Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Shanghai Auto Show as Research Venue

How useful was the Shanghai Auto Show as a venue for conducting research into business-government relations? In summary, not very.

Perhaps this was because my expectations were unrealistic, or perhaps it was because I’m still very new to this mode of research. Maybe a more experienced interviewer would have been able to squeeze more from the occasion.

Having attended other kinds of trade shows before, my expectation was that I would find all of the auto manufacturers in a giant room, each with a lot of personnel on hand to discuss their cars and their companies. I also expected that, due to the 100 RMB ticket price, the venue would not have been as crowded as it was. The picture below is of one of the ten major exhibition halls, each of them equally jam-packed.



Furthermore, I assumed that the setup would be designed to facilitate the conversations I was expecting to have with both Chinese and expat managers from the various auto companies. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the manufacturers’ venues were designed primarily with entertainment in mind and were so loud that any attempted conversations had to be shouted directly into someone’s ear.

Though I suppose it didn’t really matter because of the noise level, there were no expats to be found either. I had been hoping to meet some of the expats with the joint ventures who would presumably be more open to discussing the political hypotheses that have been driving my work, and who would presumably also be able to give me a personal introduction to some of their Chinese counterparts. Instead, this was a very Chinese affair, and the only foreigners in sight were attendees like me.

Despite the difficulty, I managed in two days to have five conversations in the manufacturers’ venues, three in English and two in Chinese. Oddly enough, after all my years of studying Chinese, I found the English conversations to go better. I think this was because people approached me first, speaking English. No one assumed I could speak Chinese, so I had to initiate those conversations myself. Sometimes I get the feeling many Chinese don’t actually want us to learn their language; they just want us to try.

In terms of substance, I did not gain a lot, but I was able to receive confirmation of some of my ideas, particularly on the extent of local government support for private (i.e. non-state-owned) auto companies. One person had no problem volunteering (again, in English) that his private manufacturing company would not exist if not for support given by his provincial government in terms of free land and water, tax breaks, and preferential loans.

However, when I questioned another English speaker on these same ideas, she was adamant that local governments had no influence over banks who are now overly concerned about risk. I am not sure whether she believed this to be true, or whether she was trying to avoid saying anything specific about her company’s relationship with the local government. If indeed this is the case in her region, therein lies a puzzle of why one provincial government can influence local banks and the other cannot.

My Chinese conversations were with a couple of guys at the Chery exhibit. I took advantage of a break in the noise to engage them about their electric vehicle development. Both of them seemed a little hesitant to speak with me after at first expressing surprise that I could speak Chinese. I’m not sure why that is. Don’t most foreigners here speak Chinese?

Anyway, I was able to glean from them that Chery was doing all of its electric vehicle development in-house and not licensing technology from anyone else. They are sourcing parts from all over, even outside China, but their hybrid and pure electric designs are their own. Also, many of their engineers are “hai gui” returnees from overseas. One of the lead engineers on their hybrid project had come from Ford. They already have a pure electric vehicle on the market but they were “bu qingchu” as to how many have been sold.

When I broached the subject of industry consolidation, they were quick to point out that Chery is one of the “四小”or “four small” manufacturers that have been designated by the government for regional expansion. When I pointed out that Jianghuai seemed to be the only other passenger car manufacturer in their region, they weren’t willing to discuss whether there would be a combination between Chery and Jianghuai.

On my second day, I decided to spend most of my time in the parts supplier exhibits. Here I enjoyed an entirely different reception. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the parts supplier exhibits were smaller, quieter and designed to facilitate business. I had maybe a dozen or so conversations with parts suppliers, all in Chinese, and even when I admitted up front that I was not a buyer, they all seemed happy to chat with me. Perhaps this is because many of the parts suppliers have fallen on such hard times recently that they liked to have even an appearance of interest in their products by a foreigner.

While these conversations were useful for practicing my spiel in Chinese, I didn’t gather a lot of substance. I did note that all of the parts suppliers I talked to were private businesses, and that there is a huge concentration of them in Zhejiang Province, particularly in Wenzhou, Taizhou, Ruian and Ningbo. Most of them offered me their business cards and asked me to contact them if I visit their cities during the course of my research.

When I decided to bail out of the Auto Show at the end of the second day, my back hurt from all the standing and I was a little depressed that things hadn’t turned out as I had planned. However, during the long subway ride back to the other side of Shanghai, I began to put it all into perspective. I am at the very beginning of what could be a very long period of research in China, and the odds of my finding the story during my first week were extremely low from the start.

Still, if a little good luck will get me home sooner, I’ll take it.