DAVOS, Switzerland - As Chinese companies invest aggressively overseas, many are expanding beyond oil, minerals and other raw materials, instead setting up manufacturing operations that employ local people and selling products directly into new markets.
"This is a new trend," said Cai Jin-Yong, chief executive officer of the International Finance Corp., an arm of the World Bank, speaking here at the World Economic Forum on Wednesday during a panel discussion. "In China this is known as 'Going Out,' going global. The early stage was oil and minerals. Now, it's into developed countries. This is a reflection of the gradually more mature economy in China, and the fact that Chinese brands are becoming more attractive."
In an age when China's growing force in global trade has occasioned fears of a supposed job-stealing juggernaut on the rise, this new focus on forging foreign factories (while writing local paychecks) holds the potential to ease such worries. At least, so run the hopes of Chinese officials.
“This is a great opportunity for other developing countries,” said Justin Yifu Lin, an economist at Beijing University and a former World Bank chief economist. He noted that much of the push abroad by Chinese companies reflects how labor-intensive industries in China -- from textiles to electronics assembly -- are under increasing cost pressure as they find themselves having to pay higher wages. While this dynamic has been emerging for a decade, it now confronts a range of industries centered in coastal Chinese industrial zones, prompting many companies to shift production to lower-cost countries such as Vietnam and South Africa.
Far from a pioneer, China is tracing the same path trod by Japan in the 1960s and, two decades later, by the so-called Four Asian Tigers -- South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. But as Lin noted, Japanese manufacturers employed fewer than 10 million workers in the 1960s, while South Korean manufacturing workers numbered only 2.3 million in the 1980s. China is home to somewhere on the order of 100 million factory jobs, said Lin, meaning that a comparable shifting of production abroad could be a profound driver of employment through much of the developing world.
"It would trigger a new wave of industrialization," Lin said.
China's foreign investment has been growing swiftly, last year reaching an estimated $120 billion, up from $108 billion in 2013. For the first time, China invested more money overseas than it attracted in incoming foreign investment.
Nowhere is this trend more conspicuous than in Africa, where a wave of Chinese investment beginning more than a decade ago initially focused on securing oil in countries such as Sudan. Now, Chinese investment is pouring into local factories that are making cars and appliances for African households.
"We have seen a very important structural change," said Rob Davies, South Africa's minister for trade and industry, speaking during the panel on China's global investment. "A lot of the investment in the earlier period was around extractive minerals. Now we see a number of Chinese companies investing in manufacturing, bringing their own brands."
He cited the case of First Auto Works, a Chinese automaker, which last year began building cars at a new plant in the South African city of Port Elizabeth. China's Hisense -- a pioneer in taking Chinese products abroad, having launched a factory in Hungary more than a decade ago -- recently began making TVs in South Africa as well.
China's growing investment beyond its borders has historically set off alarm bells from a range of interests, not least labor groups concerned about a downward pressure on wages. More than a decade ago, a bid by China's state-owned oil giant CNOOC to purchase the American oil company Unocal was scotched by opposition in Congress amid claims that the purchase would imperil national security. The demise of that deal sowed mutual enmity in Beijing and Washington. China accused the United States of hypocrisy on free trade. But China's shift into local manufacturing appears to have already won over some of those who have traditionally nursed distrust.
Mexico has long bemoaned China's status as factory floor to the world as the single greatest threat in denying its bid to exploit the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The deal gave a range of Mexican manufacturers special access to the American market -- access often trumped by China's rock-bottom prices.
But at Wednesday's panel discussion, Francisco N. Gonzalez Diaz, chief executive officer of ProMexico, which courts foreign investment, said China has a newfound interest in locating in Mexico as a base of regional operations.
"We see in Mexico really a very fast change in how China is investing," he said. "At first, it was raw materials and mainly in South America. Now, China is moving into infrastructure and manufacturing. Chinese companies are buying Mexican manufacturing companies to expand their market via NAFTA and the rest of Latin America."
For China's companies, an increasingly global focus reflects an evolution away from competing primarily on price, instead investing in research and innovation. Huawei, the giant telecommunications company, now sells its gear around the world. Alibaba, the e-ommerce giant, thrust itself onto the world stage with a New York initial public offering that last year raised some $25 billion.
But many companies with lower profiles have carved enormous market niches around the globe and are increasingly inclined to make their products in the same markets in which they sell them.
Gree Electric Appliances, a company based in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai, claims to be the world's largest manufacturer of household refrigerators, selling its wares in more than 200 countries. Some of its appliances are powered by photovoltaic cells, making them particularly appealing in developing markets where electricity is expensive and unreliable. All the way back in 2001, the company launched a factory in Brazil. That plant was ultimately shut down in what the company characterizes as a dispute with local regulators. But Dong Mingzhu, the company's famously ambitious president, pronounced herself undeterred: She is intent on finding a new way to make Gree's products in Brazil.
"We have to grow with the local economy," she said. "With vast technology, we are already a step ahead of our competitors. It's no no longer just about investing to produce. We are now servicing local customers."