[Note: below is the foreword from Great Wall of Numbers]
“Grey,” Goethe tells us, “is all theory, and green the golden tree of life.” To really understand something, we need more than generalizations and a priori arguments. We need “color.”
Unfortunately, most of what is written about China these days falls into the “grey theory” category. Countless pages have been devoted to the China “model,” China’s “rise,” or even its “coming collapse.” But little of this gives us any real feeling of what it’s like to live and work there. Often we can’t see the trees for the forest.
This book is different. It looks not at the “big picture” but at the myriad fascinating details that make it up. We learn not that China will be “number one” but rather that Shanghai is home to the world’s largest skateboard park. Not that China has “a billion consumers” but rather that Chinese college kids love NBA apparel. Not that China is a “locomotive for the world economy” but rather that convenience stores in Bengbu, Anhui Province carry US-made razor blades.
There are less prosaic observations as well. The Chinese are big Angry Birds fans, for example. China now accounts for 25% of worldwide downloads. Recently Rovio, the maker of this popular app, even went so far as to turn Shanghai’s skyscrapers green to help launch a native version of its product.
These are exactly the kinds of details that matter if you are trying to formulate a business plan for the China market. And their relevance goes well beyond the particular industries cited. For the US exporter, for example, the important point isn’t that there’s a market for NBA apparel and razor blades. The takeaway is that in China—a country awash in knockoffs—a “made in USA” label signifies a high quality product.
Indeed this book is full of interesting business ideas. It looks at opportunities in everything from college textbooks to assisted living facilities, from fast food to Android apps. China, it turns out, is not so much the land of a billion consumers as it is the land of unexplored niche markets. The growth of the Chinese economy in general—and that of its middle class in particular—has created many surprising new worlds for entrepreneurs to conquer.
Naturally, there are risks to consider as well. Local partners or employees may expropriate your intellectual property and set up competing businesses. The regulatory environment can be full of nasty surprises, particularly for those lacking the right local connections. Profits may be difficult to repatriate. Again, readers will find a wide range of examples that help to turn China’s “unknown unknowns” into “known unknowns” if not “known knowns.”
As you begin to appreciate all this local color, some fascinating big picture issues come into focus as well. Consider the potential of 3D printing, for example. This new technology makes it possible to produce plastic products directly from a computer file, using special printer heads that deposit multiple layers of plastic to produce a finished product. These machines are now available for as little as $2,199.
This process will enable many manufacturers to by-pass the supply chain altogether, going directly from idea to inventory in a single step. It’s easy to see the advantages for foreign firms seeking to market specialized products in China. The manufacturing could be done anywhere and the production runs kept arbitrarily small.
The implications for the US-China trade balance are even more important. Once this technology is in widespread use, it seems likely that important parts of the Chinese manufacturing machine—e.g. manufacturing toys for export—may either be shut down entirely or have to be converted to serve local markets.
Learning about opportunities in particular sectors leads naturally to an understanding of much larger issues that “big picture” analysts easily miss. Unlike the common practice of looking at China from “a thousand feet up,” a ground-level perspective provides insights into both the idiosyncratic features of specific industries and the overall macroeconomic situation.
Thus, this book will be useful not only to those looking for Chinese markets for particular products and services but also to anyone with a general interest in learning more about the country. Whether you are looking for new worlds to conquer or just curious about the China story, this book will help you move beyond the “grey” plane of theory and abstractions into the verdant realm of economic reality.
Mark DeWeaver is the founder of Quantrarian Capital Management and author of Animal Spirits with Chinese Characteristics