The Problem With China's Giant Robot Ambitions

Beijing wants to control nearly half the world's robot production by 2020, but the plans to get there have some fundamental flaws. There may still be time to reprogram it all.

In October, at China's Robot Competition in Hefei
In October, at China's Robot Competition in Hefei
Sun Chunyan

BEIJING — The Chinese government wants the country to transition from a "manufacturing giant" to a "manufacturing power," and in no industry is that ambition clearer than robotics.

China's Ministry of Industry has announced a five-year plan to promote the sector, including the formulation of a robot industry technological roadmap. The goal is ultimately to grasp a 45% share of the world’s high-end robot market by 2020.

Earlier this year President Xi Jinping mentioned in a speech that the "Robot Revolution" is expected to become an entry point as well as an important growth vector of the "Third Industrial Revolution," with a vast impact on the global manufacturing landscape. Internationally, he reckoned, a robot war has started, with both the United States and European Union having both put forward their own robot programs.

Following Xi’s speech, a variety of robot industry studies and promotional symposia were launched, including a meeting this month in the southeastern city of Xiamen presided over by the Ministry of Industry. Amongst the initiatives addressed was the establishment of a special fund, strengthening the brand recognition of Chinese robots, and improved customer service and marketing.

It is clear that the Chinese government sees building China’s own domestic robot sector as the first step in fulfilling its ambitions. As of 2013, 87% of China’s industrial robot market is carved up among several major foreign robot giants. Strictly speaking, China doesn’t yet have a robot industry, which means the challenges are matched only by the opportunities that could come from diving into the market.

On one hand, the industry has enormous potential — China is the world’s largest robot market. On the other, there exists a massive and largely unregulated low-end market in China. Over the past three years, even before Chinese authorities had announced their plans, a "robot industry spree" had already taken off.

Empty parks

But it has produced a risky situation of "false prosperity," where key core technologies sectors still must be broken into by Chinese manufacturers, even as foreign companies are actively pursuing the Chinese market.

In a Chinese factory. Photo: Cory M. Grenier

The symptom of this frenzy is embodied in the robot industrial parks that seem to have sprung up in every corner of China. In the last couple of years, as many as 40 so-called robotic parks have mushroomed partly due to local authorities boasting of the political benefits of these structures.

Even third and fourth-tier cities such as Fushun, Jinjiang and Nantong have such industrial parks, even though very few of them are turning out top-shelf products or profitable businesses. Often, once the robot park is opened, it is soon deserted, failing to attract enough firms to move in.

Eventually, local authorities are obliged to try to lure the sector's foreign giants, such as Germany’s KUKA, Japan’s Kawasaki and Sweden’s ABB, offering them preferential treatment such as free land or free manufacturing plants. Instead of supporting domestic brands, the measures actually accelerate the entrance of foreign firms’ into China.

Relevant central Chinese departments have noticed this vicious circle. Wang Weiming, deputy director of the Industrial Equipment Department of the Industry Ministry, expressed his concern over repeated rushed investments by China’s various local governments.

On top of the misguided public policy, China’s domestic brands are a mixed bag and the low-end market tends to be completely disorderly. Most of these low-end robot companies are located in the south. They are small and feisty, yet have great difficulty in competing with the foreign giants.

In addition, China still depends on imports for key components such as reduction gear and motors that leave the industry itself far from self-sufficient.

Certain industry insiders worry that under the government’s control, the robot industry will follow the path of China’s failed attempts to compete in the wind power and solar energy industries. Understanding failure can be the smartest path to success.

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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


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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