I don't want to downplay the challenges in China's economic slowdown. But spending a week at Chinaplas in Shanghai gave me the feeling that, for the plastics industry, the picture's a lot more complex.
For starters, China's no longer simply the world's workshop, taking orders from companies like Apple and making products to their specifications.
It's moving up the manufacturing chain. Case in point: In January, Chinese appliance maker Haier Group bought GE Appliances, taking over a household name with nine U.S. manufacturing plants and 12,000 employees.
I interviewed the creative director of Haier Group's innovation center at Chinaplas. He talked about how Haier's working hard to build a global innovation network to tap into new ideas and technologies. It's investing in startups in the U.S. and Israel. In short, it's thinking like any large multinational manufacturing company.
January also saw a deal that's been more widely talked about in plastics: ChemChina's acquisition of German plastics machinery giant KraussMaffei Group.
China's been the world's biggest market for plastics machinery since 2005 but this is the first time it also owns some of the best technology. So from that viewpoint, China's stepping up and is no longer interested in being the least profitable link in the manufacturing supply chain.
That's one perspective. The other, equally valid, perspective is that China continues to be a challenge that too often wants to write its own rules.
It remains a Wild West (or Unruly East) of intellectual property, particularly for smaller companies. I talked with U.S. mold equipment supplier Progressive Components Inc. at the show as it filed a complaint against a local Chinese exhibitor selling counterfeit products.
Progressive President Glenn Starkey estimates that 80 percent of products with his company's name on them in China are fakes.
For companies like Starkey's, China has not made enough progress on intellectual property.
That's a concern echoed last year by the president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, BASF executive Jörg Wuttke, when he said he was “very concerned that reform momentum has been lost.”
But China remains a big market. That seems enough for most global companies.
Last year, the German plastics and rubber machinery industry sent about same amount of machinery ($700 million to $800 million worth) to both the United States and China. Germany is the world's biggest exporter of plastics machinery, and the U.S. and China are its two biggest export markets.
China's domestic plastics machinery market is reportedly about $8 billion a year. By comparison, the U.S. is estimated by industry experts to be in the neighborhood of $3 billion.
A market of China's size is naturally going to create some very globally competitive firms. They'll cut their teeth domestically and then venture out.
This brings me back to my first point: that it was evident at Chinaplas that the market for plastics in China remains vibrant.
Demand for plastics in China grew 10 percent last year, or about 1.5 times GDP, according to the global consulting group IHS Inc.
To me, that puts a different take on the reshoring debate going on in the United States. Some manufacturing may “reshore,” leaving China or other low-cost countries. But no matter how much reshoring actually happens, China remains a force in the plastics industry.
At one time, the Louisville, Ky., headquarters plant of GE Appliances was mentioned in many media reports as an example of reshoring, as it added thousands of jobs. Now, it's going to be owned by a Chinese multinational.
There's nothing wrong with that. It's still a good example of reshoring. It's one of the largest U.S. injection molding plants. Presumably, Haier Group will continue those investments.
I just think that having the old GE name now part of Haier may not be precisely what reshoring advocates have in mind when they talk about a U.S. manufacturing resurgence.
It shows that global manufacturing is complex, hard to put into headlines, which is exactly the feeling I had walking the halls at Chinaplas.
Toloken is Plastics News' news editor-international, Follow him on Twitter @Steve_Toloken.