The Sino-US trade tussle has had the greatest impact on multinational corporations in China—precisely the group that the US started out trying to support. Many have begun considering radical courses of action to stay in business.
After years of enjoying the fruits of a booming economy and sharply rising disposable income, life for many of China’s higher earners is getting harder. Amid mounting debt levels and economic headwinds, urban middle-class consumers have responded by scaling back their discretionary spending and reducing luxury purchases—an emerging phenomenon known as the “consumption downgrade.” The newfound frugality of middle-class spenders may be good for their wallets, but it is an unwelcome development for Beijing.
For many in Beijing, the trade war confirms long-held suspicions that the United States is determined to thwart China’s rise as the world’s next superpower. As a result, US demands that China abandon Made in China 2025 have also tended to be viewed by Beijing as being motivated not by concerns over fair competition, but by a desire to make sure America keeps its lead in the global innovation race. Public statements from senior figures in the Trump administration have fueled these concerns—the trade war not as an isolated incident, but part of a longer history of US attempts to undermine rival powers.
Beijing faces some big challenges in 2019. Over the past few months, a catchphrase from the hit HBO drama Game of Thrones seems to have been on everyone’s lips in China: “winter is coming” to the Chinese market. The gloomy sentiment has solid reasons. More businesses are struggling to access credit and a sell-off in the stock markets has exacerbated many firms’ difficulties. Meanwhile, the trade war with the US is making life tough for exporters. How worried should we really be? In this issue, we dig deeper into the issues driving recent headlines, and in many cases arrive at some unexpected conclusions.
“Human beings cannot see with their eyes in absolute darkness, but they can see with their mind,” says Cai Shiyin, an entrepreneur who started the social enterprise Dialogue in the Dark in China.
Hans Tung knows how to spot a unicorn. During his career, he has invested in 11 startups that have gone on to attain billion-dollar valuations, including Airbnb, Bytedance, Slack, Wish and Xiaomi. Tung is also one of the few venture capitalists that feels equally at home on both sides of the Pacific. A native of Taiwan, he moved to California aged 13 and began his career in Silicon Valley, before becoming one of the first VCs at a US firm to move to China full-time in 2005. Since moving back to the US in 2013, he has continued to invest in both markets.
Tattoo culture has exploded in China in the last few years, as the country’s younger generations abandon centuries-old prejudices against the practice and embrace it as an expression of individuality. Chinese millennials are getting tattoos in record numbers, but some are being forced to keep them hidden.
Pronouncements that the Belt and Road Initiative is failing are premature, argues Tom Miller, author of China’s Asian Dream and Senior Asia Analyst at Gavekal Research. He is well-versed in the problems facing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and predicted many of them. In his 2017 book China’s Asian Dream, he warned that China’s preference for cultivating close relationships with individual leaders could be a long-term risk for BRI. Eighteen months on, this looks prescient. New governments have won power in Malaysia, Pakistan and the Maldives, and renegotiating deals signed by their predecessors are high on the agendas.
What a difference a year makes. Last summer, there was a sense of unstoppable momentum behind the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s trillion-dollar plan to build a network of infrastructure connecting Africa, Asia and Europe. When China hosted its 2017 Belt and Road Forum, 29 heads of state and delegations from another 100 countries traveled to Beijing, hoping to cash in on what President Xi Jinping described as the “project of the century.” This year the landscape, at least from the media’s perspective, looks dramatically different as even China’s closest partners make more cautious noises about the BRI.
Compared to other sectors, Chinese e-commerce firms are among the first batches of firms to embrace automation. China accounts for nearly half of global demand for AGVs, enabling one warehouse to process up to 100,000 orders a day with a staff of 20 human workers, work that previously would have required 300-600 people, according to Beijing-based startup Geek+, a leading domestic robot maker in logistics industry. Other tech giants, like Alibaba and JD.com, have also announced plans to invest billions of dollars to roll out next-generation technologies including totally unmanned warehouses and last-mile delivery robots and drones.