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What a shame that David Barboza’s New York Times article on all the help from government in China that powerfully shaped Apple’s investment decisions was published during the holiday week – when so many Americans are paying so little attention to the news . A Pulitzer-worthy piece of reporting, it also adds to the abundant evidence debunking two critical claims often made about the globalization of manufacturing.

First, the article makes clear how much offshoring of American industry has taken place due to foreign government decisions that clash violently with the idea of “free trade.” And second, it exposes further weaknesses in a related, though more recent, claim that most offshoring during the 21st century has stemmed not from foreign tariffs and similar interventionist economic policies, but from technological innovations that enable effective management over far-flung international manufacturing operations. This second claim is especially important, since it’s also been used to demonstrate that American tariffs will be unable to reverse this offshoring significantly.

Apple’s chief manufacturing partner in China, Foxconn, claims that the government supports it receives in the PRC are “no different than similar tax breaks all companies get in locations around the world for major investments.” And Barboza mistakenly seems to confirm this argument, characterizing China’s various market-distorting practices as “not unlike” those “in other countries, “including the United States, where states and cities vie for companies” – except that they are much greater in scale and much more secretive.

But the author himself provides key examples to the contrary. For instance, the Chinese province in which Apple’s manufacturing is concentrated is actively encouraging Foxconn to export. And when the company meets these targets, it gets hefty bonuses. Exports were also fostered via rebates for the value-added tax Foxconn would otherwise pay for at least the first five years of its operation.

Nor was China’s central government simply a bystander. Of course, the value of its currency was manipulated – which artificially lowered the price of goods China exported (including those from factories affiliated with foreign companies like Apple) and raised the price of imports for Chinese individual and certain business consumers. But there was also this scheme described by Barboza:

Since China began opening its economy to the outside world in the 1980s, the government’s policies have encouraged manufacturing and exports with the creation of special economic zones. But those same policies have discouraged domestic consumption of overseas brands.

Most products made in China by big multinationals had to be physically shipped out of the country and then brought back so that they could be taxed as imports — hence, the U-turn employed by many companies.”

Revealingly, these arrangements stayed in place well into the 21st century, and similar export-focused zones can still be found all over China.

Barboza’s reporting also bears out arguments I made in a post last week on this subject – that technological change has been a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the export of advanced manufacturing capacity, and that much offshoring was encouraged by the guarantees of wide-open access to the U.S. market provided by trade policy decisions like backing China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.

As the author notes, “When Apple first moved into China, the country was largely a low-cost production site.” That was in the late-1990s. He also quotes a former long-time executive for Wal-Mart and other multinationals as stating that most of these firms’ China investments represented “supply chains good at making things in the East and selling them in the West.”

China’s domestic market has of course developed impressively since then. But as I observed last week, the continuing importance of exports to these firms’ business models has been spotlighted by their loud protests of Donald Trump’s plans to erect trade barriers against production they aim at American customers.

But it’s also crucial to point out that this initial offshoring of production set in motion a dynamic with huge future implications for America’s economy and for today’s claims about “knowledge-based” offshoring of scientific and technical knowhow – and jobs – that supposedly are immune to trade policy overhaul. Simply put, the offshoring of production made the export of manufacturing’s more knowledge-based activity inevitable in case after case.

The two main reasons: First, super low-cost developing countries are full of smart, people that are highly educable, and trainable by multinational corporations; and second, manufacturing production and innovation rarely exist in isolation. Their relationship is typically interactive, and fueled by continuing and close contact between the researchers and engineers and product designers etc who come up with new products and processes, and the production supervisors and other workers who need to translate their ideas into real world products.

And don’t take my word for it. Listen instead to the late Andrew Grove, founder of Intel. Or Hank Nothhaft, retired Chairman and CEO of Tessera Technologies. Or former Allegheny Technologies executive Jack Schilling. Or the Defense Science Board (both quoted in this 2010 study).

In other words, Apple has found success in locating its manufacturing “brain work” thousands of miles from its production work.  But that formula appears to be the exception, not the rule, in manufacturing, including in advanced manufacturing.  And interestingly, this tech giant has recently announced it’s building its first two research and development centers in China.  

So the United States has a fundamental choice ahead of it.  It can keep listening to multinational companies and their hired guns, pretend that the keys to long-term prosperity move around the world purely or even largely due to market forces, and run ever greater risks of sliding into second-class status.  Or it can finally recognize Washington’s immense potential power over globalization, and use it to make sure this process works for its own citizens and domestic producers as well.