Since the beginning of the lockdown and the prevailing COVID19 situation, there has been a sudden surge in anti-China sentiment from consumers. It’s natural considering the Chinese government tried to hide the existence of the virus, which is one of the reasons why we are in the middle of a pandemic. That being said, any rhetoric and anti-Chinese sentiment towards consumer electronics companies hailing from China will be self-destructive for Indians. The reality is that these Chinese brands have added a lot to the economy of the country by hiring a lot of Indian talent. They have added to the market by democratising smartphone technology and generally have helped bring a lot of Indians online. From a broader perspective, it is also important to understand that just because a company hails from China doesn’t mean that the components that make a product like a phone come from China and vice versa.
It’s important to understand what’s inside your phone
If one takes the example of two incoming phones from highly influential Chinese companies — the Mi 10 and OnePlus 8 Pro from Xiaomi and OnePlus, you will realise there is very little Chinese intellectual property at play. If one looks at 5 of the most critical components of these phones you will understand my argument.
The processor and modem on both these phones come from Qualcomm, which is an American company based out of San Diego. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor, which is literally the brains of the OnePlus 8 Pro and the Mi 10, is fabricated by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), which is a Taiwanese company. It has fabrication units all around the world including Taiwan, China and the US.
The display technology of both phones is coming from Samsung. The South Korean giant is arguably the best exponent of OLED screens in the world. Both these phones use OLED screens with high refresh rates and wide colour gamut. These screens are mostly made in South Korea. The calibration would probably be done differently via software on both the phones by the respective manufacturers.
A similar argument can be made for the cameras of these phones. While on the Xiaomi you get a unique 108-megapixel sensor, which has been co-designed with Samsung, that also manufacturers it, the OnePlus uses the Sony IMX 689 48-megapixel sensor that is made by the Japanese giant. Things are even more complex here because of the lens design, which can be custom in the case of different manufacturers, and also the processing, which in the case of both these phones is handled by the Qualcomm chip.
Things like batteries on phones like Mi 10 and OnePlus 8 come from companies like LG chemical and Sony who are the major players in the development of battery technology on smartphones – the same will hold true for these phones as well.
Beyond this, yes, there are some valid concerns around the data harvesting habits of some Chinese brands like Xiaomi as they have ad-supported devices which collect data as proven by the recent controversy with the Mi Browser collecting user data in incognito mode. These concerns are valid because of the nature of Android, which is a very open system that allows OEMs to customise the operating system visually and functionally opening a window for some insidious habits.
But again, this behaviour — the ad-supported business model is just not a Chinese brand thing. Windows has advertising running in it, Google literally wrote the playbook on ad-supported free products which is what Android as a platform is which preloads Google’s cloud services which we all use and generating them billions of dollars as we share some data voluntarily. Even in the context of devices, companies like Samsung are also selling ad-supported products with instances of ads even coming up in their flagship premium phones.
At the same time, one should remember, both Xiaomi and OnePlus claim in their premium offerings – like what the Mi 10 and OnePlus 8 Pro, there will be no advertising. This, of course, needs to be tested.
On a broader level, it is also important to understand that almost everything is manufactured and assembled in China. Every big tech company manufacturers its products via contract manufacturers like Foxconn in China because of a lot of the components are fabricated there and assembly at scale is affordable because of cheap/skilled labour, an ecosystem of component manufacturers already operating there and compliance to international manufacturing and environmental standards.
It has taken decades for this perfect storm to be established and yet not everything is actually Chinese.
India, of course, has been trying to project itself as a China alternative for years but in the last 6 years since the Modi government has been in power, we have only seen major smartphone brands assemble in India. So when Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo and OnePlus tell you a phone of theirs has been “made in India”, it has actually been only assembled here. The display is coming from somewhere in South Korea, the chipset is likely coming from Taiwan and all of it is being put together in an Indian factory.
While this is an oversimplification of how global supply chains work and how electronics are made, the point is that even in China, not everything is made by the Chinese companies; they are sourcing components which are core to making gadgets from companies that aren’t Chinese and likely aren’t even manufacturing the component in China.
It’s just they are at least two decades ahead of India in their manufacturing journey – which is going to take a long time to catch up to considering we have only started to print PCBs recently. It also goes without saying all of this need a more relaxed incentivised environment for both local and international players, not one of fear that has been a modus Operandi of the current government. At least for this decade, the anti-China sentiment isn’t only foolish and unfounded but not even an option.