Indian Ink
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Indian Ink

Breaking my ‘cheap Chinese’ addiction

It’s hard to give up but not impossible

The bruising battle to kick out China has begun (Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash)

The other day, I was listening to this Indian Guru who pointed out that drinking coffee is fine as long as you do it by choice, and not by compulsion. That struck me as logical. So I decided to substitute my daily coffee with cocoa. I ended up having to endure a weeklong nagging headache before my body finally readjusted to life without its daily caffeine kick. These days, when I look at the coffee jar, I can’t but help have a feeling of smug triumph.

That episode made me take a fresh look at my addiction to cheap Chinese gadgets. It’s been hardly a month since China slaughtered 20 Indian soldiers in the Himalayas, and I patriotically pledged to boycott all Chinese products. But I’m already having withdrawal symptoms and missing my regular Chinese fix. Like any addict, I have a powerful argument on why I’m not really an addict: there are simply no options for the Chinese stuff at the moment.

However, my coffee addiction experience made me ask myself a simple question. Was I buying Chinese products by compulsion, or by choice? I had to admit it was a compulsion. There was no way I was going to break this addiction without some pain.

Maybe a bit of analysis will help. So what are the key issues?

Price matters

Take India’s smartphone market. Covid and the lockdowns caused sales to drop to 17.3 million units during the lockdown quarter. That’s a massive 48% drop as against the same period last year.

The anti-China feeling has affected the market, with the share of Chinese phones dropping from 81% to 72%. Korea’s Samsung has been the biggest benefactor with its sales returning to 94% of the pre-Covid sales. Samsung regained a massive 10% marketshare going from 16% to 26%. It is now back to India’s №2 knocking Vivo to №3, and is close behind №1 Xiaomi at 29%. Two other Chinese brands, Oppo and Realme take the other top five spots.

The reason for China’s dominance is clear. The alternatives to Chinese phones from Samsung, Nokia, and Apple are too expensive, or simply unavailable. Indians are generally price-sensitive, but Covid has made price an even more critical factor. So if it’s a choice between two phones with similar features and performance, the price will be the deciding factor. Indian buyers justify this by saying they would consider a non-Chinese brand if they don’t have to pay a higher price or lose out on features. Then again, if it were easy to match Chinese phones in price and features, their competitors would have done so a long time ago.

Buying bullets for the Chinese

For me, boycotting Chinese is not just patriotism but also personal. I have friends and relatives in India’s defense forces. Theoretically, buying Chinese products is as good as giving the Chinese the money to buy bullets to fire at my friends. Besides, my finances have been affected by the pandemic. So I just don’t have the extra cash to splurge on a non-Chinese brand, like say the Pixel. All this analysis was taking me nowhere.

Look and you shall find

Things came to a head when my daughter’s ancient iPhone 5 crashed, and she promptly appropriated her mother’s phone! I had no option but to look for options. The kid does only basic stuff on her phone, and a ₹10000 ($133) phone would meet her needs. But with online classes becoming the thing, it made sense to future-proof her phone by making it capable of video edits. That would mean at least 6GB RAM, which would mean a phone in the ₹15000 ($200) market. Under normal circumstances, I would have gone for a Chinese Xiaomi (the №1 phone brand in India) as they are good value for money. But I was now looking beyond the Chinese even if it meant a few extra bucks.

I got lucky, unexpectedly. Korea’s Samsung finally decided to get off its high horse and compete with the Chinese in the under ₹10000-20000 ($133-265) phone market with its M series. The Samsung M31 seemed to fit my bill as it’s made in India and costs ₹16000 ($212). Samsung has taken a page from Apple’s playbook and designed the phone’s Exynos chips inhouse for optimized performance with Samsung hardware. This seems to partly make up for the Exynos 9611 being slower than the Snapdragon 720G, that’s standard in competing Chinese phones (the Exynos 9611 performance is closer to the older Snapdragon 675). The other pros of the M31 are a 4-camera setup that includes a 64MP back shooter, a UI based on Android 10, an always-on AMOLED screen, and a whopping 6000mAH battery with fast charging.

Samsung cut a few corners by giving a standard charger instead of a fast charger, and Gorilla Glass 3 instead of the standard 5. But overall, the phone holds up against its Chinese competitors. Kids will be kids so I fitted the phone with a tempered glass screen guard and a reinforced case before handing it over. She’s been using it for a week, and it seems to be doing fine. Her mother is doing even better as she no longer has to be the message boy.

That’s one small victory for the ‘Boycott China’ movement. But another friend said he’d be getting the same Korean phone, and another one got a Taiwanese laptop so maybe the momentum will build up slowly.

Win some, lose some

I may have got lucky with the phone but I messed up on my next buy. My wife wanted to get her Mom a bluetooth speaker, and I recommended Boat, an Indian brand. Turns out that though Boat is an Indian company whose products are marketed and sold by Indians in India, those products are made in China in free zones like Shenzhen. In hindsight, I should have gone for a JBL speaker which is owned by Harmon Kardon, a Samsung subsidiary.

That way, there’s no getting away from China so easily. Samsung has factories in China too. Maybe they make parts of their phones and speakers in China. Even my trusty iPhone 6S+ which is designed in the US, is made in China.

I guess we just need to be patient and research what we are buying. Even the Indian government has realized this is an issue. They recently passed a law that will shortly ensure that all online retailers like Amazon clearly mention the country of origin of all products that are sold on the platform.

Games up, boys.

Decoupling from China

In response to India’s ‘Boycott China’ call, the Chinese media derisively tweeted that the Indian industry was too dependent on Chinese raw materials to be able to manage without Chinese products. This got a few Indian industrialists to tweet back, ‘Challenge accepted,’ as they promised to target independence from Chinese raw materials in a year or two. The Indian government has also stepped in to make it hard for the Chinese to acquire Indian companies weakened by Covid. It may not happen right away, but the clock is ticking for the Chinese exit from India.

Besides, there are signs that change is coming to India’s phone market. I heard Apple is moving some of its iPhone factories from China to India. But Apple phones are expensive and not many Indians will be able to afford it.

That way, the really big news is the recent $4.5 billion deal between India’s Reliance Jio and Google. Jio is India’s largest mobile network with 387 million subscribers. It’s also in the hardware business with over 100 million users for its feature phone JioPhone, most of whom are first-time internet users. The Google deal was with Reliance’s digital unit, which houses telecoms and fiber businesses as well as music and movie apps. Google’s Pixel phones are also among the top-rated Android phones, and since Android belongs to Google, it can be modified for Jio. With the two giants combining their strengths in hardware and software, the Chinese brands may finally meet their match. Of course, the Chinese government still has a couple of tricks up its sleeves. Like they may subsidize Chinese phones for a while in order to try to kill the competition from Google-Jio.

It’s going to be a long battle.

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