Why Made in China 2025 Will Succeed, Despite Trump

China will succeed in building a powerful technology industry that will rival the United States, even if President Trump starts a trade war to stop it. The reason can be found on the fourth floor of a nondescript factory in a city once famous for cheap manufacturing and prostitution.

This factory floor, in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan, once employed what one employee called a “magnificent sea of people.” Rising labor costs and a new generation with little interest in toiling in factories forced a new tack. Now the sea of people is being replaced by a whirring array of boxy machines, each performing work it used to take 15 people 26 steps to finish.

The factory suggests that Beijing’s vision of Made in China 2025 — the ambitious state-driven plan to retool China’s industries to compete in areas like automation, microchips and self-driving cars — is not being pushed just by the Communist Party’s top leaders. Instead, the drive is also coming from the bottom up: from the businesses and cities across China that know they must modernize or perish.

The Trump administration is not wrong to confront Beijing over Made in China 2025. China’s top-down approach gives its companies unfair advantages and could continue to roil global trade relations long after Mr. Trump retires to Mar-a-Lago.

But Made in China 2025 is also being propelled by businesses like Dongguan Mentech Optical & Magnetic Company, the owner of the factory, which are worried about labor costs and their own futures. It comes from local governments looking for ways to stay relevant. It comes from a growing network of private-sector entrepreneurs, academics and local politicians who are increasingly working together to overhaul China’s factories and its future. Other cities — Suzhou, Wenzhou, Xuzhou and the industrial areas around Shanghai are just a few examples — have also drummed up their own automation plans.

The modernization may not happen in 2025. In fact, it may be long after that. But China will get there, mostly because it has to.

“If Made in China 2025 were a car, the engine has started and it’s definitely moving along,” said Zhang Guojun, director of Guangdong Intelligent Robotics Institute in Dongguan, one of several city-supported local research centers helping the factories upgrade. The city was automating well before Made in China 2025 came out in 2015, he said, “but the policy provided us a clear direction.”

A city of eight million people in the Pearl River Delta, Dongguan long relied on making and exporting shoes, toys and electronic parts to the United States and Europe. In many ways, it looks like the factory-dominated China of popular imagination, with whole parts of the city pervaded by rows of rectangular factory buildings, one after another.

It isn’t clear how long it will take for the rest of China to follow Dongguan’s example. Made in China 2025’s other goals, such as building world-class microchip industries or self-driving cars, remain out of sight for now.

Beyond the financial crisis, China’s very prosperity threatened…

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Peter Bordes

Exec Chairman & Founder at oneQube
Exec Chairman & Founder of oneQube the leading audience development automation platfrom. Entrepreneur, top 100 most influential angel investors in social media who loves digital innovation, social media marketing. Adventure travel and fishing junkie.
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