting with cable and satellite, but soon moving on to the Web, games, blogs, and social media – the state made it clear that it saw these as subject to its monopoly, whether by licensing or by direct control. It seems unlikely, therefore, that microfilms will escape official notice and regulation.
The Coming Reckoning
So how will this roll out for microfilms? There are two likely outcomes. On the one hand, if the organs of the State Council and the Party Publicity Committee approach them as an undifferentiated part of the mass of videos finding their way online in China, microfilms will ride along with whatever the future is for online video as a whole.
But if those government and party offices for whatever reason decide to see microfilms as a separate development – especially if they become a real, vibrant threat to the growth of China’s mainline film industry, or if they become an outlet for political angst – then microfilms will be treated as a new medium, and they will face turbulent times.
In China, the government tends to go through four stages in the journey to legitimizing a new medium. This is not a formal process as much as it is a modus operandi, but it has been remarkably consistent over the past two decades.
Ignorance – First, the government will decline to pay official attention the microfilm phenomenon. It will, instead, take a stance where it officially ignores the media, all while watching it out of the corner of the eye. This tacit approval allows the government to wait, watch, and bide its time before stepping in.
Reaction – Finally, when somebody makes and distributes a microfilm that crosses an invisible political line and causes an uproar, the government will be left with no choice but to step in and take action. The move will be to slam on the brakes, possibly making the production and/or distribution of such films illegal, and ordering sites like Youku and Tudou to cease production and distribution.
Experimentation – When the government acknowledges the benefits of microfilms (assuming that it sees them,) it will begin a gradual process of experimentation. That might developing a licensing regime and framework that will ensure the films support – or, at least, do not operate in direct opposition to – the state. Alternately, the government could mandate that all microfilms are only distributed through government-approved sites. In the worst case, it would restrict the production of all such films to state-owned entities. Either way, the process will forge a sustainable framework under which microfilms can be made in China.
Accommodation – Once the framework is in place, the government enters a phase of fine-tuning that system, opening it up to more participants, or to less, or under different conditions.
Softening the Blow
It is important to remember that at any of these stages, there is room to influence the process, to soften the government’s approach. The degree to which this is successful depends on the unity of the participants in the process, and the level of self-regulation (read “self-censorship”) the parties are ready to engage in.
For many media – blogs, microblogs, and other user generated content – the process of reckoning with these developments saw the government turn to the platform owners to control the content. The platform owners, in turn, subjected users to rules that would see their content deleted and accounts closed if they posted political or prurient content. That allowed for a relatively easy solution.
If the distribution of microfilms remains limited to sites like Tudou and Youku, the government may not see a need for much further regulation – the authorities already have clear understandings in place with the online video sites, and keeping track of the few dozen microfilms each week is a simple matter.
But the prospect of getting a large group of producers and directors of these films to sign up to a means of self-regulation seems slim, and if distribution goes outside of those channels that the government can control – if peer-to-peer sharing kicks into high gear, for example, the regulation will have to happen at the source. And the government will have to make its controls draconian to enforce control on people making movies with phones, handhelds, and laptops.
Media will Serve
The Party’s broader policy direction of late does not seem to augur a greater opening to ideas and an independent media industry, even though the past twenty years have proven to China’s leaders that absolute control in an age of user generated media is practically impossible.
But when the government needs to use media – including its policies on its use – as a means to sustain social stability, regulators see it as their duty to ensure that media serves the needs of the state. As flexible as the medium may be – and microfilms are an exercise in flexibility of topic, format, creation, and distribution – the government has proven itself increasingly deft in crafting regulatory regimes that permit new media to operate on the Party’s terms.
At some point, microfilms will face a reaction. What filmmakers have to do is decide whether they want to avoid that reaction – or provoke it – as a pathway to a stable, legitimized future, or to another kind of future entirely.
Disrupting my reading
Now that I am spending more time in Silicon Valley and its satellite outposts of innovation in the US, the question posed to me over more meals and espressos is “do you think China will ever become innovative?”
After a lot of time to think about that question on planes an in hotel rooms, the best answer I have to that is another question.
“How do you define innovation?”
One expert with whom I shared a panel about a year ago said that innovation is like pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
That’s witty, pithy, and, I have found, gets your audience on-side. Which is nice when your audience is a client writing big checks for your advice. Unfortunately, it is also wrong.
A Relevant Definition
You can define innovation if you think about it. Franz Johansson has thought a lot about it, and the way he defines it as something that is both novel (new, never seen before) and useful.
That’s actually a pretty good starting point, but global experience proves something may be novel, useful, but not particularly relevant. The XboX Kinnect is novel and useful, but not particularly relevant if you live in China, where video game consoles are essentially banned. The Founder Group was built largely on an innovation laser typesetting of Chinese characters, a remarkable breakthrough in China but largely irrelevant to three-quarters of the planet. A review of the history of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) offers a list of innovations that never found the proper context that made them commercial, meaningful, and worthwhile.
A good working definition of an innovation, then, is something that is novel, useful, and relevant to a given audience.
What is more, innovation need not be in product: breakthrough innovations in process can be incredibly disruptive: think Fred Smith’s breakthrough with overnight freight processing that created FedEx, or, classically, Henry Ford’s moving assembly line.
Through a Filter, Darkly
We tend to view innovation in China through the lenses of two fallacies. The first lens is based on our view of China, and the second on our view of innovation.
Our view of China suggests that because China does not have a consistent record of innovation in recent years, and because many Chinese companies and entities proclaim they are being innovative when (by our definition, anyway) they are not, that China does not innovate.
This could be disproved, except for the second fallacy, which is our view of innovation. We tend to look at innovation like John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind,” seeing only landmark breakthroughs and totally original ideas as true innovation. This is a natural prejudice: our lifetimes have witnessed so many breakthroughs that our personal standards are high.
But they are unrealistic. The advances that turned the technologies used for mainframe computers into the personal computer revolution were not breakthroughs, but they were profound innovations nonetheless.
When we reframe our standards and work with the definition of innovation above, we can view China’s current innovation – and its prospects – differently.
Innovation Happens – Even in China
China is not yet an economy that is driven by its own innovations, but by those of others. Nonetheless, there are indicators that innovation is taking place in Chinese enteprises. Huawei’s investments in R&D following the telecom bust in 2002 have been yielding industry-leading innovation for three years in its networks business. BYD is using old battery technology in an innovative way. And Yuneec is on the verge of doing for general aviation aircraft what Tesla has done for the family sedan.
All of which goest back to my clients’ question. If Chinese enterprises are disrupting the mobile communications, automotive, and aviation industries, what industry is next? The best way to answer that is to watch for the little innovations, the process innovations, the incremental breakthroughs that turn out advances that are novel, useful, and relevant. Find those, and you will find the next point of disruption.
In the Hutong
Warming-up a little
The Chinese New Year holiday is a period where many of China’s well-heeled consumers travel abroad, so it was no surprise that CCTV ran a story on how many Chinese consumers use their trips not just for sightseeing and relaxation, but for buying luxury goods. The national broadcaster took China’s 80 million international travelers to task for spending $30 billion abroad last year buying luxury goods, and criticizing them for not spending that money at home.
Laurie Burkitt at The Wall Street Journal picked up the story, noting that Chinese duties raise the price of Rolex watches, Gucci shoes and Louis Vuitton purses between 30% and 50%. One can see why the government is concerned: that’s somewhere between $9 billion and $15 billion in lost import duties, plus the lost value of rents, income taxes for shop workers, etc. The brands are starting to realize where the bread is landing: Gucci is apparently halting all domestic Chinese expansion plans.
Luxury is an Experience, not a Purse
The media coverage of this transnational luxury buying spree implies that a hunt for bargains is all that sends these buyers abroad. Yet while price is doubtless an important motivator, there is more to it. What most analysts – and probably a few brands – are missing is the unarticulated value luxury consumers place on the experience, those intangible factors that makes buying the purse, the shoes, the watch, the dress so deeply satisfying.
One factor for Chinese in particular is mental comfort. It is not much fun consuming conspicuously in an environment that heaps growing opprobrium on bling buyers. Better to go somewhere where your purchase is at least taken in stride, if not celebrated. These days, that means buying in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, New York, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, or Milan – not Beijing or Shanghai.
But there are other factors that make up the luxury buying experience, factors captured in such post-buying questions as:
Any and all of these factors have the potential add greater meaning to the purchase, make its acquisition more gratifying, and deepen the relationship with the brand. Equally important, they add to the “show-off” or “shai” value of the item. The new owner not only gets to show-off the bauble to her friends, she also gets an excuse to relate the trip, the circumstances, and the feelings she took from the purchase process itself, all to the admiration (or envy) of the people whose respect is important to her.
Some Brands Get It
On a vacation trip in 2008, my wife bought a limited-edition LeSportsac Tokidoki handbag designed by Simone Legno at the LeSportsac store on Waikiki. The store was a delight, the location superb, the service was so good that even my son and I felt good about coming into the store, and that is saying something. My wife had never heard of Tokidoki before, but the whole experience of buying the bag was such a delight that she came back the next day to buy one for her mom. To this day, five years later, she still talks about the bag, and has a deep affinity for LeSportsac.
Christine Lu of Affinity China is out ahead of the industry. She has begun leading luxury shopping tours of the U.S. for Chinese ladies that go beyond high-end store-hopping. Shops on Rodeo Drive, Park Avenue, and Waikiki are prepared in advance, provide engraved invitations, put on private fashion shows with Chinese narration, serve champagne and chocolates, and arrange to have purchases taken back to hotels while the ladies continue their day. As a bonus, Christine will bring along a Chinese celebrity or two, and tweet/blog/weibo aggressively, raising the profile of the trip and making mere attendance prestigious. The stores who work with her get it: the experience is every bit as important as the quality or design of the items that go in the bag. Expect these kinds of events to grow into a trend, traveling trunk shows where the groups come to the stores.
So all of this is interesting to be sure. Here is why it is important.
Today, it’s Price, but Tomorrow it Won’t Be
Understanding the non-price factors that drive Chinese to buy abroad is going to grow in importance. At some point the Chinese government will figure out that it needs to take steps to keep the luxury dollar at home beyond lame propaganda campaigns to shame buyers as unpatriotic. That will mean eliminating the price difference for buying at home. Either the government will have to start levying duties at airports and ports of entry (insanely hard to do and guaranteed to cause congestion at China’s overwhelmed airports and borders,) or they will need to eliminate duties altogether.
It is anyone’s guess on which course Beijing chooses, economic logic notwithstanding. When that happens, luxury brands will have their own choice to make: they can either play the zero-sum game, doing nothing and watching overseas purchases slowly leech back into China; or they can play the growth gambit, sustaining patronage overseas while building sales in China.
I’m betting the brands will want to do the latter, so I expect to see them taking steps to improve and even differentiate the buying experience for Chinese luxury consumers. At the very least, we will see more luxury stores with Chinese speakers and creating the kind of buying experiences that Affinity China is teaching them to offer.
I expect it will (or should) go beyond that. The brands will realize that simply offering a cookie-cutter experience in every store worldwide misses the point for their clientele. Each city, each store has to offer a different but equally compelling experience that reflects the brand in a unique way. This starts with store layout, but also speaks to decor, merchandise, and layout that reflects the location, and even offering items that are exclusive to that store. Let’s face it: even Disneyland has learned to differentiate its parks worldwide. Can luxury brands be far behind?
It is a truism (or should be one) that long after the price of an item is forgotten, the experience is remembered. Price will bring China’s increasingly sophisticated luxury customers in your door, but the experience will form the basis of a lasting relationship.