Moving to China: Where Should You Set up Shop?

Travelling the Silicon RoadSo you’ve decided you need to have a presence on the ground in China. Or you’ve decided it’s time to move some manufacturing to China, or expand the sales offices you have there.

Then the question becomes where do you go in China to set up shop?

It’s a big question, and not one with the clear-cut answers it had just a few short years ago. At first glance, it might seem obvious: if you’re talking about electronics manufacturing, then Shenzhen, China’s richest city, is the place to go. If you’re talking about something farther up the food chain, say semiconductor manufacturing, then Shanghai is the place to be, right?

Well, if you’ve been following along as Electronic News has ventured down the Silicon Road this autumn, you know it is not quite that simple. There is some truth to those statements, to be sure. But the industry landscape in China – and foreign companies options – are considerably more complex, to be sure.

But lets look at that conventional wisdom first. Shanghai and Shenzhen are obvious places for a reason. Shanghai is a huge port city with plenty of natural resources, namely water, and an established infrastructure – this is why there are fabs here in the first place, including many that belong to the fourth largest chip foundry, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC). You’ll find the Chinese offices of many a U.S. and European chipmaker here in the gleaming new skyscrapers that dot the skyline.

Look at Applied Materials Inc., the world’s largest process tool vendor, and an old hand when it comes to operating in Asia – it’s literally around the corner from its biggest Chinese customer, SMIC, and its headquarters in Shanghai.

At the other end of the supply chain spectrum is Shenzhen, which has blossomed over the past two decades into China’s electronics manufacturing center. It was made a special economic zone for a number of reasons, but those reasons are similar to why Shanghai has exploded — and why Shenzhen is exploding.

For one thing, Shenzhen is a port city. Located in southern China on the eastern edge of the Pearl River delta, just across the border from Hong Kong, it is home to much, if not most, of China’s electronics manufacturing, and has the infrastructure to support that. In fact, it is probably the only place in the world to have a wholesale electronic components shopping mall located in an office tower downtown. That’s right, the SEC Electronics Marketplace: seven floors of components and finished electronic goods available wholesale.

Both cities have abundant human resources, not to mention prevalent universities, particularly Shanghai. In fact, Shanghai is so popular right now — particularly with Chinese engineer-entrepreneurs returning from abroad to take advantage of the advantageous business climate – that there are some 120 fabless companies in various stages of development in Shanghai, according to one chip startup I visited.

Plus, both cities have much to recommend them in the eyes of Western expats. Both cities are relatively clean and pollution free, and are very cosmopolitan; one could easily get by in Shanghai without having to learn Mandarin, or ever having to eat Chinese food, for that matter (why anyone would actually want to do that, however, I wouldn’t know – but I met Westerners in Shanghai who happily pointed this out).

Shenzhen, meanwhile, while much smaller and definitely more “Chinese” than Shanghai, is rapidly approaching that same level of international sophistication, and is so new and clean, it has been labeled China’s garden city. Indeed, the whole city seems at first glance to be sparkling and new, and compared to China’s older cities, green space is much more abundant.

But these very things that make Shenzhen and Shanghai such obvious choices may also serve to make them not-so-obvious choices. Shanghai, for example, is very expensive by Chinese standards – many people I spoke with, both Chinese engineers who had worked in Silicon Valley, as well as Western expats, pointed out that housing costs are approaching San Francisco/San Jose levels – and all of the attendant issues are starting to crop up in Shanghai, too.

“It’s not a problem for us yet,” said Kevin Sun, a marketing manager for Applied Materials China, referring to the high cost of living in Shanghai. “But of course they feel this pressure,” he said of Applied’s local Chinese employees.

It’s Not Just Location, Location, Location: Beijing vs. Shanghai

Another thing to bear in mind is that to do anything in China, you have to have established quan xi with the government – you have to establish and maintain the right relationships. For all of its cultural opening up, for all of its warm embrace of the free market, China is still a party where the Communist Party holds near absolute power.

And while Shanghai and Shenzhen may have a wealth of technological human resources, when it comes to finding brainpower in China, there is no better place than Beijing – which happens to be the seat of political power in China as well.

Now, for people not familiar with China – and perhaps more so for those who are only familiar with Shanghai – it’s important to understand that Beijing is the cultural heart of China, not just the political center. Geographically, Beijing never had much to recommend it, but in China’s distant past, as its dynastic rulers began to consolidate power across this vast country, Beijing became a strategic location, the crossroads of a growing realm. That is essentially why it became the seat of power for China’s emperors, which in turn attracted China’s intellectual and cultural elite, historically.

By and large, this is still the case today. Not only is it the seat of government, it is home to most of China’s premier universities – the Peking University, Tsinghua University, and the China Academy of Science, to name just a few — not to mention most of its millionaires, old and new, and its popular entertainment stars. It is also home to many of its brightest painters, musicians and writers.

And if there is a hot-button issue for the Chinese today – well, there are many, actually, but the rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai is one of them. Of course, the people that live in China’s other burgeoning high-tech cities have their own views on the matter, but most Chinese people in the tech industry in either Beijing or Shanghai, have a strong opinion with regard to the rivalry.

And the people that argue on behalf of Beijing make strong arguments. Beijing may not be a bustling port city, and may not have the infrastructure for manufacturing that Shanghai has, which the city’s proponents readily acknowledge.

If you’re just after cheap manufacturing, then by all means, go to Shanghai, says Liang Sheng, the section chief of the Department of Information Industry of the Beijing Municipal Government. “But if you want to expand your profits, you have to come to Beijing.”

And if you are looking to develop intellectual property (IP) tailored for the booming Chinese market, Beijing is the place to be. “Here we have our own IP,” he said, observing – as many Chinese officials did — that there was a reason SMIC built its first 300mm wafer fab in Beijing.

Liang likens Beijing to Silicon Valley; it is where a big chunk of China’s domestic chip IP is created. China’s only EDA company, CEC Huada, calls Beijing home, and of the 400 design houses in China, 85 are in Beijing. If that ratio isn’t good enough for you, consider this: out of the 16 design houses that achieve more than $100 million in annual revenue, more than half have their headquarters in Beijing.

Of course, there is no official distinction between Shanghai and Beijing when it comes Chinese efforts to lure the semiconductor industry there. Rather, it’s the result of a natural evolution: “it’s just what it is,” remarked Xu Xiao Tian, secretary general of the China Semiconductor Industry Association. “These two cities have their advantages and disadvantages.”

There’s More to China than Beijing and Shanghai

Some of those disadvantages in Beijing, aside from a comparable lack of natural resources, are considerable pollution and horrendous traffic. That is not to say that they aren’t problems in Shanghai, but in Beijing, they are particularly acute. While Beijing has a venerable, effective public transit system, there are still so many people in the city that its traffic jams rival the worst of those anywhere on the globe; it will be interesting to see how Beijing addresses this problem when it hosts the 2008 Olympics.

And it isn’t the only place to find superior human resources in China; consequently, nor is Shanghai the only place to find infrastructure and physical resources for manufacturing. As Xu observed, quite rightly, many companies both domestic and foreign, are looking at other cities around China – Chengdu, Xian, Shenyang, just to name a few. There are resources to be had elsewhere, often without the costs associated with Beijing or Shanghai.

One thing is common to virtually every significantly large municipality in China today: the local governments are playing to their strengths, and doing what they can to lure foreign investment. Wherever you go, whomever you talk to in local governments – as well as the local companies looking for foreign business partners – the phrase “win/win” comes up time and again; incentives are falling out of the metaphorical trees.

And each these other municipalities offers unique cultural environments as well, as followers of the Silicon Road blog know well, be it the food of Sichuan Province, or the warm subtropical climate of southeastern coastal China.

“I want all these cities to be successful with their semiconductor industries,” Xu remarked. “We’re paying attention to all of them.”

Electronic News Travels to ChinaIndeed, if one were involved in optoelectronics, Xiamen would deserve consideration. If software is your company’s forte, then Shenyang may be the place to set up Chinese headquarters. There are many places, places that we couldn’t squeeze into my Silicon Road itinerary, that are burgeoning high-tech and/or industrial centers in their own rights, or soon will be – Xian, Wuhan, Tianjin, Beihai and Guanzhou, just to name a few.

Wherever you decide to set up shop in China, I can say one thing is abundantly clear after spending a month investigating China’s tech industry: now is definitely the time to be there.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

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