(Aug. 16, 2003) — Anyone who questions the wisdom of venturing abroad on an industry trade mission designed to educate its participants about a far-off, foreign market should have sat in on the gathering that I did recently in Shanghai, China.
Plastics News Publisher Tony Eagan and I last month completed our first trip to the Chinese mainland, and while there, caught up briefly with a U.S. plastics delegation for the final day of its June 21-July 1 trade mission. The 22-person mission was organized by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the Commerce Department. It was fairly pricey, time-consuming and tiring — and, by all participants' accounts, worth the investment.
The question of whether China represents a threat or an opportunity has been asked so often that it is a cliche. The obvious answer is “both,” with the only real question being the relative balance between those poles. This mission appeared to move the needle firmly into the “opportunity” zone for most participants — many of whom began the trip wary, skeptical and mostly curious to see “the enemy” eye to eye. More than a few went home believing instead that they may have met some future business partners, or at least got a clearer, less-biased perspective on what they are up against and what it would take to start reaping some of China's potential riches for themselves.
In a June 30 debriefing at their headquarters hotel in Shanghai, mission members shared their thoughts on the previous week and a half. One injection molding company president said the scale of business expansion he saw on the mainland “just blew me away — it redefines everything.” Others marveled at the Chinese work ethic, the quality of some of the factories and offices, the growing use of advanced molding techniques and the status of plastics manufacturing in China as a “basic industry.”
To be sure, many troublesome issues remain in China. Theft of intellectual property is a legitimate, significant concern, and some local shops are unsafe and employ questionable labor and environmental practices. The former issue calls for Western firms to be well-informed and plot their strategies accordingly; the latter calls for them to help end such practices by raising the bar. They should offer world-class conditions in their own China plants, as many already do, and reject local firms that don't meet their standards.
The business-friendly Chinese government's currency policies and its support of local manufacturers tilts the playing field in their favor. But many of those benefits also are available to Western firms willing to invest in China to shore up their own global competitiveness or to serve their customers better.
The primary value of such a trade mission, or going on your own fact-finding trip, is to see things for yourself, so you don't have to rely completely on information and opinions filtered by others. There are many state and federal government resources available to assist companies that wish to do so. If you embark on such a trip with an open mind, you might surprise yourself and discover opportunities to serve a buoyant market a long way from home.