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The rise and rise of Chinese tech firms

beijing skyline

Tuesday, 31 March, 2020

Whether you regard it as a global pandemic or a mere frustration, the Coronavirus outbreak has thrown the UK’s reliance on imported goods and materials into sharp focus.

As the epicentre of Coronavirus, China’s manufacturing industry has been particularly hard-hit, affecting everything from British CBD cosmetics brands to high street pound shops.

It’s also had a significant effect on consumer electronics and home technology, which might come as more of a surprise.

That’s because many of the supposedly European or American products in our homes are built using Chinese raw materials, Chinese components and Chinese sub-contractors.

And that’s before considering direct sales by Chinese tech firms in the UK.

Looking to the east

Twenty years ago, Chinese manufacturers were prone to aping Western products and relying on State protection against copyright claims.

Today, China represents a far more serious threat to established American and European companies.

As well as developing distinct and often innovative product ranges, Chinese brands have also started marketing their goods directly to Western consumers.

This is attested to by our growing recognition of Chinese tech firms such as Huawei and Lenovo. MG cars are basically Chinese, and so is popular social media platform TikTok.

We live in a global economy, where product quality is increasingly outweighing brand loyalty or country of origin.

After all, if Apple can sell iPhones in Shanghai and Beijing, why can’t Oppo sell Reno2 handsets in Sheffield and Belfast?

And while some Chinese brands have already tried and failed to crack the UK market (such as car manufacturer Great Wall), other brands are already well-established here…

Huawei. Any list of Chinese tech firms has to start with ICT solutions provider Huawei, founded in 1988 and best known for its phones, PCs, tablets and wearables.

However, Huawei also manufactures a great deal of enterprise infrastructure and hardware – hence the controversy surrounding its involvement in the UK’s 5G network.

Chinese companies are legally obliged to support their domestic government’s requests for information, posing potential conflicts of interest if they’re active in foreign markets.

Lenovo. As the world’s largest PC maker, with dual headquarters in Beijing and America, Lenovo has arguably achieved more than any other Chinese brand.

Its range of ThinkPad computers is highly regarded, its Yoga range represents the ultimate in laptop-tablet hybrid technology and its monitors are incredibly affordable.

In the UK, Lenovo also markets workstations and tables, mice and gaming accessories, headphones and carry cases. Key resellers include BT Business, PC World and Argos.

Alibaba. Effectively China’s answer to eBay, business to business marketplace Alibaba is a hub of manufacturers, exporters and importers, buyers and traders.

It specialises in drop shipping – the third-party distribution of products marketed by a company which doesn’t retain stock and therefore relies on distribution partners.

Worth an estimated $420 billion, and employing over 100,000 people, Alibaba’s UK presence remains limited. However, its trading arm is heavily relied on by British businesses.

Hisense. Hisense is perhaps best known in this country as the manufacturer of affordable TVs, though they also produce a wider range of home goods.

They make fridges and cookers, washing machines and dishwashers. And unlike other brands in this list, Hisense has been in the electronics business since the 1960s, when it made radios.

Today, Hisense owns the Sharp brand in the Americas. It manufactures products in France and Slovenia, among others. And it also produces wireless modules and optical components.

Xiaomi. Compared to Hisense, Xiaomi seems youthful, founded in 2010 and funded by a multinational roster of American, Singaporean and Chinese investors.

Now the world’s fourth-largest phone manufacturer, this $50 billion brand is best known in the UK for its Mi range of budget smartphones.

The Mi is now into its ninth generation, running a modified version of Android firmware which sets Xiaomi apart from competitors using the stock Android operating ecosystem.

Neil Cumins author picture

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Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!

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