Business / Industries

On this beach no one is naked

By Zheng Yangpeng and Yuan Hui (China Daily) Updated: 2014-10-10 10:23

On this beach no one is naked

Workers at the factory of Inner Mongolia Zhonghuan Solar Material Co in Jinqiao Industrial Park in Hohhot. [Provided to China Daily]

Inner mongolia's Solar firms bask in sunshine of fine-weather days and growing orders

For many in China's photovoltaic industry, the solar products trade war between China and Europe is a distant memory. As domestic demand has continued to grow and new markets such as Japan have emerged, the industry finally seems to be back on track.

In Jinqiao Industrial Park in south Hohhot of Inner Mongolia autonomous region, few signs remain of the storm that hit this center for manufacturing polysilicon and monocrystalline, a sector sensitive to down-stream industries such as solar panels.

The facades of one of the factories here could not be any more bland or its surroundings any quieter, but once you get inside you find high-tech machines humming away as a few white-garbed workers shuttle between them.

One of the companies in the park is Inner Mongolia Zhonghuan Solar Material Co, whose managers say that even in 2011 and 2012, when weak foreign demand pushed stockpiles to a record high as Europe undertook anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigations, the company kept up production.

The company, a subsidiary of Tianjin Zhonghuan Semiconductor Co, makes monocrystalline silicon, a key element in solar cells.

Several years ago when the tide rose on China's PV industry, seeming to promise endless growth, local governments and companies were enthusiastic investors. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, and everything changed, with overcapacity and bad debt becoming industry bywords.

Pan Xiujian, deputy general manager of Zhonghuan Energy, another subsidiary of Tianjin Zhonghuan, who has worked in Zhonghuan Solar, recalls the boom years fondly.

In 2006 and 2007 short supply meant customers had to have a lot of cash on hand because they paid manufacturers before orders were delivered. Quality seemed to be of little concern to the customers, the main thing being that they could get their hands on products.

"Business people who had been in luggage bag and shoe manufacturing flocked into the industry, lured by the promising outlook," Pan says. "But most of them fell away when demand plunged in 2011 and 2012."

As the tide ebbed, it became clear who was, in Warren Buffett's words about another set of investors, "swimming naked".

"The problem with China's PV industry is that few companies have core competitiveness, which is what keeps you from being copied by other people," says Steven White, associate professor in the department of innovation, entrepreneurship and strategy of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Zhonghuan Solar is an exception. Its parent, Tianjin Zhonghuan, a state-owned company, has worked in semiconductor materials since 1958 and solar batteries since 1988. With strong know-how in monocrystalline silicon manufacturing and wafer processing, it was able to withstand the winds that buffeted the industry. In 2007 it was listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.

In 2009, with the industry still ailing following the global financial crisis, Tianjin opened its monocrystalline silicon factory in Hohhot.

"Of course, as the industry suffered, we were not immune," Pan says. "But we did everything to reduce production costs and improve efficiency through lean management."

On this beach no one is naked

On this beach no one is naked

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