Countries trading with China have seen their share of geopolitical tensions of late: the trade war with the US, Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, foreign espionage claims in Australia, threats of Huawei bans across countries from New Zealand to Poland, European talk of China being a “systemic rival” and threatening tighter rules on its investments in the region, a host of ongoing tensions with ASEAN countries over the South China Sea, and so on.
The tensions are said to have been responsible for restrictions on Australian coal shipments, suspension of Canadian canola exports, the delayed launch of the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism festivities (which finally took place on Saturday), and Wall Street bankers’ claims that an informal boycott of US goods is the root of Apple’s woes in China.
There’s no question the results of tensions can be challenging for exporters, but they aren’t a scratch on what happened to Japanese brands in 2012 over an island territorial spat in the East China Sea. It was one of the most fearful displays we have seen when it comes to how powerful China’s state media can be in swaying public opinion. Anti-Japanese sentiment soared among consumers, driving protestors to wreak an estimated $126 million worth of damage to Japanese-branded goods, buildings and related sales. In two waves of protests, hundreds of Japanese-branded cars were smashed and overturned, rocks were thrown at Japanese restaurants, Japanese factories were set ablaze, Japanese buildings were broken into and ransacked, and stores selling Japanese goods were vandalised, causing many to shutter, including the $8.8 million destruction of an AEON supermarket.
The week between 15-21 September saw the Japanese car manufacturing industry suffer losses of $250 million due to the production of about 14,000 cars being suspended, with subsequent sales in September dropping by close to 50%. Tourists to Japan plummeted by nearly half in the month that followed.
Yet if Japan is anything to go by, exporters losing sleep over their current geopolitical tensions should be heartened. Japan has good stuff, and most Chinese consumers couldn’t stay away, no matter how deep-rooted their Anti-Japanese feelings were. Chinese tourists to Japan grew more than five-fold from 1.4 million in 2012 to 7.4 million in 2017. Since then, visiting Chinese spending in Japan was so lavish that a new term — “buying explosion” — emerged to describe the way Chinese tourists descend on particular Japanese retailers, buying everything from Japanese rice, to toilet seats, to condoms. Even Japanese car sales have soared, with China expected to overtake Japan on volume last year.
However, probably the most astonishing indicator of Japanese love by Chinese consumers is restaurant data released by the Japanese External Trade Organization. The number of Japanese restaurants in China grew from about 10,600 in the beginning of 2017 to 40,800 at the end of the year. Even by Chinese standards, that is phenomenal growth!
The key takeaways from our Japanese friends is that the impact of geopolitical tensions – as undesirable as they are – are generally short term blips, if they have any impact at all. If you make quality products and services that connect with Chinese tastes and preferences and are marketed well, the shoppers are likely to stay loyal, or soon come back wanting more. Here’s to that.
On the subject of Chinese restaurant and food preferences – Japanese and the others, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be sharing valuable insights at the Foodomics Conference in Auckland, New Zealand on 10 April. It would be great to hear from you if you will be there. More info here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.