By Jeffrey Ball | Sun Blocked | Mother Jones | July/August 2018
The headquarters of Huawei Technologies, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, sprawls across two square miles in the global manufacturing megalopolis of Shenzhen, China. At the center of its campus, surrounded by hulking office buildings of red brick and gray stone, sits a meticulously landscaped artificial pond. On the day I visited, two black swans glided across the water—fitting omens for the trajectory of Chinese technological power.
Most Americans have never heard of Huawei (pronounced HWA-way), but the company operates in 170 countries, employs 180,000 people, and in 2017 had revenue of $92 billion. These days it’s leveraging its telecom experience to corner what it sees as the next big thing: solar energy. The company’s main solar product is a suitcase-sized device called an inverter, which changes the direct current, or DC, that a solar panel produces into the type that can be fed into a power grid: alternating current, or AC.
Huawei is boosting its solar-inverter business not just by undercutting Western companies on price, but by beating them on innovation. Though inverters have been around for more than a century, many of the features Huawei offers are new, designed to improve the reliability of remote solar farms. A passive cooling system dissipates heat more reliably than fans, which are prone to breakage. And communications technology allows technicians to diagnose problems remotely, so they don’t have to venture into the field. Huawei is the top supplier of solar inverters globally, commanding 20 percent of the world market. With 800 solar-inverter engineers in research-and-development centers spanning China, Europe, and the United States, Huawei, which translates from Mandarin as “Chinese achievement,” presents a glimpse at the clean-energy juggernaut that is today’s China. In 2017, Huawei spent $13.8 billion on R&D. That amounted to 15 percent of its revenue—a higher portion than at Apple, Samsung, or Microsoft.
“Even though Western countries have some misunderstanding that we don’t innovate, we are confident,” Zhang Feng, the company’s head of solar-inverter R&D, told me. Yang Longjuan, the spokeswoman dispatched to shepherd me during my Shenzhen visit, put it more bluntly. “It’s like the Qing dynasty. You have to be careful,” she said, comparing the West today to the Chinese empire that lost power in 1912, a downfall historians ascribe in part to hubris. Any lingering Western belief that China doesn’t innovate “is the old impression of China,” Yang added, sitting in the back seat of a black Audi and thumbing between two smartphones as a Huawei driver sped us past the company’s Shenzhen offices and factories. “China is changing very fast.”
“Made in China” has long been seen as shorthand for shoddy. Whether it was fast fashion or toys, the rap on Chinese manufacturing used to be that it was all about leveraging cut-rate labor to knock off products designed in the West. Cheaper, certainly. Better, hardly. But that is changing fast—especially in the booming clean-energy sector. From solar to batteries to electric vehicles, China is rapidly gaining on the West in the most important arena of all: innovation.
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