NEW YORK – We all pay abject lip service to China. The business community and the media are equally in thrall to the world’s second largest – and fastest growing economy.
But China’s also a handy device for fear mongering.
Cheap labor, fake chips, counterfeit DVDs, the Communist Party, reeducation, all those central government-led 5-year plans…China strikes us foreign and distant, culturally and socially speaking.
Further, China today is the largest foreign buyer of US government debt. That’s a fact, but in an election year, it’s a fact that fuels fear of China calling in our debt and bringing America to its knees. That catastrophe is unlikely, but it doesn’t forestall politicians – and much of the U.S. public – from blaming China for every lost job in America.
It’s clear that we have a schizophrenic perception of China. We conveniently switch back and forth between two images of China, as we see fit, depending on the hot topic at the moment. Between the two polar views of China, however, many stories – with layers of complexity – remain untold.
As I talk to people in our industry, I am constantly amazed how much they know and how insightful their global views are. In our interviews and reporting at EE Times and EE Times Confidential over the last 18 months, China inevitably came up again and again. Here are just some sample of threads on China we’ve picked up.
1. Portraying China just as a “manufacturer” of technology products, while still true, is passé. China is rapidly rising as a “designer” of technology.
2. Some say there are more than 500 fabless chip companies in China. While that’s an inflated number, there is an unmistakable trend. The top 20 China fabless companies are now on equal footing – in terms of IP cores, design skills and access to advanced process technology – with any fabless company in Silicon Valley. (Find the names of more than 80 Chinese fabless comanies here. )
3. Since the global financial crisis in late 2008, Beijing bureaucrats have replaced U.S. venture capitalists as the major funding source. The Chinese government has given its fabless companies unprecedented access to capital, including subsidies, grants and other incentives.
4. Never paint China as a monolithic country. The country consists of people with diverse ethnic backgrounds – just like the Soviet Union once was. The inequality of different regions – between big cities and villages in the country side – is unimaginably huge. Like warlords in Afghanistan, some provincial governors are powers unto themselves.
5. Many leading chip companies in the West already have established a strong presence in China with their design teams in tow. As NXP CEO Rick Clemmer said, NXP today is “practically a Chinese company.”
6. Successful companies like MediaTek in Taiwan have effectively mined the vast amount of software engineers in China to bolster their mobile chip business. Taiwan’s proximity to China – in geography, language and culture – is definitely playing a role here.
7. Installing a design team in China, however, is no guarantee of success. Both Broadcom and Trident famously had their DTV SoC design teams in China. Neither came up with a successful product, while MediaTek and MStar ate their lunch.
8. Most Chinese companies remain focused on the domestic market. But they look increasingly to the global market. As a colleague in China recently said, “Globalization is not a ‘trend’ in China. It’s a ‘business strategy’ for Chinese companies.”
9. There’s no question that China remains under strong control by the central government. But never underestimate the power of municipal and local agencies in China. They often have their own agendas (even their own technology preferences) to expand the economy within their own regions.
10. Last but not least, let’s not forget the growing affluence of the middle class in China. According to a 2011 Accenture survey focused on usage and spending on consumer electronics technologies in eight countries (Brazil, China, India, Russia, France, Germany, Japan and the United States), Chinese consumers were among the most enthusiastic purchasers and users of the latest consumer technologies including 3-D TVs and smart phones.
I listed above items in a random order, jotting notes as thoughts popped into my head. In short, I’ve probably left out a lot.
My goal this year is to be less random and get a better grip on things and fill in the left-out stuff . For example: what’s happening in China (broadly); what technology and business concerns confront both Chinese companies and Western companies in China today; what does the engineering community in China look like; what are Chinese engineers looking for in the domestic and global markets, etc. I’m happy to report that as of Wednesday (May 9th), my new role at EE Times is Chief International Correspondent – with a strong emphasis in China.
As the industry-base has moved to China, EE Times will be moving, too -- aggressively.
I won’t be actually moving to China right away. But until I do so, I’ll be in and out of China regularly, poking around, ruffling (I hope) a few feathers. Whether you happen to be in Beijing, in New York, in Tokyo or in Paris over the next few months, drop me a note at email@example.com. Let’s synchronize our watch and meet up.
As I step down from being EE Times’ editor-in-chief, I’ll report to Alex Wolfe – EE Times’ new brand director. Anyone with an institutional memory should recognize his name. Alex is the newshound who broke the Pentium FPU bug story at EE Times in 1994. He returns to EE Times with a wealth of ideas and multimedia skill set. In the 1990’s, I remember Alex as the toughest news editor in this industry. He’s been known to gut a cub reporter with nothing sharper than a blue pencil. I’m looking forward to the challenge again.
I also want to thank Karen Field, senior vice president of content at UBM Electronics, who played an instrumental role in taking the first brave step toward making the China assignment possible.
For someone like me who has moved dwellings (and husband) and pursued reporting assignments from Tokyo, Cupertino and San Mateo to Paris and New York, the new position is a dream come true. It’s a job I had long lobbied for and a role I plan to relish.