When locating specific suppliers in China, business clusters are usually a good place to start. A business cluster is defined as a geographical concentration of interrelated businesses which benefits from the co-location in a number of ways as well as a value added production chain. If you are looking for aluminum products, source in Nanhai, if you are looking for linen products, turn to Suihua in Heilongjiang, IT and circuit boards, source in Suzhou, etc. Knowing about these clusters is valuable knowledge when deciding about where to set up operations, outsource production or find suppliers in China.
Business clusters usually form spontaneously by the work of market forces, or develop out of pre-existing special economic zones, such as the information and technology clusters in Beijing and Shenzhou and the electronics and biotech clusters in Shanghai’s Pudong area. There are export driven clusters, resource-driven clusters, market driven clusters, and so forth, depending on their geographical location.
The tailors of Cixi
Regional specializations are nothing new to China. One interesting example is the tailoring center of Cixi in Ningbo which traditionally served as a major clothing manufacturer to Beijing from 1680’s to the 1930’s. When the local government looked for ways of growing their region, they looked back in history, and transformed factories producing military uniforms to instead produce more specialized garments, and gave support to local business owners. The Cixi cluster now produces around 5% of China’s total textile output.
Other notable specialized clusters are Datang in Sichuan province which produces some 6 billion pairs of socks each year, or the city of Dongguan in the Pearl River Delta which creates a third of the world’s supply of magnetic recording devices used in computer hard drives.
Differences between clusters and Special Economic Zones
Sometimes a specialized cluster develops out of China’s many Special Economic Zones (SEZs), but most of the time they do not, and a business cluster differs quite a bit from SEZs generally speaking, in that the SEZ usually receives more foreign direct investments, have stronger focus on export with closer links to the global markets, and usually have greater access to technology. Conversely, a business cluster tends to operate in more labor intense, low-tech environments where local government support isn’t quite as enthusiastic as in a SEZ.
In some cases, the local government supports the specialized cluster by establishing an industrial park, which in effect is a government entity. If you are establishing a factory in China, locating in an industrial park can offer some unique benefits, such as proximity to local officials, tax authorities, environmental inspectors, etc., who usually have offices in the industrial parks. This proximity can facilitate increased Guanxi with such officials, and offer unique advantages, as one well connected Chief Finance Officer said in an article in Asia magazine: “For other companies it will take three months to get one approval. For us, maybe three days”.
Where to look
The vast majority of China’s industrial clusters are located near China’s east coast, where infrastructure is much more developed than in the west. A survey made in 2006 of 138 foreign and domestic logistics companies by real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, found that over 80% of their warehouses were located in just three different regions: the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta and Greater Bohai Bay.