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THE OTHER SUPERPOWER

Beijing tries to push beyond 'Made in China' status to find name-brand innovation

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By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Quick: Think of a Chinese brand name.

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Japan has Sony. Mexico has Corona. Germany has BMW. South Korea? Samsung.

And China has . . . ?

If you're stumped, you're not alone. And for China, that is an enormous problem.

Last year, China overtook Germany to become the world's largest exporter, and this year it could surpass Japan as the world's No. 2 economy. But as China gains international heft, its lack of global brands threatens its dream of becoming a superpower.

No big marquee brands means China is stuck doing the global grunt work in factory cities while designers and engineers overseas reap the profits. Much of Apple's iPhone, for example, is made in China. But if a high-end version costs $750, China is lucky to hold on to $25. For a pair of Nikes, it's four pennies on the dollar.

"We've lost a bucketload of money to foreigners because they have brands and we don't," complained Fan Chunyong, the secretary general of the China Industrial Overseas Development and Planning Association. "Our clothes are Italian, French, German, so the profits are all leaving China. . . . We need to create brands, and fast."

The problem is exacerbated by China's lack of successful innovation and its reliance on stitching and welding together products that are imagined, invented and designed by others. A failure to innovate means China is trapped paying enormous amounts in patent royalties and licensing fees to foreigners who are.

China's government has responded in typically lavish fashion, launching a multibillion-dollar effort to create brands, encourage innovation and protect its market from foreign domination.

Through tax breaks and subsidies, China has embraced what it calls "a going-out strategy," backing firms seeking to buy foreign businesses, snap up natural resources or expand their footprint overseas.

Domestically, it has launched the "indigenous innovation" program to encourage its companies to manufacture high-tech goods by forcing foreign firms to hand over their trade secrets and patents if they want to sell their products there.

Since 2007, thousands of Chinese businessmen have attended government-sponsored seminars on "going out," learning everything from how to do battle with domineering Americans and Britons during conference calls to why a Chinese boss should think twice about publicly humiliating his wayward foreign workers -- as he'd do to his staff at home.


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