Here are six innovative sectors and their China-based flag bearers to help us better understand from where the next Alibaba may come.
Mobile phones: Xiaomi
The Beijing-based company has been a media darling as of late, offering sophisticated smartphones at steep discount’s to Apple’s iPhone line. Xiaomi made headlines last fall when it poached Hugo Barra from Google, where he was a senior executive for the Android operating system. Barra now heads Xiaomi’s global business. Privately-held Xiaomi has grown quickly since its founding in 2010 and in Q2 took the market lead in smartphones in mainland China.
Xiaomi has yet to release any phones in the United States, focusing on Asian and emerging markets such as Singapore, India, Brazil, and Turkey. However, with quick growth and a growing war chest, it only seems a matter of time until chief executive Lei Jun brings his products to the lucrative U.S. market.
Renewable energy: Yingli
China has continued to be a market leader in renewable energy and is expected to have the largest solar market in the world for 2014 with 14 gigawatts of solar to be installed. Overcapacity and plunging solar module prices during 2011-2012 led to calls of unfair competition by China’s solar manufacturers and a spate of U.S. and E.U. trade cases filed and duties assessed. While many solar companies went bankrupt in China and globally, Yingli Solar managed to survive the supply glut and is now positioned as one of China’s market leaders at home and abroad.
Yingli has taken 50-year-old solar photovoltaic technology and done a strong job of driving down production costs, maintaining quality control (which has plagued many of its Chinese peers), and making incremental improvements to efficiency and design. Its biggest strategic advantage was to go early to international markets, taking on U.S. heavyweights First Solar and Sunpower in their home markets, as well as competing globally. The other leading Chinese solar companies, which include Trina, Canadian Solar, Shunfeng and Hanergy have taken similar paths and diversified their businesses abroad.
Baidu is virtually unknown in the United States, but it is the dominant search engine in China. Google has never had much success in China, partially because it has focused elsewhere and partially because it was never welcomed into the Middle Kingdom. NASDAQ listed Baidu has a market capitalization of only 20 percent of Google, but it is starting to look more aggressively at global markets for growth and to explore areas such as machine learning that are at the leading edge of technology development.
Traditional energy: PetroChina
China’s fast-paced growth requires serious amounts of energy and natural resources. Unlike the U.S., the traditional energy sector in China is dominated by state owned enterprises, with PetroChina, Sinopec and CNOOC leading the way. While Sinopec focuses largely on “downstream” refining and marketing, China National Petroleum Company’s listed PetroChina is a major “upstream” player involved in exploration and production.
PetroChina has operations globally and is already a major competitor to the U.S. and European oil majors. You will find PetroChina operating in places as diverse as Canada, Iraq and Venezuela. The company, like its Chinese brethren, has largely stayed out of the United States for political reasons. PetroChina is valued at 60 percent of Exxon Mobil, and is a formidable challenger to its U.S. competitors.
Social media: Tencent
Social media is one area where China is neck and neck with America. In areas such as mobile payments and mobile commerce, the PRC has arguably leapfrogged the United States and taken the lead. Hong Kong listed Tencent is one of main reasons why.
Initially known for its QQ instant messaging platform, Tencent has created another hit with its Weixin or WeChat platform. A cross between Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging, WeChat has more than 350 million active users. Tencent has been making a push to expand WeChat’s user base in the United States. Given its operating margins over 40 percent and a market capitalization that is approximately the same as Facebook, expect to see an increasing Tencent footprint on this side of the Pacific.
Electric vehicles: BYD
While Elon Musk basks in the adulation of Wall Street, China’s BYD continues to build a formidable electric vehicle and battery technology leader. BYD made headlines several years back with an investment from legendary financier Warren Buffett, but since then little has been heard or seen of the company in the U.S. press. It has made a small foray into solar energy, but while things may have been quiet stateside, BYD has been growing strongly in the PRC.
BYD recently shifted its public focus away from pure electric vehicles (which it still produces) to plug-in hybrids. It also produces traditional vehicles and the company expects to sell more than $1 billion in electric buses this year. While it recently reported a drop in profits due to its traditional vehicles business contracting, BYD is well positioned to be a powerhouse in electric vehicles at home and abroad.