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Considering China

The surge of activity and Chinese government investment today is similar to the thrust of science and technology in the 1950s that made the United States the world’s superpower.

Not all that long ago, when I wrote something for AD&P I knew with a high degree of certainty that (1) it was being read in the pages of the physical magazine and (2) it was being read, by and large, in North America, and in the U.S. for the most part. But since there has been autofieldguide.com, which contains both the content of the physical magazine as well as materials written specifically for the website, I’m not certain how you are seeing this information or where you are. (Yes, yes, we know who gets the magazine and we can see the various web stats that indicate where hits are coming from. But you get my point.)

So, with that preface, let me make a point that is particularly germane to designers, engineers, and executives in the U.S., as well as to those who are in other western countries, especially people who work for companies that have been on a real roll of late when it comes to selling cars in China. Even with the decline in the Chinese auto market, comparatively speaking it is still hot. Contrast it with the European market (where many of the non-U.S. designers, engineers and executives who will find this exceedingly pertinent work, because their companies—like Audi and BMW—have huge sales in China) and it is absolutely incendiary.

The point comes from an observation in China’s Design Revolution by Lorraine Justice (The MIT Press; 2012), who spent seven years as the director of the School of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and who is now dean of the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology. Professor Justice provides some context for understanding some of what’s occurring in China today, with her obvious subject and bias being design. She points out, “Over the past sixty years, [the] Chinese had little experience being consumers. And whereas the United States and Europe took hundreds of years to develop capitalism, consumerism, and the accompanying Western expertise in branding, design, and marketing, China is compressing that time frame to achieve its goal of creating an economy that combines communist and capitalist elements.” This time compression of creating a consuming class explains the heated markets for everything from smart phones to luxury cars.

This is the observation from Professor Justice that needs to be considered long and hard by anyone who thinks that the Chinese demand for Western products is going to continue on and on and on: “The surge of activity and Chinese government investment today is similar to the thrust of science and technology in the 1950s that made the United States the world’s superpower. Unlike the United States, however, China is focusing on design and innovation and supporting culture and creativity on a massive scale. The national and provincial Chinese governments are supporting design and creative activities in first-, second-, and third-tier cities in order to stimulate economic growth.”

The U.S. investments in science and technology in the ‘50s allowed the U.S. to land a man on the Moon in the 1960s. And there were all of the knock-on technological benefits that came along with Neil Armstrong’s ride. And now the Chinese are working to create consumer products with the designs and the characteristics that not only will have domestic appeal, but presumably international appeal, and they’re doing so with a zeal and a commitment that is probably hard for those who aren’t on the ground in China to recognize. So what does this mean? Let’s use Professor Justice for some data points:
•    “Although Coach and Louis Vuitton bags may sell well, these companies cannot expect repeat sales over many years. China is on its way to developing its own brands and may prove to be highly competitive in coming years, especially if there is cultural pressure to ‘buy China.’”
•    “Now that China has approximately forty car companies, the future trend may be to purchase high-end Chinese along with Chinese-designed high-end fashion. It [may] also be that these products will become attractive exports to a Western world always looking for something new.” Sure, everyone has seen the miserable Chinese car crash tests on YouTube. Do you really think that hasn’t changed significantly since that’s happened?
•    “. . . as China positions itself to create its own products for its own internal market, it will become less reliant on external product orders.”
•    And I could go on with other examples that she provides in her excellent book.

It comes down to this: China is not only a huge market, but it is going to become a strong competitor. Anyone—and any company—in the West that fails to recognize this is going to wish that they suffered the fate of those in industry who underestimated the Japanese.

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Erratum

It has been pointed out I misstated Newton’s Second Law of Motion in the last column, which is actually F=ma. I’d like to blame that error on the Third Law of Thermodynamics.

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