China is more than just a manufacturing source. It’s also a ripe market

I’ve been travelling to China on business for 10 years to source manufacturing partners, which is probably the reason most lighting companies visit. I’m also lucky enough to have won some business in China – in 2004 I supplied a vast quantity of LED technology under licence for a large lighting installation in Macau.

Most lighting-related activity takes place in the huge industrial cities around Shenzhen, and this often forms the Western industrial tourist’s view of the country.

My current trip has taken me to Beijing, the throbbing heart of China, and it’s been an eye-opener for many different reasons. To compare Shenzhen to Beijing is a little like, perhaps, comparing what Sheffield once was to London. Beijing is a very cosmopolitan city, with a very Western feel in everything from the dress code to the shops.

It seems the Chinese have a thirst for Western designer labels – in the financial district you’re more likely to be run over by a badly driven Audi or BMW than a Geely. There are as many branches of Burberry as Starbucks in the UK. On a Tuesday night you can find trendy bars packed full of Chinese revellers buying full bottles of Scotch malt whisky and expensive European wine, or perhaps what is assumed to be expensive.

I didn’t like to tell the group next to us at the bar that their chosen tipple is currently on special offer in Tesco for less than a fiver.


The scenes are reminiscent of London during the 1980s Thatcherite boom years. It’s not like this for the vast majority of Chinese, but those that have it are certainly flaunting it. At first I was shocked at the rate of progress in such a short time and concerned for the future of Western-based industry – but then I started to scratch below the surface.

One thing I didn’t see in Beijing was lots of LEDs. Many of the much-touted Olympic buildings had an LED architectural theme, but when you get down to the meat and veg of lighting, streets are still lit by sodium, shops by HID, restaurants by halogen. You’ll see the same bad CFL retrofits as you see in Europe, but you’ve got more chance of finding an LED retrofit in B&Q than in the downtown Walmart in Beijing. It seems that LEDs are reserved for niche applications and prestigious buildings, and are still too expensive for the mass market.

My reason for going to Beijing is to sort out a bit of an LED nightmare they are having on a very prestigious building. It seems that even the Chinese are having some LED understanding and specification issues. The result should be a large contract for one of my Western-based clients. Why?

You soon realise that, even with buildings, when it comes to style, safety, reliability and performance, the Chinese will still go West. In this particular building you can be hoisted at great speed to the top in a German lift, you can descend the outside of the building in an Australian-made hoist and you disconnect power with a French circuit-breaker. After this little adventure you can sit on a Japanese-produced toilet, then take lunch in a restaurant using cutlery made in Sheffield, sitting under a chandelier made in Italy.

I certainly don’t think Western companies can sell halogen downlights back to the Chinese, for it seems most of them are cast there anyhow. But Chinese building owners don’t like doing repairs and re-installation, just as any Western client doesn’t.

If your product has performance and solves a problem  , there is a huge market in China. All around Beijing we saw in-ground uplights with water inside – a problem the world over. If you have a guaranteed solution, then I have a customer for you.

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