Amid the torrent of clothes, electronics and toys surging out of China comes a little-noticed export: international companies.
For centuries, individual Chinese have sought their fortunes abroad, creating Chinatowns around their restaurants and shops. Now, Chinese firms are going global, pushed by a government turned capitalist, pulled by untapped markets and armed with bundles of money from a thriving economy.
Auto plants are popping up in Latin America; a sprawling commodity bazaar promises a provincial Swedish city new life; a car parts distributor is snapping up ailing companies in the U.S. Rust Belt; a TV factory hums in South Africa; and a high-tech firm is landing contracts to revamp the Persian Gulf's telecommunication networks.
Just as the earlier arrival of Japanese companies changed U.S. manufacturing, over time Chinese companies could affect how their Western rivals approach innovation, competition and business itself.
"We not only consider ourselves pioneers," says Sean Chen, who at 26 is overseeing the construction of a $100-million electrical parts plant and industrial park in the American South. "We also consider ourselves explorers."
Chen and his fiancee, Joy Chen — both took American first names — moved from Shanghai to Atlanta to set up shop for General Protecht Group Inc., a company controlled by his father. While the goal is profits, Sean Chen and his father view the venture almost as a social experiment — its aim, he said through an interpreter, is to marry the best Chinese and American work practices.
"I want to have the efficiency and execution normally shown by the American employees and the brotherhood that a Chinese company normally shows," Sean Chen says. "There are capitalists and there are socialists, and I want to see whether they can get along."
Few Chinese companies have been in the United States longer than the American subsidiary of the auto parts giant Wanxiang Group, which incorporated in 1993. The founder of the home company is one of China's richest men. His son-in-law, Pin Ni, led the Chicago-area subsidiary from cheap parts supplier up the value chain by buying or working with distressed companies — owing to competition from China.
Wanxiang America Inc. has been welcomed for saving manufacturing jobs. Illinois has proclaimed a Wanxiang Day and Michigan offered the company subsidies.
Pin talks exactly like what he is — an executive who's part of a multinational. It's all about core competence and optimizing strength and horizontal integration. He casts himself as a matchmaker who spots what disparate firms do best to create as efficient a manufacturing process as possible.
"Even today you want to say, are there enough Chinese companies in the United States?" Pin asks. "I would say no."