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China's Export Machine Goes High-End

Higher wages and a stronger currency force a change
A Sany truck-mounted concrete pump
A Sany truck-mounted concrete pumpPhotograph by Forbes Conrad/Bloomberg

From its sprawling manufacturing base deep in China’s southwestern Hunan province, some 100 kilometers from where Mao was born, construction-machinery maker Sany Group plans to take on the world. While workers in blue overalls and yellow hard hats crawl over huge mobile hydraulic cranes and cement mixer trucks in a gleaming factory, Sany President Tang Xiuguo sits in his expansive office nearby, discussing the opening of Sany factories in Brazil, India, and Alabama, as well as the soon-to-be-completed $475 million acquisition of Germany’s Putzmeister, the world’s largest maker of cement pumps. The bespectacled Tang, one of four founders of the 22-year-old company, aims to lift overseas sales, now some 5 percent of its $16 billion revenue, to up to one-fifth of revenues within five years.

The phrase “Made in China” summons up images of cheap shoes, plastic toys, and electronics assembled in the vast factory complexes of Foxconn Technology Group. While China built its powerful export business—increasing 17 percent a year over the last three decades—on such light industry and electronics assembly, that is fast changing. Rising labor costs, up 15 percent annually since 2005, plus an appreciating currency, are putting new pressures on China’s cheap manufacturing model and driving textile, shoe, and apparel factories to close or relocate to Vietnam, Cambodia, or Bangladesh. “China’s share of the world’s low-end exports has started to fall. This reflects a shift by Chinese producers into sectors where margins are higher rather than a failure to compete,” wrote U.K.-based Capital Economics in a March 28 note.