German carmakers long ago went all-in on China, building dozens of factories with local partners they were forced to share technology with. The risks seemingly were outweighed by an unprecedented expansion of what’s become the world’s largest car market.
For years, these bets paid off. Surging demand from a burgeoning middle class and the nouveau riche bolstered Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW’s revenues and profits. All three now sell more vehicles in China than any other market. The idea Beijing would ever pull the rug out from under international companies was brushed aside as fear-mongering.
One might think Russia’s abrupt cut-off of the gas Germany relied on before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine would lead to some soul-searching about China dependence in Wolfsburg, Stuttgart and Munich. If there has, it’s not coming across from CEOs Oliver Blume, Ola Kallenius and Oliver Zipse.
In early November, VW’s Blume will join a delegation led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz on their first trip to Beijing since the two ascended to their respective roles. Whereas Scholz used his initial speech as Germany’s leader at the United Nations in September to denounce China’s human rights record, including the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, VW has carefully limited its comments about the region to what goes on inside the factory it shares with state-run manufacturer SAIC. In a letter to the World Uyghur Congress, Blume reiterated that VW doesn’t mistreat any workers, that its presence in the region has a positive effect on the community and that it will stay put in Xinjiang.
Blume’s counterpart Ola Kallenius, meanwhile, has suggested the west’s hands will be tied if Beijing were to try to seize Taiwan. “If one thinks that the Chinese economy could be unbundled from the European or the American, it is a total illusion,” he said in an interview with Die Welt in September. “It would have dramatic consequences for the world economy that would in no way be comparable to those of the Ukraine war.”
BMW CEO Oliver Zipse October 19 even went so far as to defend China’s market policies and compare them favorably to how President Joe Biden is changing the playing field in the U.S. The 50-50 joint ventures that Beijing required foreign carmakers to set up in China were “fair for everyone,” Zipse said in an interview near BMW's plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He warned that the Biden administration’s climate law designed to wean the US off battery materials sourced from China could provoke retaliatory steps and set off a “dangerous” game of trade barriers.
It would be unreasonable of these companies to make any rash, pre-emptive moves before any further escalation of geopolitical tensions. But after having had to turn their energy-sourcing strategies on a dime and contemplate writing off big investments in Russia this year, Germany's automakers are crossing their fingers that they’re not forced to make much tougher choices about their far more consequential business presence in the People’s Republic.
President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power has only worsened worries that extend far beyond the auto industry. Chinese stocks have had their worst showing ever following a Communist Party Congress, after this year’s gathering dashed hopes for more market-friendly policies.
Within the car sector, there’s concern that international carmakers’ dominance of the combustion-engine age won’t carry over to the electric era. Domestic automakers accounted for almost 80% of electric vehicle sales through the first seven months of the year, according to China’s Passenger Car Association. VW has been having the toughest time coping with what’s become a particularly more competitive mass market.
“What we see from VW at the moment is more firefighting mode than innovation leadership on the Chinese market,” said Patrick Hummel, an analyst at UBS. “Volkswagen’s position in the Chinese market is structurally at risk.
To be sure, the Germans aren’t alone. Tesla’s reliance on China has mushroomed since the company opened a factory outside Shanghai in early 2020. Earlier in October, CEO Elon Musk told the Financial Times that Taiwan should agree to become a special administrative zone of China to resolve tensions with Beijing, a proposal that angered Taipei and raised eyebrows in Washington. Democratic Senator Mark Warner said he’s frustrated that companies including Tesla seem to reckon China is so big, they’ve got to “turn a blind eye” to abuses.
There is another way. Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares October 17 suggested he’s ready to cease making cars in China. The producer of Peugeot and Citroën cars may implement an “asset-light” strategy for those brands, repeating a phrase he used earlier in the year when announcing plans to withdraw from the company’s Jeep-making venture.
Stellantis’ pullback has been made easier by the fact it wasn’t doing so well there in the first place. VW has much more to lose, as it operates over 40 vehicle and component factories along with partners in China. When asked October 28 about his upcoming trip, Blume said it’s important that Berlin and Beijing get in touch after the party congress to exchange ideas and positions and plan further cooperation.
BMW is doing just that, shifting production of electric Mini hatchbacks to China from the U.K. and assembling an SUV model there through its partnership with Great Wall Motor. At Mercedes, well over half of the ultra-luxury — and ultra-profitable — Maybach vehicles the company sells go to customers in China, supporting its push further upmarket.
“The Germans can’t bite the hand of the one that feeds them,” said Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based auto analyst. “For Mr. Tavares, it’s a different story — he is likely saying what a lot of other automotive executives are thinking.”