Having just spent the better part of last week in China, I find the prospect of summing up my experience is daunting. The country is home to more than 1 billion people, which sounds like a big number, but its sheer size doesn’t hit home until you actually experience a city like Shanghai, with something on the order of 20 million people crammed into it. Then there’s Beijing, which feels a little more crowded with its 22 million residents.
Now that I’ve gotten closer to a few of those million, my opinion of China has done a 180 in less than one week. This is a part of the world that I had no interest in visiting a few short years ago for reasons unrelated to wireless. Yes, it’s a vast opportunity for mobile phones. It’s where many handsets are built. It’s where many infrastructure vendors have found opportunities to build 3G networks.
But I passed customs with a pretty naïve view of the land. Initially, I was frustrated, cut off by the Chinese government’s firewall with no access to Twitter and Facebook – further validating my impression of the nation. But as I talked with people, it became clear that not accessing these things didn’t completely cut them off from the rest of the world. Rather, they found other avenues to learn about what’s happening, whether through blogs or Internet forums. The locals didn’t seem too hung up on the lack of Twitter access.
It just so happened that the week I was there, everything seemed to reinforce the “It’s All About China” theme. The same week we arrived in Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had been there, talking with the Chinese about currency reform, among other things. The U.S. envoy then went on to visit South Korea, another hot-button place that is trying to get China to come around to its way of thinking about North Korea.
Of course, it was also a week dominated by headlines about Foxconn and the string of suicides at the company that makes gadgets for Apple, Motorola, Nokia, Sony Ericsson and others. On May 25, another Foxconn employee committed suicide at its Shenzhen plant, bumping up the number to nine suicides and 11 attempts over about five months. (For the record, our Chinese hosts from ZTE Corp. said ZTE, which is also based in Shenzhen, doesn’t work with Foxconn and they had no insider knowledge of the troubles there.) China Daily reported that a team of netizens was working undercover to find out what’s going on; problems apparently revolve around tight security and workers not being given the chance to communicate like normal teens and young adults.
Interestingly, while all this was going on, many in China still would like to get their hands on Apple’s iPad, which has not yet officially launched in China. While operators in China have expressed interest in selling the device, there’s no clear timetable for when that will happen, and in the interim, many wannabes are launching tablets and taking advantage of China’s relatively new 3G connectivity.
Opportunities are vast for U.S.-based companies doing business in China. One out of every five people in the world live in China, home to 20 percent of the world’s population. India may surpass that in coming years, but suffice it to say, China is where you want to be if you’re building handsets. ZTE knows that, but it also wants to expand further, with designs to become one of the top global handset suppliers in coming years.
Will it succeed? It seems to be an overly ambitious goal in trying to usurp current leaders that include well-known brands like Apple, BlackBerry, Nokia, Samsung and more. But if I’ve learned anything in the past few days, it’s don’t underestimate the Chinese. For now, we Americans can thank Apple for being the great innovator. While we’re at it, we can thank Google, too. We spend a lot of time cheering for one U.S. team or another, but at least for now, we can appreciate that both are leading the way with their U.S.-born innovations. The operative words being: “for now.”