China’s Tech Revolution

How technology is driving the country’s economic boom, and what that means for the world

15 min read
Photo of two kindergartners playing with a cellphone.
China Calling: These two kindergartners know that cellphones are for playing games. But cellphones are also big business in China, which has the most users in the world—300 million and counting.
Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA/Landov

It’s a sunny Sunday in Chengdu, a sprawling city of 10.4 millionin China’s southwestern hinterland, and that can meanonly one thing: shopping. The gleaming new indoor malls that line every downtown boulevard teem with young and old, laughing, talking, walking arm in arm, checking out the latest from Tommy Hilfiger, Disney, and Esprit. Along Tai Sheng East Road, the scene really heats up. Once a sleepy street lined with hardware and electrical-supply shops, it’s now the city’s bustling cell phone district. In store after store, block after block, thousands of cellphone models from more than a hundred domestic and foreign brands beckon from store windows. Amid the crowds, the cacophony of ring tones, and the sales clerks hawking new calling plans, it’s tough to move or think. No wonder the largest cellphone maker in the world, Finland’s Nokia Corp., in Espoo, recently disclosed that China will soon overtake the United States as its top market.

Just behind the bright storefronts, in the network of backalleys, a market for secondhand cellphones has sprungup [see photos, "Conspicuous Consumption”]. If the commerce seems aggressive out on the street, here it’s downright raw. Like farmers on market day, hundreds of vendors flock here from the outskirts of Chengdu to sit cheek by jowl, their battered wares arrayed on narrow card tables. In nearby stalls, eagle-eyed technicians hunch over jeweler’s benches making precision repairs; they’ll earn less in a month than what you’d pay for a new handset half a block away.

Chengdu’s cellphone district is a microcosm of the new China, with its ravenous consumerism and its unflinching entrepreneurialism. Here and all over China, the newly wealthy and middle class can now tap into every kind of technological wonder. Those still stuck on the economic bottom rungs, though, are scrambling to catch up, without the safety net that the communist regime once provided.

The place also speaks to China’s growing technological prowess: its 300 million cellphone subscribers—the most in the world—its two national wireless carriers, and the hundreds of domestic and foreign service providers and manufacturers that now vie for a share of its burgeoning telecom market [see photo, "China Calling"]. And it illustrates, more generally, how China’s emergence as an industrial powerhouse is driven by, and is driving, its interactions with the world. In ways scarcely imaginable 25 years ago, when Deng Xiaoping first opened the economy to market forces, China’s fortunes are the world’s. And what happens now, even in remote Chengdu, matters—not just for the Chinese but for everyone.

In planning this special report, the editors of IEEE Spectrum were most intrigued by this last phenomenon. How is China’s tech revolution unfolding? Who are the key actors, and why are they there? Is everyone a winner, or is this in some ways a zero-sum game? What are the sources of friction—within China, as well as between China and its trading partners—that could slow down or even halt this juggernaut?

This special report is not intended as an exhaustive survey of China, nor a primer on doing business there. No doubt there are lessons to be learned here, but our aim is to tell a handful of stories that illustrate the complex web of connections being formed, shaped, and exploited by China’s awesome rise.

“China has stood up!” With those words, Mao Zedong, speaking from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace to ajubilant throng gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square,conjured a nation into being on 1 October 1949. Mao,obsessed with self-reliance and selfless egalitarianism,could hardly have envisioned what China would looklike now.

Today, the country’s heft is felt worldwide in nearly every sector and along the entire chain of economic activity. China’s ferocious appetite for the energy and raw materials needed to fuel its prodigious growth is the driving force of commodity markets on every continent. For several years running, China has been the world’s biggest consumer of coal, grain, meat, iron ore, steel, and concrete. Once a net exporter of oil, last year it imported half of what it consumed and 40 percent more than in the previous year. If the global markets for coffee and cocoa remain depressed, it’s probably because the Chinese don’t have much of a taste for either.

At the other end of the manufacturing spectrum, China has emerged as a major producer—often the major producer—of consumer goods, ranging from clothes and toys to televisions and personal computers. Its ability to manufacture quickly and cheaply has,in a brief span, conquered or disrupted national markets all over the globe. Case in point: China’s share of the U.S. textile market stoodat 70 percent at the end of 2004, and textile imports from China jumped by 40 percent after the remaining U.S. tariffs were removed in January. The competition, in the United States, the European Union, and elsewhere,is left with a stark choice: match the China price or perish.

Still, China buys almost as much as it sells. True, a large percentage of those imports are materials and components that it uses to assemble goods it then exports. But China’s foreign spending spree in 2004 topped US $500 billion.

The allure of the Chinese market—a chimera until very recently—has attracted nearly every multinational on the planet. From fast food (KFC, McDonald’s) and pharmaceuticals (Pfizer, Merck) to retailers (Carrefour, Wal-Mart) and automobiles (General Motors, Volkswagen), China is simply the world’s hottest market, thanks to the newly awakened Chinese consumer. Little wonder, then, that foreign direct investment hit a record $66.5 billion last year, second only to the United States’ $121 billion. Even venture capitalists are flocking to China looking for the next, the leading Chinese employment Web site, which returned $260 million in four years on Menlo, Calif.-based Doll Capital Management’s $14 million investment.

Cash-rich Chinese companies are also moving funds in the other direction. When a relatively unknown Chinese TV maker called TCL, based in Guangdong province’s Huizhou, bought the TV division of France’s Thomson SA, in Boulogne, last year, it instantly became the largest TV maker in the world [see “Digital TV’s 100-Meter Dash” in this issue]. And when Chinese computer maker Lenovo Group Ltd., in Beijing, picked up IBM Corp.’s PC division for an estimated $1.75 billion, the symbolism was thick enough to cut with a cleaver: China had taken possession of the brand that was once synonymous with computers. “Will your next boss be Chinese?” the normally reserved conservative daily Le Figaro asked its French readers with a mixture of alarm and awe.

Fifteen years ago, CEOs and analysts carefully weighed the risks of doing business in China. Today, attracted by the siren call of opportunity and driven by the fear of being left behind, they are far more likely to be weighing the risks of not doing business there. “Any company that is not involved in China or doesn’t have well-developed plans in that direction is totally asleep,” Donald Straszheim, an institutional investment consultant in Los Angeles and former chief economist for Merrill Lynch and Co., recently told Spectrum. “If you own shares in that company, sell them.”

Here in Chengdu, in China’s Wild West, hundreds of high-octane multinational companies, including Alcatel, Corning, Ericsson, and Microsoft, have established branches. An hour and a half’s drive from the city, Phoenix-based ON Semiconductor Corp., which spun off from Motorola Inc. in 1999, operates a joint-venture IC assembly-and-test plant with 2000 workers. It is now building a semiconductor facility next door; the 150-millimeter wafer fab will be the first in western China. Negotiations are also under way with IBM for what would be its largest software outsourcing center anywhere. In 2004 alone, Chengdu attracted $7 billion in foreign capital investments, making it the fastest-growing high-tech center in western China. Domestic powerhouses have also come, including China’s leading foundry, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), based in Shanghai.

In some ways, the dizzying influx makes no sense. If you look on a map, Chengdu isn’t on the way to or from anywhere. It sits in the middle of the southwestern province of Sichuan, on a wide, flat plain 1500 kilometers southwest of Beijing and 1600 km northwest of Shanghai [see “China at a Glance” in this issue]. Although Chengdu dates back more than 2400 years and at one point was renowned for its lively trade and intellectual life, for most of the last two millennia it was little more than a sleepy backwater. After the communists came to power in 1949, Mao chose Chengdu as the base for their most sensitive military work, specifically because it was so cut off from the world.

Six years ago, though, Beijing realized that industrialization was bypassing China’s inner provinces, so it launched the Great Western Development Strategy. It began funneling billions of dollars into the hinterlands, to extend new highways, rail lines, and telecom links and build new international airports, industrial zones, and power plants. Chengdu was reborn.

These days, Chengdu is at the frontier of China’s economic boom. Although the coastal provinces and municipalities—from Beijing and Tianjin in the north to Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen in the south—still generate 90 percent of Chinese exports and attract an even greater proportion of foreign investment, there’s still plenty left over for Chengdu. Picture the industrialized east as the arc of a drawn bow and the Yangtze River as the arrow, suggests Li Gang, director of foreign investment for Chengdu’s high-tech development zone. “We are the nock in the arrow,” he says. Its other end, the tip, points toward the world.

Last year the city landed its biggest fish yet, when Intel Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif., after two years of negotiations, announced it would build a $375 million factory for assembling and testing its chips. Intel currently employs about 4000 people in China and has a similar assembly-and-test plant in Shanghai and a research-and-development center in Beijing. [To learn about another Intel project in China, see "The Panda Connection" in this issue.]

So why Chengdu? City promoters tout its cheap and stable labor, free land, and generous tax breaks. But it’s not alone. The growth rate in some of the more remote cities exceeds 40 percent, notes Ian Yang, Intel’s country manager for Intel China Ltd. But companies that want to succeed in China also feel pressure from Beijing to move west. “It’s a combination of where the government is heading, with its ‘Go West’ policies, and where the market is growing,” Yang concludes.

Where Chengdu separates itself from other would-be tech havens is in its combination of manufacturing capability and its bargain-priced engineering talent. The city’s 29 universities turn out about 40 000 graduates each year, adding to the half-million professionals who now call the city home. An engineer with a bachelor’s degree, for example, earns anywhere from $130 to $400 per month in Chengdu—20 to 30 percent less than on China’s east coast. “We have an almost endless supply of capable and skilled people,” says Wang Lin, deputy director of the city’s 82-square-kilometer high-tech park and a member of the all-powerful Communist Party committee that oversees its development.

The brainpower of Chengdu’s engineers is on display at the Alcatel Optical Communications R and D Center. There, 180 design engineers work on software, hardware, and systems integration for the company’s optical-fiber products. It is one of five Alcatel centers devoted to optical communications; the others are in France, Italy, Germany, and the United States. The average age of the company’s Chengdu engineers is 29, says Wang Xianming, the center’s R and D director. Although most have never set foot outside their hometown, they still need to be able to work effectively with colleagues and customers halfway around the globe. Wang himself interacts daily with his counterparts at the other Alcatel labs.

Alcatel’s Chengdu operation is, in other words, global. Some Chinese fret that their country’s rise has been a “headless boom”—that too often, foreign investors leave their best technology and ideas at home. Many of the R and D centers that have been set up by foreign companies recently are directed toward “localizing” existing products for the Chinese market, rather than developing products for international consumption.

That’s not the case at Alcatel. Wang notes with pride that his big priority this year is fulfilling a $1.7 billion contract with SBC Communications Corp., in San Antonio, to extend its new fiber-optics network to 18 million U.S. households.

Twenty-five years ago, most people would have been astounded to hear that a U.S. telecom network was being developed by a group of researchers in a remote interior city of China. These days, it’s fast becoming the norm.

In 2004, three years after its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), in Geneva, and a quarter-century after China began welcoming foreign investment, China’s trade volume hit $1.2 trillion, displacing Japan as the world’s third largest trading nation, behind theUnited States and Germany. This milestone is all the more staggering in light of the fact that China’s two-way trade, barely $20 billion in 1978, has increased 60-fold since then. For the first time in history, what China does, or does not do, ripples with consequence across the planet.

But this dramatic transformation is putting huge strains on China. It’s easy enough to see on a quick tour through Chengdu. The city’s environmental quality and headache-inducing traffic congestion, for starters, leave much to be desired [see “China’s Cyclists Take Charge” and “A Market for Clean Air” in this issue]. Fifteen percent of city sewage goes untreated—practically pristine by national standards, but still too high to make the tap water drinkable. More critical are the power shortages. Rolling blackouts throughout the year leave some neighborhoods (although never the wealthiest ones) without power for up to five days per week.

Another source of tension is land. Here as elsewhere, real estate developers are gobbling up whole neighborhoods to make way for office high-rises, malls, and apartment complexes, bringing a mostly modern sheen to the city. In the vast high-tech development zone, amid the hundreds of corporate complexes stand crumbling stone farmhouses. Although Chengdu’s official boosters insist that “nobody lives here now,” clearly some still do.

Just southwest of Chengdu, zealous land grabs have turned explosive. In November, tens of thousands of farmers in Hanyuan County seized the local government headquarters and held the Communist Party chief hostage for several days. Their beef: the government had unfairly claimed their land for a dam project, and to add insult to injury, officials had pocketed most of the money earmarked to compensate them.

The Chinese are still not allowed to own the land they live on, making it easy for an unscrupulous official to expropriate a farmer’s fields or a town dweller’s house to make way for a new factory or golf course. It took 10 000 paramilitary troops to quell the Hanyuan disturbance, and one policeman was killed and several protesters injured in the process, according to news accounts that appeared in Hong Kong and the United States.

Most such incidents go unreported in China, where the government still maintains tight control of the news media. But there are tens of thousands of spontaneous uprisings every year against corrupt officials and abusive police, according to official statistics. The number of incidents has increased steadily during the last several years, as have individual petitions to the central government seeking redress against local officials who collect illegal fees, steal compensation funds, or persecute personal enemies.

Far from having a monolithic and highly centralized government, China is in fact quite decentralized, and local and provincial leaders have enormous leeway. When the system works, it works quite well. Chengdu’s mayor and party chief, Li Chuncheng, is seen as one of the driving forces behind the city’s high-tech successes and has been anointed in the official Chinese media as “one of the 10 rising stars in Chinese politics.” An electromechanical engineer by training, he is reputed to be close to China’s president, Hu Jintao.

But when the system breaks down, it can do so spectacularly. In late January, the media reported that officials in Gansu province, one of China’s poorest, had embezzled nearly $1 billion set aside for infrastructure and compensation for evicted homeowners.

Social unrest is not confined to the rural interior. In some heavily industrialized cities, including Shenzhen, worker unrest is palpable. Workers in China are barred from organizing, and those who do risk being fired, beaten, or imprisoned. Even so, labor protests are proliferating, triggered by unpaid wages and pensions, sudden and massive job terminations, and an end to most of the socialist benefits that had been guaranteed since the earliest days of the Communist regime in the 1950s. Indeed, many Chinese ruefully note that the United States, with its unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicare, is now more socialist than China.

Are labor unrest and land disputes enough to retard or even unhinge China’s spectacular growth? If not,then what could? China’s economic locomotive has been barreling along at full throttle for so long—it has averaged a 9.5 percent annual growth rate for more than two decades—that you could lose sight of how devastating a derailment would be, not just for China but for the global economy.

Simply maintaining an optimal growth rate has been a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, anything less than a breakneck pace—the government’s red line is 7 percent—would lead to unmanageable unemployment and, most likely, social unrest. As it is, severe underemployment in the countryside has driven at least 140 million rural dwellers to the cities and other parts of the country in search of jobs. At the same time, tens of millions of urban workers have been laid off from state-run factories, according to Huang Ping, a researcher in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing, who tracks worker migration. The hard truth of China today is that this marvel of economic efficiency is born of brutal competition, with too many people chasing too few good jobs [see “Management American Style” in this issue].

On the other hand, an overheated economy could easily spin out of control, leading to inflation, recession, or both. China’s last phase of inflation, in 1988, sparked a wave of popular discontent and led to a showdown among the country’s top leaders over economic policy. The power vacuum that ensued set the stage for the dramatic and tragic events in Tiananmen Square the next year.

Another Achilles’ heel is China’s excessive reliance on trade, which leaves the country vulnerable to economic downturns and protectionist measures in key trading partners, especially the United States. An ever-increasing share of output destined for export “cannot be sustainable and should be reversed,” Liang Hong, chief China economist in the Hong Kong office of investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc., noted in an interview. “It is not efficient, and it is not healthy for the economy.”

China’s embrace of market mechanisms and growth through exports began only haltingly in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping emerged from political disgrace to guide the country out of the decade-long cataclysm of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s woefully misguided attempt to rekindle China’s revolutionary spirit. Under Deng, the first five-year phase of reform focused on the redistribution of land rights to individual households in the countryside and the gradual removal of agricultural production quotas, measures that rapidly improved the lot of China’s overwhelmingly rural population.

Urban reforms began in 1985, along with a progressively liberalized trade regime and an open-door policy toward foreign investment. Change was breathtakingly rapid, but turbulent: an old vanguard of communists more than once succeeded in throwing roadblocks across the path of Deng’s reforms, notably in 1987 and again after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Several times Deng mustered the full force of his authority and prestige to overcome his market-averse comrades and keep his policies on track.

Throughout much of the 1980s and early 1990s, foreign investors fretted that China’s leaders would roll back economic reforms or that political infighting would give rise to a conservative backlash. But nothing of the kind has happened for more than a decade.

True, the Communist Party still calls all the shots worth calling, whether through edicts of the central government or decisions made by party leaders at the regional or local level. But it is hard to imagine under what circumstances China’s increasingly technocratic leadership would attempt to turn back the economic clock. Indeed, for the first time in the history of communist China, none of the nine members of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo is a career ideologue or a soldier, historically the two bastions of conservative communism. All, in fact, are engineers by training. It is probably safe to say that the era of personality cults—at least communist ones—has passed.

But the willingness to allow China’s market-oriented reforms to continue more or less unhindered does not translate into a willingness to let China evolve toward a politically open society. The jailing of dissidents, the conviction of journalists on trumped-up charges of “revealing state secrets,” the incessant monitoring and blocking of Web sites that stray from the official line—these acts simply confirm the government’s oft-stated determination to maintain a tight grip on the reins of political power [see “The Net Effect” in this issue].

In neighboring South Korea and Taiwan, the dictatorships that held sway for decades eventually allowed free and open elections, as rising middle classes laid claim to their own political futures. But to the extent that the burgeoning Chinese middle class yearns for democratic expression, it finds no institutional outlet.

Given China’s weight in world markets, it would seem to be in every nation’s long-term interest to ease it along the road to becoming a more open and liberal society and a more self-sufficient, less export-dependent economy. But there remain serious areas of dispute between China and its main trading partners, problems that in recent months have turned what should be increasingly cooperative relations confrontational.

The biggest of all is intellectual property. By any measure, China is the runaway leader when it comes to counterfeiting and piracy, accounting for nearly two-thirds of such goods worldwide. “They can copy anything,” says Michael Pecht, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and an expert on the Chinese electronics industry. From pirated software to counterfeit game consoles and faked pharmaceuticals, the thefts are bold and sophisticated. In a particularly brazen incident, an entire KFC restaurant was copied, right down to the smiling Colonel Sanders [see “Steal This Software” in this issue].

Although the Chinese government has made some progress in combating the problem, the United States Council for International Business, a lobbying group in New York City that favored China’s entry into the WTO, recently found that “piracy and counterfeiting at the wholesale and retail level, and over the Internet, remain rampant.” The council cited “inadequate penalties; uncoordinated enforcement among local, provincial, and national authorities; and the lack of transparency in China’s administrative and criminal enforcement system.” Countries that have embraced the Chinese economy, whether as a manufacturing base, a source of cheap imports, or a big new market, are turning wary. A number of U.S. politicians claim an undervalued yuan, currently pegged to the dollar, gives Chinese goods an unfair edge. Chinese leaders counter that revaluing the yuan would unduly harm their economy, and thus the world’s.

In Europe, which in 2004 became China’s biggest trading partner, sharp debate centers on whether China poses an economic threat or a blessing. “To say that some will win and others will lose is a euphemism,” Daniel Cohen, a professor of economics at the University of Paris, commented recently in Le Monde. “Taking into account China’s size, it would be better to say: some will be utterly ruined, and others will become fabulously rich.”

Labor unions in Europe, alarmed at the flow of factory jobs from the continent, worry that their constituents will be the losers. Meanwhile, European leaders are doing their utmost to curry favor with their counterparts in Beijing, even going so far as to try to lift an embargo on military sales to China.

China’s claims on Taiwan also need to be resolved, especially given the increasingly strong business ties between the two [see “Silicon Gold Rush” in this issue]. Although the United States and a few of its allies, most notably Japan, have stood by Taiwan’s right to determine its own future, China recently enacted a law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan should it move toward independence.

Meanwhile, the United States, with an eye toward China as well as North Korea, has encouraged Japan to rearm; given the perpetually cool diplomatic ties between Japan and China, leaders in Beijing view the move as a direct provocation. Nor is the Chinese government pleased about Japan’s claim to a string of East China Sea islands that holds natural gas reserves.

The Chinese people themselves still harbor deep resentment over Japan’s imperialist forays during the last century, in which many millions of Chinese were killed. In April, a wave of well-choreographed anti-Japanese protests and boycotts swept through several Chinese cities, including Chengdu, where demonstrators attacked a Japanese-owned supermarket. To what extent such developments will impede the sizable commercial traffic between the two countries is unclear.

Barely 25 years after emerging from the turmoil of Maoist rule, China today is not only still standing, it is bestriding the world as an economic colossus. And the Chinese people regard this growing prominence as their due. After centuries of decline, the Chinese nation—the 3700-year-old Chinese civilization—is regaining its place in the world. And as the very name Middle Kingdom suggests, that place is at the epicenter of global affairs.

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