China—Pricier, But Still OK
Image Credit: Dan Nevill

China—Pricier, But Still OK


It was an interesting first six months of the year for the Chinese economy. The effects of the stimulus plan for 2008-09 contributed to easy credit, rising inflation and skyrocketing real estate prices—effects that the government was forced to try to rein in this year.

Since May, major Chinese cities Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen have announced that they planned to increase the full- and part-time minimum wage from 10 to 20 percent. Meanwhile, the government allowed the renminbi to appreciate gradually in June after months of speculation and overseas pressure.

The consequences for foreign manufacturers based in China are perhaps no more keenly felt than they are in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province and where most of China’s factories and migrant workers can still be found.

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Guangzhou, with its humid climate and seemingly constant gray skies, is rich and urban and attracts foreigners and migrants from all over China looking for their big break. Yet companies in this manufacturing hub have been struggling as the global financial crisis saw lower demand, while rising wages and labour shortages inevitably escalated production costs.

‘They’re obviously going to have to become more competitive,’ John Evans, managing director of Asia foreign direct investment advisory firm Tractus says on how manufacturers can cope with rising costs. ‘China has been a base where you could operate without being that efficient. While some companies are very efficient, the vast majority of Chinese companies aren’t.’

Evans says that the rising costs could ultimately prompt increased competition from other low cost manufacturing areas. ‘We’re already seeing that, not only for attracting investment but just competing with goods.’

Analysts predict that rising costs will inevitably push low-end manufacturing to evolve, something that in the long-run is in line with government goals of weeding out the weaker players and shifting the country more into high-value manufacturing.

According to Stanley Lau, deputy chairman of Federation of Hong Kong Industries and chairman of its Pearl River Delta Council, companies should be responding by offering higher salaries and better welfare conditions to retain workers. Speaking in March he said considering the pace of the country’s economic growth, labour shortages and wage increases are natural, and he advised Hong Kong businessmen to work to upgrade their businesses.

For some companies, though, labour costs aren’t the overriding concern.

According to Fred Yang, president of China operations at major US-based electrical and mechanical motion control components manufacturer Regal Beloit, in his firm’s sector labour costs are ‘only three to five percent’ of total costs. He says that for his firm, the biggest cost is a result of the currency exchange rate and he notes that the renminbi’s appreciation has had a noticeable effect on overall costs for Regal Beloit.

For some firms hit by escalating costs, moving to less developed parts of China is becoming an attractive option. Foxconn, a major electronics manufacturer and maker of Apple’s iPhone, told state media that it’s considering transferring operations to Tianjin in northern China where the minimum wage is currently about $135 compared with $295 in Shenzhen.

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