BEIJING – When Xia Sheng goes shopping for mobile phones, TV sets and other electronics goods he always checks the country of origin on the product in question.
If the product comes from Japan, the graduate student at Beijing International Studies University will not buy it unless he is sure no alternative offers the same quality at an equal price.
“My principle is, if I don’t have to buy it, I won’t buy it,” he said. “History and Japan’s attitude make a lot of Chinese people dissatisfied.”
His only Japanese possession is a Sony Walkman.
Other university students in Beijing find Japanese-product boycott notices regularly posted on campus computer bulletin boards and on the Internet. Boycotts are launched on the grounds that consumers should not support a country that occupied China in the 1930s and has not publicly apologized for it.
One student at China Agricultural University started a boycott campaign last month; around the same time, Beijing residents began receiving a chain e-mail telling them not to buy Japanese products.
Despite these unofficial campaigns, consumers and industry sources say Japanese products are making inroads among moneyed Chinese youth because of a growing focus on practical purchasing decisions and Japanese firms’ strong marketing.
“There is an impact (from the boycotts), but less and less so,” said Noriyoshi Ehara, head of the Japan External Trade Organization in Beijing. “Economics are economics and politics are politics.”
Although Xia’s attitude is not unusual, Japanese firms and business analysts say he is not a typical Chinese consumer.
A more common type of shopper is a Beijing International Studies University sophomore who identified herself only as Yang. She has a Sony Walkman, a Panasonic TV set and other Japan-made products. And she is not ashamed.
“Sometimes I buy Japanese products just because of the quality of the product,” said Yang, a student in the finance department. “It’s hard to say we can totally refuse them.”
She called political issues between China and Japan a “policy matter” on which she cannot speculate.
Young Chinese think less about World War II than their parents do, so they consider other issues when shopping, said Peter So, head of China equity research at ING Financial Markets in Hong Kong.
“The younger population will look at the quality of a product, the company’s reputation and the price,” said So, pointing out that some Chinese Internet sites give Japanese merchandise good reviews.
“They are dissociating themselves from history issues.”
Japanese companies control about 7 percent of the Chinese market, according to Japan External Trade Organization estimates. Japanese investment in Beijing more than doubled in 2003.
Japanese businesses had invested $2.78 billion in the capital as of the end of 2003, according to the Beijing city government.
Toyota is on its way to becoming one of China’s most popular automaking brands, and Japanese firms have a “dominant role” in the TV market, So said.
It is hard to avoid buying from Japan as Japanese-made parts can be found in merchandise made elsewhere, said Zhang Yanghui, a Beijing-based consultant who specializes in Japanese firms that have invested in China.
Mobile phone screens and steel in buildings, for example, might come from Japan, and Chinese consumers would not know, he said.
But while consumers may be buying Japanese products, Chinese government agencies remain wary of Japanese companies, said Yin Jian, vice general manager of software business development for electronics giant Hitachi Ltd. in Beijing.
“In other countries, it’s more direct — politics are politics and business is business — but in China, it’s still all mixed in together,” he said.
One government-related issue is that state-run interests in northeastern China, which historically has welcomed Japanese business, may misappropriate Japanese funds, said Ehara of JETRO.
Japanese companies also need to promote themselves better as China accepts more overseas investment, industry sources say.
Last week, Hitachi invited 10,000 people to view 2,000 products, ranging from software to a monorail car, on display at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in a bid to raise its profile as other overseas companies strengthen their hold in China.
Hitachi President Etsuhiko Shoyama announced the same day that the firm would invest $1 million in China through early 2007 and hire 1,000 Chinese at the management level — a rare move for a Japanese company.
At a symposium held Oct. 20 and 21, Beijing municipal business promotion bureaus showed some 200 Japanese firms how to invest in Beijing to get a slice of the 2008 Olympics.
Japanese firms should use these opportunities to promote themselves, to advertise more and to hire local Chinese to stay ahead of the citizen-generated boycotts, So said.
“Japanese companies will try to disregard (boycotts) with a policy of self-promotion as a way to counter opposition,” he predicted.
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