As the world’s most populous country and with an economy that has grown at exponential speeds to reach the second largest globally, China has turned into a superpower on the world stage seemingly overnight. During its transition into the factory for the world, China’s manufacturing and resource-based industries exploded with growth rates in the double digits. Today, however, these industries are slowing, and China is in the process of undergoing a dramatic shift away from its aforementioned traditional sectors and positioning itself higher on the value chain. In order to do this, China is having to somewhat re-invent itself by fostering a knowledge and service-centric economy primarily driven by technology.
In China, as with most things, change begins with the government, and this case is no exception. In recent years, the Chinese government has been very proactive in shifting government priorities and policies to match this new direction. In practice, this takes many forms, but some of the more notable examples include initiatives like One-Belt-One-Road and the opening up of Hainan.
These projects are also a good example that China knows it cannot continue this journey entirely by itself, it needs support from the rest of the world. Bold new technologies, business models, innovators and investors from outside of China are required to continue to fuel this shift with forwarding momentum. When you couple this with the increasing amount of investments, relaxation of foreign-entry policies and a massive untapped talent pool, the market of China is an extremely lucrative playing field of increasing strategic importance for startups and scaleups.
It wouldn’t be an article about opportunity in China without citing how big the market is. Hopefully, by now we’re long past the days where people looked at China through gold-tinted glasses with misguided aspirations of capturing a sizeable chunk of the Chinese market within their first or second year of operations. The truth is that China is a tough market to crack, and will require a proper investment of time and resources to achieve results. It is definitely not a market that should be approached with the idea of walking away with quick, easy wins.
Nevertheless, the market is big, and there is opportunity for smart foreign firms that can carve out a competitive advantage for themselves here. The total population of China stands at 1.4 billion people, among which the urban population stands at 730 million (2015). According to a study conducted by McKinsey, the projected growth of private consumption in upper middle income class is still projected to be very strong with the CAGR between 2012-2022 projected at an average of approximately 22.4%.
Perhaps more interesting still, is the shift that is being seen in consumer behaviour between generations, in particular the younger consumers being dubbed “Generation 2”. This is a group of people mainly in their 20s who are born in the late 90s, and raised in a period of relative abundance as compared to their predecessors. They were born in the era of China’s reform and opening to the rest of the world. This group is, generally speaking, the most westernized group in terms of ideology, independence and confidence which are reflected in both mindset and consumption habits such as achieving better tastes and status through the purchase of expensive products. They are driving an entirely new wave of consumption and growth across many sectors as well as fuelling rapid innovations on many fronts. In many ways they are representative of what we can expect to see in the future of China.
China is very well-known for being the world’s factory. A huge amount of goods and products are made, in part or fully in China and the Made-In-China imprint has become so ubiquitous that you’d be hard-pressed to imagine a world without a manufacturing base in China. The well-oiled manufacturing sector of the Chinese economy has also led to a formidable logistics industry as well as an unrivaled road/rail transportation infrastructure and industry.
In the mobile and e-commerce sectors, the flagship companies of BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) have continuously rolled out increasingly startup-friendly services and applications in its ecosystem. Coupled with the massive increase in mobile phone penetration and adoption rates, this provides an opportunity for firms, both local and foreign to compete on an increasingly level playing field.
Essentially this means that China has the necessary groundwork (both online and offline) laid out for tech companies to efficiently grow. Additionally, the startup movement is already well underway in China, meaning the networks, ecosystems, and infrastructure are all in place. Although, it may still be in a fledgling or development stage in some areas outside of tier 1 cities. When you add all of this up, it means the market has become more and more available for people from outside to easily tap into and leverage. Make no mistake, there are still many challenges to overcome for your businesses in these areas, but the progress in accessibility and ease of engagement is undeniable.
Tier 1 in China refers to the wealthier and more affluent cities in terms of GDP. These are usually the highly visible cities for those who are outside of China looking in. The geographical center of middle-income growth is shifting heavily towards these Tier 1 cities. In the near future, however, the concentration of middle-income classes will be slowly shifting towards Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities due to the nature of increased affluence also appearing in these cities as well. The untapped market potential and opportunities for foreign firms in those markets cannot be understated. Though, as quite well articulated in a recent post by Mark Tanner from China Skinny, such markets should not be underestimated in their complexity either. Understanding the local cultural context and sophistication is critical.
Furthermore, the One-Belt-One-Road initiative will also span across a huge chunk of China, increasing the competitiveness of the cities that are well-positioned to benefit. Examples of such cities include Haikou, Beihai, Fuzhou, Lianyungang, Zhengzhou, Changchun etc. These cities will definitely see a more than average growth spike as a result of this project.
Additionally, with a large part of the future policy for the Eurasia region now being dictated from within China, it also presents increasing strategic importance for businesses to engage with China earlier in their journeys to start building relationships, networks and partnerships.
The education system in China has produced the highest number of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) graduates every year in the world with approximately 4.7 million in 2016 alone, nearly 10x the number that are graduating in the U.S. annually. Fresh out of college and finding a job, these graduates are a talent pool with knowledge, skills and are also eager to work. Not only that, working for startups is becoming an increasingly popular path for many of these Chinese graduates.
(Image Credit: Statista)
Recently too, China has seen a surge in the number of returnees (Chinese nationals that studied or worked abroad and return to China). Exposed to the market outside of China and usually armed with the ability to speak more than one language, returnees are often ideal candidates for foreign companies seeking to expand in China.
While the job market is by no means easy for foreign companies to access, the quality of the talent emerging from and available in China at the moment cannot be ignored.
In the midst of shifting economic trends, China has proven it remains a competitive and potentially lucrative market for startups and scaleups, in fact, arguably more-so than ever before. There are definitely many challenges to overcome in this market however, challenges that should not be taken lightly nor underestimated. Despite this, smart founders with relevant products and services for the market that are able to strongly differentiate themselves will find many opportunities for their businesses here.
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