Friday, March 16, 2012

Hey China! Stop Stealing Our Stuff

The cover article in latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has the above subject as the title. A provocative piece that is likely to be cited in months ahead by congressional spokes persons and law enforcement officers whenever China is in the cross hairs of public discussion about China's bilateral relations with the U.S.

One of the Sino American business relationships described in the article that went off the tracks involved Sinovel, a Chinese maker of wind turbines for wind farms and AMSC, an American maker of electronic systems that control the operation of the turbine. Ostensibly this was a match made in heaven; the Chinese with low labor cost to put the hardware together and the MIT spinoff to supply the sophisticated electronics.

Indeed, Daniel McGahn, the CEO of the American side said, "We always saw it as a symbiotic relationship of having China's low manufacturing cost coupled with Western technology. We would grow as they grew." It didn't hurt that Sinovel was a market leader and dominant supplier in China.

Unfortunately, as was the case with cellular phone, energy saving light bulbs, solar panels, wind turbines or other fashionable products of the day, whenever one company makes a high profile entry, others follow suit and soon China is overloaded with too many manufacturers with too much output and everyone having to resort to price cutting in order to stay in business.

In 2008, the electronics from AMSC accounted for 12% of Sinovel's cost of the turbine system. Three years later, the AMSC package made up 18%. "Everybody was getting squeezed except AMSC," according to an American consultant quoted by Business Week.

In my view, McGahn missed an opportunity to proactively re-balance the AMSC partnership with Sinovel that could have forestalled the ugliness that ensued.

Instead of assuming that his company would continue to enjoy the margin of 2008, he could have empathized with his partner's plight and share some of the pain of eroding margin. Perhaps he could have seized on the opportunity to restructure the business relationship in such a way that Sinovel would own equity in AMSC and vice versa. Perhaps he could have proposed a joint venture to develop export sales of complete turbine systems with hardware from Sinovel and control system from AMSC and thus expand the pie for both parties.

Just the information presented in Business Week is not sufficient to come up with a definitive solution that could have headed off the Chinese side from trying to steal the technology, but the principle is obvious. Namely as with any partnership, one needs to constantly think of ways for both parties to win and make sure that the cost of doing business together is more appealing than going separately.

One particular aspect of doing business in China that is especially difficult for western executives to understand is that the best way of not getting screwed is to develop real friendship with their business counterparts. Chinese value face and yiqi(义气). The dictionary defines yiqi simply as personal loyalty but it's much more. To behave without yiqi is to dishonor oneself and suffer a great loss of face and self respect.

As AMSC's case showed, keeping the crown jewels, in this case the source code, outside of China did not prevent theft and the attempt to go it alone. If the parties had found a way to remain in the same bed and share the same dream, they might still be living happily ever after.


Anonymous said...

So it's the victim's fault? It's like blaming a rape victim for wearing provocative clothing--a crime is a crime is a crime.

George said...

To use the example above, once the harm is done, what good is it to simply confirm that a crime was committed and the victim was raped? The point of my commentary was not to justify what Sinovel did but to point out how it could have been averted, i.e., isn't it better not to get raped in the first place?

Anonymous said...

George..but that's stating the obvious, isn't it?