Is US Right to Fear China’s Industrial Policy?

Yixing teapot 4

A particularly – and atypically – alarmist article ran recently in the Wall St. Journal titled “U.S. Firms, China in Tech War” . You can read it here ( WSJ Article) and decide for yourself. The thrust is that Chinese national policy has shifted in recent years, making it more difficult for Western government companies to win government contracts and protect their most valuable intellectual property. According to the Journal, it’s part of a new “Chinese industrial policy” to transform China into a hothouse of homegrown leading edge technologies, with companies able to challenge American supremacy.

It makes good copy. According to the article, the issues are of such portent that President Obama discussed them directly with China’s leader, Hu Jintao, during the latter’s visit to the US last month. The article cites a fretful report from the US Chamber of Commerce in China, titled “China’s Drive for ‘Indigenous Innovation’: A Web of Industrial Policies”.  The report claims China is building an “intricate web of new rules considered by many international technology companies to be a blueprint for technology theft on a scale the world has never seen before.”

To me, it seems that the Journal may be guilty of mistaking cause for effect. Is China pursuing a nationalist domestic procurement policy? Most likely, just as the US and virtually every other developed country does. Will this make it harder for non-Chinese companies to sell gear to China’s government agencies?  Quite probably. Are Chinese rules crafted in such a way to make it obligatory for Western companies to transfer their technology to Chinese partners? Seems to be the case.

But, will any of this actually achieve the stated goal? Here, I’m a lot less agitated than the Americans quoted in the Journal article. The reason is also found in the same article, which makes a passing reference to similar rules in place in Japan, Korea, Germany and elsewhere. Fat lot of good they’ve done those countries.  Their aggressive “buy local” rules, and other protectionist measures to “nurture” domestic innovation have done little to nothing to achieve their stated aim. In fact, the opposite is the case. If you want to draw up a list of the countries that have lost significant ground to the US in new technologies over the last twenty years, you can start with those that pursued similar regimes to China.

Twenty years ago, France, Germany and Japan all had large, well-known computer companies. Today, Bull, Nixdorf and NEC are either bankrupt or laughing stocks. Their governments’ passionate embrace turned out to be a kiss of death.

The same is true in the industries that the US government has chosen to support and nourish with subsidies and protection. Think about the billions wasted (or as our current US administration tabs it “invested” ) on “alternative energy” and “clean transport” in the US.

Industrial policy, in almost all cases, has a track record untainted by success. There are a lot of good reasons for this, but the most fundamental of all is that government officials, however well-schooled and well-meaning, have no competence to choose winning technologies, and certainly do so with far diminished effectiveness than an open, vibrant market of billions of customers.

Governments all love command and control. The problem is they can only do one of the two. Commanding your citizens to produce advanced products, and lavishing subsidies and protection on those who pay attention to you, is not the same as controlling which technologies will prove most useful, as well as most time- and money-saving.

Yes, this system can produce bullet trains in Japan and China, and maglev trains in Germany. Problem is, no one else wants to buy them, and your citizens are mainly too busy and happy futzing around on Facebook or Google to much care about any of this.

If China does favor domestic technology companies, the risk is these companies produce just enough innovation to please their government customers. But,  like Bull, Nixdorf and NEC, they will produce nothing that anyone else with free choice will care to buy.

Sure, I’d like US companies to have a better crack at the Chinese market. But, then again, I’d like some of my Chinese clients to have a better crack also at the Japanese, Korean and European markets they are often shut out of. Governments by their nature, sadly, are usually protectionist and nationalist. China is no different. The US has often tried to keep these malign instincts at bay. But, my homeland has all kinds of “buy American” favoritism in place for government contracts.

Innovation is important. But, often enough, it’s good marketing, pricing and efficient global distribution that wins customers, and generates the profits to reinvest in more new ideas and products. I don’t know of a single great technology company that relies on its national government as a main customer. Those that do so, like SAIC in the US or EADS in Europe, often end up falling behind the technology curve.

US companies have every right to complain about unfair procurement policies in China. There’s no solid ground, however, for believing that these same policies will result in China producing world-beating technology companies in the future. One of the surest way to find the failed technology companies of the future is to search for those whose main customers are their own nation’s bureaucrats.