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Global Economy

How to succeed in China? Go west to the ‘second-tier’ cities

The cost-effective alternatives to China’s east coast business capitals


The lure of China’s less well-known cities and the opportunities they present has been picking up speed for years, along with their impressive growth. In fact, while they are often described as ‘second-tier’ cities, many are in fact now wealthier than their ‘first-tier’ counterparts. Wuxi and Suzhou are now among China’s richest major cities (measured by GDP per capita), and both are still growing at over 10%, while growth in Shanghai and Beijing is now just below 8%.

This growth has attracted an increasing number of international investors, and many companies are now active in an ever-increasing proportion of these hotspots. Chongqing boasts that it hosts more than 200 of the Fortune 500. Rising incomes have led to higher levels of consumption throughout China, and there are now more than 50 cities with a per capita GDP over US$10,000. This means that China offers a much more geographically diverse customer base than ever before. Burberry has stores in over 30 cities and Zara has 140 outlets (406 if you include owner Inditex’s other brands) across the country.

As well as the draw that the potential local market provides, many of these areas also offer options for companies being squeezed in the more established centres. Competition from both international and domestic players in the biggest cities has intensified. On top of this, costs have risen dramatically. Less well-known cities offer a degree of alleviation for these challenges.

Most offer cheaper labour and land, and even subsidies for some types of business. There is also less international competition, and often less sophisticated domestic competition (though they may have the advantage of local knowledge).

However, this can lead to a more limited pool of qualified and experienced staff to recruit from, and employees in smaller cities may not be as accustomed to working for foreign bosses.

Where to do business in China

With so many potential hotspots to choose from, working out where to begin can seem a daunting task.

Industrial clusters may be one answer to help narrow down the field. Some cities have emerged as hubs of excellence for certain sectors, for example Changchun and Nanjing are particularly strong in the automotive industry. Some of these sector strengths have been bolstered by government support through development zones and local incentives for investors, such as the industrial bases focused on aviation and aerospace in Xi’an.

Staff may also be a key driver for city selection. Sector hubs may also be home to potential recruits with industry-specific experience. Specialised universities in different cities may offer expertise in certain disciplines. Regional centres also often offer a generally strong human resources pool. For example, talent from across Western China tends to gravitate towards cities like Chengdu, Chongqing and Xi’an.

Lifestyle and good communications are lures. Staff are less likely to want to up sticks from the more ‘liveable’ Chinese cities, such as Qingdao, Dalian and Xiamen. Such places also make attracting international staff easier. In addition, a huge high-speed rail system has linked most regions, dramatically cutting travel times into the heart of cities. There are even rail freight routes available from Western China that go into Europe. New airports have sprung up across the country. New metro systems are making travel easier in cities.

Regional hubs are an option. Growing transport connections mean that a base in one city can help access a number of other locations within a region. For example, Suzhou and Wuxi, two of China’s wealthiest major cities, now offer high-speed rail links into the middle of Shanghai within 45 minutes and to each other in 15 minutes. Hangzhou, Nanjing and Ningbo are not much further away. These new connections can help cover a vast number of customers from one location; 65 million people live in these six cities alone.

An effective strategy is often to segment China into regions along the lines of these clusters, whether for accessing large potential customer bases, or to expand supply chains. Companies are going straight into satellite cities, benefiting from cheaper costs, and covering Shanghai as well.

Some companies have got even further off the beaten track. KFC, one of the most ubiquitous international brands in China, is in more than 800 cities. China’s increasing prices are not limited to Beijing and Shanghai, and as costs in second-tier cities have risen, some companies have moved to smaller places, finding that a 100km move can lead to considerable savings.

It is increasingly sensible for companies new to the country to carefully consider a wider range of investment destinations. Those already working in China are well aware of this. First mover advantage will only last for so long.

Adapted from the Grant Thornton UK blog.