China’s Rapid Pulse: Thoughts from the Road

I am standing amid the hustle and bustle of the main street of Shanghai, unable to hail a taxi and scrambling to open Google on my phone. I’ve forgotten it’s recently been banned in mainland China and that drivers now prefer passengers who book through WeChat, a mobile app that awards taxis an additional service fee. I’ve lived in this country for most of my life, but I still have trouble keeping up with the pace of China’s evolution.

During the 12 days I spent in Shanghai, I spoke at length with clients, experts, local think tanks, and consulting analysts all focusing on one thing: how businesses can adjust to a developing China. A few of the on-the-ground insights I picked up are highlighted below.

Buildings in Shanghai
Older Shanghai-style “Shikumen” architecture is found adjacent to newer modern facilities.

From the business operations standpoint, local competition is happening at the provincial level rather than the national level. Many strong, regional-based Chinese brands are emerging and ramping up their capabilities in order to become “national” brands. Echoing the findings detailed in my past report on Managing Local Competition in China, the biggest challenge multinationals are facing is how to localize their strategy in an increasingly sophisticated China. Opening up a developed-market “toolbox” is not sufficient enough to solve China-specific issues.

The crux of this problem is that, in a sense, China is not really a single country—it is a series of distinct regions. A standardized strategy cannot work well in China because of the cultural diversities, wide range of local dialects, and large wealth gap. Some clients are beginning to reconsider their city tier-based model, questioning whether it is an effective way to segment customer needs. Even within one tier, the divergence will be daunting. However, you cannot create 200 business models for one country because it will not be profitable. In my upcoming report on Evolving Consumer Base and Urbanization, which will be released in a few weeks, I will provide detailed analysis of FSG’s cluster model and its implications for MNCs’ go-to-market strategies.

The idea to develop city clusters is central to the government’s plans to smartly urbanize people and cities in order to better allocate resources and boost small and mid-sized cities by leveraging the agglomeration effect from big cities. In the future, China will have three world-class super clusters that will radiate around 16 regional clusters. Logistical corridors will be built to strengthen the linkages between the northwest Chinese city of Urumqi and Russia, as well as the southwest city of Chengdu and European countries through the Pan Europe-Asia Bridge.

One pitfall that MNCs run into easily is making overambitious investments in backend facilities before the business strategy has been proven successful and the front end starts to generate revenue. Another pitfall is applying a swing strategy between the premier and middle markets. As the middle class booms, successful MNCs will create high-margin products to serve the massive middle market instead of the super premier market, which has very limited scale. (One client used the metaphor, “We don’t want only to skim a slide of fat from a big soup.”)

The O2O (Online-to-offline) model is poised to be the future of e-commerce in China. An e-commerce solution provider I talked to has already seen its O2O revenue contributions to their overall portfolio increase from 0% to 30% within one year. Target clients include lots of big-name retailer/FMCG/luxury products. Many MNC clients will be looking into this option in the coming years.

From the macroeconomic perspective, the recent shift in manufacturing is a result of the Chinese government’s policies. Although the current manufacturing outflow is an irreversible trend for China, the question here is about its timing. On one hand, this change is happening before the economy is fully ready. That’s why this transition is creating some problems. Some enterprises in the coastal region cannot afford the increasing labor/land cost because the government has implemented a land quota, and they will eventually move to ASEAN. On the other hand, the government is encouraging investment in west/central China by increasing the land supply and subsidiaries. However, the infrastructure-driven model makes inland China more prone to debt issues, the “ghost city” phenomenon, and heavy pollution.

Government always follows the path of creating supply first and then waiting for demand to materialize the supply. When the pace of “city-urbanization” outpaces “people-urbanization,” ghost cities are created. When highly polluting manufacturers move to inland cities, polluted water then flows along the Yangtze River from inland to east regions. Two types of manufacturing shifts are taking place. First, higher labor-intensive manufacturing is moving to ASEAN (as we mentioned in our latest ASEAN manufacturing piece), and possibly to Africa in the next 20 years. Second, lower labor-intensive manufacturing is moving to Shanghai’s satellite cities, such as Hefei or inland/west cities, based on the analysis of overall transportation costs and whether the business nature is more export-driven or more domestic market-driven.

Last but not least, China’s growth model dictates that it MUST grow. If growth is under 5%, all of the problems—shadow banking, local debt, and the real estate bubble—will explode. The internationalization of RMB and the financial market will feel consequences overnight and then will impact global markets too. If the country manages to maintain current levels of growth, all of the issues can be resolved by themselves. China’s current challenge is similar to the European debt crisis—one country, one currency. In addition, people cannot move freely because of the “hukou” restriction (the local registration system in China), and governance administrations are managed separately (different provincial governments work differently and lack integration). However, the future of China’s growth is promising. China is different from Japan. The advantage of having a centrally manipulated economy is also having well-planned fiscal/monetary policy from a government that can achieve highly effective results.

Finally in a taxi on my way to the airport, I noticed something interesting. Old Shanghai-style architecture is being replaced by modern facilities. It’s a result of the rapid pace of China’s urbanization, and the sharp contrast is visible on every corner. Differing styles must coexist as the society transitions, proof that everything moves at an astonishing pace in this market.

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