The State of China’s Automobile Sector

Amidst the uncertainty regarding the trade war’s impact on Chinese industry, the automobile sector in China will remain profitable

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Bhavana Giri, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

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  Photo: Visual China

Automobile sector in China is the largest in the world when measured by the number of units produced. Apart from domestic production, people’s demands for all kinds of vehicles in China are met by Joint Ventures (JV). For a foreign company to establish a JV, it is required to enter into a 50-50 partnership with a Chinese company in order to start production in China; a similar arrangement is required for foreign companies to export automobiles to China.

Automobiles from the US are one of the most significant exports to China, ranking just behind aircraft and agricultural output. With a trade value of more than $10 billion, this sector is of great significance to the ongoing trade war. Currently, the automobile sector in China is witnessing a downfall in output growth when taken as whole which is driven by a drop in the production of gasoline based automobiles. However, in the long run, China’s drive to lead in global production of new energy vehicles (NEVs) is slated to offset this downturn, even if the trade war continues. Additionally, the upper hand China has in the automobile joint ventures will also help to recover from the downfall. In contrast, the resilience of China’s NEV sector will adversely impact the competitiveness of its American counterpart.

Demand side conditions are highly favourable and will continue to be so. Three decades ago bicycles were the most popular mode of transport in China and most cars needed to be imported. Today, however, Chinese car makers are producing more cars than any other country in absolute terms. As can be seen from the data, the production of automobile in China increased from 9 million units in 2007 to 23 million in 2018. To be sure, economic conditions are currently turbulent in China.

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Observers predict that China’s GDP will decelerate in the near future and its leaders have urged precaution in this regard. The automobile sector, however is poised to remain buoyant, despite macroeconomic woes. The Chinese government intends to prioritise the preservation of automobile demand and supply by providing subsidies and exempting consumers from purchase tax on electric vehicles. These subsidies will ensure that there will be no significant shock to the automobile sector.

China has become the biggest giant in the production of electric cars and bikes. With Domestic Value Addition (DVA) of more than 80 per cent, and a strong grip over the production of essential inputs such as batteries, the sector enjoys a substantially strong footing. Recent falls in automobile stock prices should not obscure this fact.

To the rest of the world, it may appear that China has struggled to make progress in automobile manufacturing. However, the situation has changed drastically with recent developments. China now possesses massive potential for substituting imported automobiles with electric vehicles. With trade talks in a state of disarray and the heightened possibility that China will reapply auto tariffs, it is also likely that automakers will be incentivised further to produce in China. With the exception of the luxury segment, which is less easily substituted, China’s automobile sector is likely to withstand the headwinds it currently faces. Moreover, with the Chinese government establishing stricter norms for controlling carbon emissions and attempting to reduce pollution in cities, the scope for domestic companies to defeat automobile giants such as Toyota, BMW, etc has escalated. The Chinese government is also granting special manufacturing permits to companies which are working to develop NEVs.

The electric vehicle world sales database shows that in 2018, 2.1 million units of electric vehicles were sold which is almost 64 per cent higher than that of 2017. China has advanced its position in this particular segment and has a share of almost 56 per cent of the total sales. Although companies like Tesla, Toyota, etc. are also developing electric vehicles they lack the cost advantage China has, and are, thus unable to capture the market. Several subsidies and tax cuts provided on purchases of electric vehicles further boost demand in the highly populated cities of China. This is illustrated by the fact that profits for BYD jumped 632 per cent jump in 2019. On the other hand Tesla, which is exporting to China in an increasingly hostile trade environment, lost nearly $700 million in the first quarter in 2019, despite robust demand.

Another factor that will support China’s automobile sector is technology transfer. Most automobile production in China happens by way of Joint Ventures (JV) between Chinese and foreign companies, which allows local companies to acquire know-how. The Chinese have also acquired automobile technology by heavily investing in foreign-based automobile companies. Therefore, China’s automobile sector is unlikely to reel in the long-run. Moreover, China is less dependent on foreign value addition than it used to be – its contribution to processing and non-processing value addition process in the production of automobiles is uninterruptedly increasing.

The optimism expressed above does not apply to the American automobile industry, however. To a large extent, US-based automobile companies are dependent on revenues from the Chinese market that their JVs enjoy and are, thus, highly vulnerable to disruptions in bilateral relationship between two nations. For example, automobile giant BMW, is not introducing a new model because of the environment of uncertainty created by the trade war. US automobile companies are experiencing sluggish production while on the other hand Chinese NEV start-ups and companies are scaling up their production.

Unlike others, the automobile sector in China will likely remain profitable irrespective of ongoing trade contestations and tensions, due to the Chinese government’s encouragement to develop NEVs.  China’s NEV companies are poised to emerge as leaders in markets all around the world, as they race ahead their counterparts from the US, Japan, and Germany.

Chinese Steel Industry: How Did the World’s Largest Steel Producer Protect Itself from Global Slowdown and a Trade War?

The US-China trade war and rising environmental concerns have led to a slowdown in global infrastructural projects in 2018. The objective of this short piece is to understand the impact of these global phenomena on the Chinese steel industry.

Vidushi R Singh, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies

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How Did the World’s Largest Steel Producer Protect Itself from Global Slowdown and a Trade War?

China has been the world leader in steel production since 2008, with about half of the total world steel exports originating in China. The US-China trade war and rising environmental concerns have led to a slowdown in global infrastructural projects in 2018. The objective of this short piece is to understand the impact of these global phenomena on the Chinese steel industry.

Economic logic follows that excess supply and reduced demand, as have been observed in recent times, would lead to falling prices. The inelasticity of supply should have meant low prices for the Chinese steel market. As can be observed in the following graph, prices dipped following the first steel tariff announcement from the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) office on 1 March 2018. However, while prices did fall, they also rebounded much sooner than initially predicted. This trend can also be observed in the graph, with prices rising back up April 2018 onwards. However, the prices crashed again in November 2018, due to falling demand in downstream sectors, such as infrastructure and manufacturing industries, as a speculative response to rising tariffs between the US and China. Chinese steel manufacturers also registered losses for the first time in the last three years, in November 2018. Despite this, the Chinese steel economy remained largely immune to economic shocks.

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Source: Trading Economics

The Chinese conduit to coming out unscathed lies in the supply side reforms, initiated by the government in 2015. The end of the Chinese construction boom in 2014 had instigated the government to carry out reforms to cut down on steel production. As the growth rate of the construction industry fell from 10% in 2014 to just 2% in 2015, steel production was reigned in, with the growth rate actually falling to a negative value in 2015 (National Bureau of Statistics of China). The government decided to intervene at this point so as to ensure the survival of the steel industry and avoid mass layoffs that would have resulted from a slowdown in the industry. The goal decided in 2015 was to reduce capacity by 45 million tonnes, a target that was attained by the latter half of 2017, much before the set deadline of 2020.

Thus, when the demand growth rate fell, the Chinese steel industry had already moved on to capacity optimization and did not face grave overutilization. This allowed for the industry to shift supply rapidly, and safeguard itself from future tariffs as well. This success of the Chinese steel industry is evident in the fact that since 1 January 2019, Chinese steel prices have increased consistently. The shift from high-grade iron ore to lower grades has also allowed manufacturers to increase margins by cutting costs.

One interesting factor in this situation is the ability of the Chinese steel manufacturers to divert inventory to Chinese infrastructural projects under the ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative and the Belt and Road initiative. While it is hard to ascertain the exact amount of steel inventory being fed into these initiatives, they do provide the steel industry with a reliable sink to use up inventory, while cutting down on any overutilization, thus stabilizing prices in the short run. The government’s plans to expand on infrastructure development in the coming years also provides support to investor speculations and have played a role in stabilizing the Chinese steel economy.

The 25 per cent tariffs imposed on steel imports by President Trump, thus, fall short of having a real impact on the Chinese steel industry, in part due to China’s relatively unimportant position in US steel imports (China is the 25th largest exporter of steel to the USA), and in part because of the foresight of the Chinese government.

So while the Chinese steel industry did face multiple shocks over the course of the 2018 trade war and global infrastructural slowdown, the government’s preemptive measures of securing a strategic sector allowed it to come out of the tussle relatively unharmed. While the opacity of government and industrial operations make it tough to analyze the situation in greater depth, one can say that the Chinese steel industry has been able to cope with the changing world geopolitical scenario with ease.

A China Gazer’s Random Musings – No. 2

Kishan S. Rana (IFS Retd.), Emeritus Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi

China in Africa

As a second secretary at the Indian Embassy in 1963-65, I occasionally visited Peking University (Beida), always in the company of African diplomats, who went to meet students from their countries at that great institution. I sometimes accompanied a friend from the Egyptian Embassy, circumventing the tight surveillance that we as Indian Embassy officials faced. That first indirect exposure sparked my interest in Africa. Little did I anticipate that I would spend nearly ten years in Africa (Algeria, Kenya and Mauritius and, later Namibia).

How is China seen in Africa? Given that in 2016 China committed itself to US$100 billion by way of credits and loans for African states – significantly more than the World Bank – what has been the impact? Glib talk about neo-colonial actions aside, the reality is rather complex. Continue reading “A China Gazer’s Random Musings – No. 2”

The Many Ironies of India-China Economic Relations

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

Pickpockets are not uncommon in crowded places in India. Victims are generally realists and tend to resign themselves to their misfortune quickly often not even bothering to go to the police. Not so, however, actor-turned-politician Manoj Tiwari, head of the Delhi unit of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. When he lost his iPhone Seven Plus at a demonstration, he promptly complained at the local police station. Politicians in India are often able to get the police to expend extra effort on their behalf, so Tiwari’s response was not really surprising.

What was surprising was the fact that the politician had lost his phone at a protest against Chinese-made goods organized by an affiliate of the BJP’s parent organization, the right-wing hyper-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. And as American as Steve Jobs might have been, the iPhone is the quintessential made-in-China product.

Such ironies are a dime a dozen in the India-China relationship. Continue reading “The Many Ironies of India-China Economic Relations”

Work and Workplaces in the ‘New Era’: Labour Issues at the 19th Party Congress

P. K. Anand, PhD, Research Associate, ICS

In the week preceding the beginning of the 19th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), state-run media trumpeted the increase in minimum wage levels in 17 regions & cities in China in 2017. Out of these, four major cities namely, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Tianjin, have set the minimum wage levels at 2,000 RMB per month. The increase in the minimum wage levels does not carry a linear narrative, however. Some provinces have expressed reluctance to implement minimum wages, wages are also not commensurate with rising house rents, increasing costs of travel from home to the workplace, etc. On the other hand, the increase in wages also adds to the rising labour costs for investors and enterprise managements. In this scenario, the Party-state has the task of striking a fine balance between maintaining economic growth and encouraging investments, while also increasing the material wealth and ensuring the well-being of the workforce.

Xi Jinping’s political report to the 19th Party Congress is reflective of the apprehensions and disquiet of the Party-state in the need to undertake this balancing act Continue reading “Work and Workplaces in the ‘New Era’: Labour Issues at the 19th Party Congress”

China’s 19th CPC Congress: Redefining Economic Growth

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

There are several aspects of the recently concluded 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that are noteworthy for India.

First, CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping has attempted to redefine what acceptable economic growth is in China. The expression ‘contradiction’ is an important one in the Chinese communist lexicon and until the 19th Party Congress, the ‘principal contradiction’ was the one between ‘the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people and backward social production’ or, in other words, China’s inability to provide for the basic material needs of its people. Following nearly 40 years of economic reforms, this challenge has now been met with China eradicating poverty at the most massive scale and at the quickest pace in human history.

This process has, however, also resulted in rising income inequalities between individuals and between regions in China, and massive environmental damage and health crises across the country. Continue reading “China’s 19th CPC Congress: Redefining Economic Growth”

China and Globalization: Time for New Beginnings?

He Fan, Professor of Economics, HSBC School of Business, Beijing, Director of Maritime Silk Road Research Center
Zhu He, Postdoctoral Scholar, Peking University & Assistant Director of Silk Road Research Center
Li Chaohui, Research Assistant, Haitian Silk Road Research Center, HSBC School of Business, Peking University

This article was originally published in the Business Standard as China’s version of globalisation’, 14 October 2017. This is part of a series by Chinese economists facilitated by the ICS. The original text in Chinese follows below the English version.

In the past 40 years, China has achieved sustained high rate of economic growth after the implementation of the policy of reforms and opening up. This has generated worldwide attention for the “Chinese miracle.” In 1980, China’s exports amounted to only 5.9% of GDP and its foreign investment abroad was only just over US$1.6 billion; by 2013, the latter figure had increased to US$290 billion.

China’s integration into the world economy essentially began in the 1990s. Continue reading “China and Globalization: Time for New Beginnings?”