Economy

China's Burgeoning Robot Economy

China currently has just one-fifth the number of robots as Japan, and just one-third as many as the United States, but as manufacturing there grows, the country is poised for big bot growth.

Workers and robots on a production line in Zhangshu, eastern China
Workers and robots on a production line in Zhangshu, eastern China
Pang Lijing

BEIJING — Yaskawa Electric Corporation is the world’s largest robot manufacturer, and its general manager Akira Mizutani had just two things on his mind before flying back home to Japan: how to stay ahead in global sales of rival ABB, the Swiss-based multinational company specializing in power and automation technology, and how to catch up to them in China. Mizutani spends half of his time in China and is planning to build an integrated base for application and development for Yaskawa in the eastern city of Qingdao.

Akira estimates that Yaskawa will sell about 300,000 robots worldwide this year — more than ABB’s estimated 250,000 and more than the third-largest company in the industry, FANUC Corporation’s, 230,000 to 240,000.

But he has work to do in China. “Yaskawa hasn’t put major efforts into the Chinese market before now, so our sales volume is not the top one here,” Akira says. That honor goes to ABB, which has moved its production, R&D and sales to Pudong, Shanghai.

Enormous potential

China currently has just one-fifth the number of robots as Japan, and just one-third as many as the United States or Germany. But Akira says it’s just a matter of time before China surpasses the United States and Japan in having more robots. “The total sale of robots in China last year was 28,000 units. It will be about 30,000 this year. And it’s going to continue at 20% to 30% growth for quite a while.”

Qingdao is, in fact, Yaskawa Electric’s second foothold in China. In June, it opened a plant in the Jiangsu Province city of Changzhou. When completed, the annual production capacity of the new plant will be 12,000 units. Meanwhile, Yaskawa enjoys preferential land and tax perks in the robot industry park made available by the Qingdao government.

A local government-led robotics industry is developing fast in numerous places in China. Last June, five of China’s key robotic enterprises signed an investment agreement with the Chongqing Institute of Green and Intelligent Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and settled in Chongqing’s Two Rivers Area robotics industrial park. Several other places such as Tianjin and Heilongjiang are also actively cooperating with research institutions to build their own local robotics industry demonstration bases.

Although the robotics industry is only just bourgeoning, demand will grow at a minimum of 25% a year over the next 10 to 20 years, says Tao Xibing, general manger of Qingdao Kingerobot Automation Co.

“The first role of a robot is to replace manpower so that simple and repetitive heavy physical labor is no longer needed,” says Tao. “Second, it is to improve efficiency. Third, it is to ensure product quality.”

Statistics shows that China’s manufacturing industry wages are growing at an annual rate of between 10% and 20%. Meanwhile, robot prices are falling by 4% per year. China has a structural labor supply-and-demand discrepancy, says Gu Shengzu, vice chairman of the Financial and Economic Committee of the People’s National Congress. Thus China is a big, but not strong, manufacturing country. Monthly wages in the coastal areas are as high as 2,500 to 3,000 RMB, which is a lot higher than in Vietnam and India.

Wang Feiyue, director of China’s State Key Laboratory of Management and Control for Complex Systems (SKL-MCCS), says that for every 10,000 manufacturing workers in Japan, 300 robots are used — whereas in China that number is just 10. So there’s a huge potential market for robots in China, the widespread use of which will improve the country’s overall manufacturing level.

Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Chongqing and Liaoning have all already set up their own robot industry federations. The purpose is to join together related enterprises within the industry and promote its development.

China’s constraints

China relies so far on imports for critical infrastructure components such as motion controllers, which affects the industry’s speed of development, says Cai Hegao, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and professor at the Harbin Institute of Technology.

Gu Shengzu says the biggest problem in developing China’s robotics industry is that key parts are not all locally available, and R&D for key components is still very limited.

One industry source says that China’s robotics manufacturers import the majority of key components from Yaskawa and two other Japanese producers that have a quasi-monopoly of 80% to 90% of the world’s motion controller market share.

Akira thinks that there’s no shortcut for China’s development of the robotics industry. State or strong business-led long-term R&D investments are a must.

“China’s own brands account so far for only 5% of the local market,” he says. “The government is going to encourage using its own domestic products, so greater efforts in supporting this industry are expected, so as to accelerate the sector’s growth.”

China’s Ministry of Industry is responding very attentively to the sector’s development. Wang Weiming, deputy director of the Industrial Equipment Department of the ministry, said a few days ago that a relevant policy concerning the industry will be introduced soon.

“As a leading global manufacturing powerhouse, China is experiencing labor shortages and a growing problem of rising labor costs year after year," Wang said. "Within the 50 years of industrial robot development history, no country has ever had such a huge demand in such a short period of time.”

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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