Infographic: American Companies That Failed in China
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American Companies That Failed in China

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American Companies That Failed in China

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American Companies That Failed in China

For decades, China has been a top priority for American companies looking to expand.

This is because the country’s middle class is simply enormous, growing from 3.1% to 50.8% of the country’s total population between the years 2000 and 2018. According to Brookings, there are now at least 700 million people in China’s middle class, and this group has never had more disposable income to spend on consumer goods and services.

Despite the size and potential of the market, China is not an easy place for foreign businesses to enter. As this infographic shows, many of America’s biggest names eventually admitted defeat.

Companies by Tenure

The following table lists the tenures of every company included in the graphic.

It’s worth noting that Google’s parent company, Alphabet, still maintains a physical presence in China. Google’s services were banned by the Chinese government in 2010.

CompanyEnter DateExit DateTenure in months
eBayJuly 2003December 200641
AmazonAugust 2004July 2019178
Yahoo!September 1999November 2021266
Best BuyMay 2006March 201158
The Home DepotDecember 2006September 201269
GoogleJanuary 2006March 201050
Forever 21 (1st attempt)June 2008June 200912
Forever 21 (2nd attempt)December 2011April 201988
Forever 21 (3rd attempt)August 2021OngoingOngoing
GrouponMarch 2011June 201215
UberJuly 2014August 201625
Macy'sAugust 2015December 201840
LinkedInFebruary 2014October 202192

Dates were gathered from various media reports and sources. There may be small deviations from when a company actually entered or exited.

The reasons for why these companies withdrew are surprisingly similar, and can be broken down into two broad categories.

Retailers Fail to Adapt

Failing to adapt to the cultural differences of Chinese consumers is a common mistake. Here’s how two American retailers learned this lesson the hard way.

Best Buy

Best Buy struggled because Chinese consumers were not willing to pay a premium for brand-name electronics. Local retailers could often source similar (or counterfeit) goods for much cheaper, and undercut Best Buy’s prices.

“Why buy a Sony DVD player or Nokia phone at Best Buy when you can pay less for the exact same product at a local store?”
– Shaun Rein, China Market Research Group

Best Buy also made the mistake of bringing over its large flagship stores, which were out of reach for most consumers. Due to severe traffic congestion, locals preferred smaller shops that were closer to home.

Home Depot

The Home Depot expanded into China around the same time as Best Buy, but unfortunately it was another cultural mismatch.

Home Depot failed to acknowledge that “do it yourself” repairs are not a strong cultural match for China. Labor costs are relatively low, so rather than do the work themselves, many homeowners prefer to rather hire someone else to do it. On the other side of the equation, the American brand failed to win over contractors doing the repairs and renovations.

The Home Depot’s product offerings were also left unchanged from America, making them a poor match for local tastes. As a point of comparison, IKEA has had a presence in China since 1998, and continues to open new stores to this day.

Tech Firms Clash with Regulators

Uber’s experiences in China make a good case study on how American tech firms struggle to succeed in Asia’s biggest economy.

For starters, breaking into the Chinese market was incredibly expensive. Uber spent billions on subsidies to attract customers and drivers, and losses were quickly piling up. To make matters worse, domestic rivals like DiDi were also handing out subsidies.

On the operational side, Uber ran into several hurdles. To avoid issues with China’s data localization laws, the company needed servers on Chinese soil. Its navigation provider, Google Maps, also had limited accuracy in the country. This left Uber with no choice but to partner with Baidu, a Chinese tech company.

The final straw, however, was likely a set of impending regulations which targeted the ride-hailing industry. Under these rules, Uber risked losing control of its data, and would need both provincial and national regulatory approvals for its activities. Even further, subsidies would also no longer be allowed.

Uber realized that doing business in China was unsustainable, but its exit wasn’t exactly a failure. In 2016, Uber sold its assets to rival DiDi and took an 18.8% stake in the company. Ironically, DiDi is now embroiled in a conflict with Chinese regulators over its listing on the NYSE.

The Tech Fallout Continues

Since Uber’s departure, the Chinese government has increased their grip over the tech industry. This has driven more American firms out of the country, including Yahoo and LinkedIn, which is now owned by Microsoft.

Both firms announced their withdrawals in 2021 and were rather clear about why they made the decision. Yahoo cited its commitment to a “free and open” internet, while LinkedIn says its decision was due to a “considerably more difficult operating environment and higher regulatory requirements”.

Given the geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, companies that generate data (often seen as a national security concern) are likely to continue facing regulatory hurdles.

Outside of tech, China is still a massive opportunity for American businesses. By 2027, the country’s middle class is expected to reach 1.2 billion people, or one quarter of the global total.

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China

China’s Growing Trade Dominance in Latin America

Over the last two decades, trade between China and Latin America has grown significantly, which has threatened U.S. dominance in the region.

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China’s Growing Trade Dominance in Latin America

Over the past 20 years, China’s economic presence around the world has grown significantly, including in Latin America.

Now, China is one of Latin America’s largest trade partners, which is threatening U.S. dominance in the region. This graphic by Latinometrics uses IMF data to show trade flows between China and Latin America since the 1980s.

Two Decades of Trade Growth

Four decades ago, the United States had a much stronger trade relationship with Latin America than China did. In 1981, Cuba was the only Latin American country trading more with China than the United States.

Here’s a look at total trade flows between Latin America and the two countries since 1980. Latinometrics calculated trade flows as total exports plus imports.

Trade Flows by YearU.S. & Latin AmericaChina & Latin America
1980$64,916.46M$1,149.20M
1981$68,954.16M$1,524.78M
1982$58,601.14M$1,381.61M
1983$53,347.45M$1,973.34M
1984$61,829.84M$1,573.58M
1985$62,241.61M$2,489.73M
1986$54,441.85M$1,888.88M
1987$62,890.00M$1,721.23M
1988$70,673.07M$2,433.94M
1989$79,140.76M$2,149.71M
1990$91,090.09M$1,997.48M
1991$127,120.71M$1,741.68M
1992$144,422.66M$2,051.77M
1993$159,873.67M$2,923.49M
1994$182,872.71M$3,724.97M
1995$204,901.92M$5,847.65M
1996$241,927.58M$6,711.47M
1997$290,032.40M$8,609.87M
1998$308,555.72M$8,844.21M
1999$341,504.58M$8,138.22M
2000$400,901.25M$12,452.97M
2001$371,377.08M$15,818.76M
2002$361,536.31M$19,033.47M
2003$369,218.54M$29,215.64M
2004$420,744.88M$42,242.20M
2005$477,850.02M$56,609.70M
2006$544,418.91M$77,528.04M
2007$585,446.96M$109,558.66M
2008$656,499.37M$140,274.87M
2009$493,741.65M$130,359.64M
2010$619,989.84M$193,853.31M
2011$751,891.79M$249,708.91M
2012$780,401.27M$264,908.73M
2013$785,444.16M$286,816.10M
2014$808,542.96M$281,412.70M
2015$728,071.40M$262,383.97M
2016$692,719.56M$245,403.45M
2017$750,289.25M$280,072.19M
2018$824,877.82M$331,131.25M
2019$807,868.87M$327,999.75M
2020$696,294.90M$311,584.87M
2021$895,309.53M$428,384.92M

Things stayed relatively stagnant until the early 2000s. Then suddenly, at the start of the new millennium, trade between China and Latin America started to ramp up.

This uptick was driven largely by Chinese demand for things like copper, oil, and other raw materials that the country needed to help fuel its industrial revolution.

Momentum has continued for two decades, and now China is the top trading partner in nine different Latin American countries. In fact, in 2021, imports and exports between China and Latin America (excluding Mexico) reached $247 billion—that’s $73 billion more than trade flows with the United States that same year.

Trade between China and Latin America is expected to keep growing, at least for the time being. By 2035, trade flows between the two regions are projected to more than double, according to World Economic Forum.

China’s Global Economic Presence

China’s trade takeover of Latin America speaks to a wider trend that’s happening on a global scale—over the last two decades, China has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest trading partner.

While China is likely to remain the world’s leading trade partner for the foreseeable future, growth is likely to slow in the short-term, given ongoing supply chain issues and geopolitical tensions that have disrupted the global economy.

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Economy

Visualized: The Value of U.S. Imports of Goods by State

U.S. goods imports were worth $2.8T in 2021. From east coast to west, this visualization breaks down imports on a state-by-state basis

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Visualized: The Value of U.S. Imports of Goods by State 2021

For nearly 50 years and counting, U.S. imports have exceeded exports—and 2021 was no exception. Imports of goods to the U.S. equaled $2.8 trillion, relative to $1.8 trillion for exports, putting the 2021 goods trade deficit at its highest level on record.

Using the most recent data on global trade from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, we take a closer look at the value of American goods imports and visualize them state by state.

The Top 10 Importing States, by Total Goods Value

The top 10 states by import value account for 64.5% of all U.S. imports, or $1.8 trillion.

RankStateImport Value ($B)Share (%)
#1California$470.716.5%
#2Texas$312.611.0%
#3Illinois$203.17.1%
#4New Jersey$156.95.5%
#5New York$153.75.4%
#6Michigan$132.24.6%
#7Georgia$123.74.3%
#8Pennsylvania$98.13.4%
#9Tennessee$94.03.3%
#10Florida$93.63.3%
Top 10 States$1,838.664.5%

Overall, the goods trade deficit—the amount by which a country’s imports exceed its exports—was more than $1 trillion in 2021, increasing over 18% from the previous year. Goods imports specifically increased by nearly $502 billion, a 21% increase year-over-year.

California, the U.S.’s top importer, saw over $470 billion worth of goods come in last year. Some of its big ticket items fell in line with the state’s tech sector’s needs, like automatic data processing machines and accessories and parts for said machinery. California’s own deficit is quite high—the state’s goods exports were only valued at approximately $175 billion. The state’s busy ports are a key entry point for goods arriving from Asia, which helps explain this deficit.

In contrast, the country’s top export state is Texas at $375 billion, outweighing its imports and shipping out goods like coal and petroleum. All but three of the country’s top importers—Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Georgia—were also among the country’s top 10 exporters.

Where are Imports Coming From?

Here’s a look at the country’s top trade partners for goods imports and the value of their imports in 2022 as of April.

RankCountryImport Value ($B) as of April '22Share of Total
#1🇨🇳 China$179.317.0%
#2🇲🇽 Mexico$145.113.8%
#3🇨🇦 Canada$141.713.5%
#4🇯🇵 Japan$49.64.7%
#5🇩🇪 Germany$44.24.2%
#6🇻🇳 Vietnam$40.53.8%
#7🇰🇷 South Korea$36.53.5%
#8🇹🇼 Taiwan$29.62.8%
#9🇮🇳 India$27.52.6%
#10🇮🇪 Ireland$26.52.5%

Over half of the top import partners for the United States are located in Asia. China is by far America’s top source of goods, making up 17% of the country’s imports.

Meanwhile, Canada and Mexico each account for roughly 14% of America’s goods imports due to the close proximity, strong economic ties, and trade agreements.

What’s Being Imported?

Imports of goods increased to a value of $2.8 trillion in 2021, the highest on record. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, industrial supplies and materials and crude oil saw some of the most notable increases.

Consumer goods like cell phones, household goods, toys, games, and sporting equipment increased in import value as well, reflecting a trend that the pandemic’s online shopping and delivery demand started.

Additionally, imports of foods, feeds, and beverages were the highest on record in 2021. It is also notable that in April of 2022, exports of goods hit the highest number on record at nearly $175 billion, with exports of feeds, food, and beverage also reaching the highest number of exports recorded. This is likely attributed to food shortages worldwide caused by the war in Ukraine.

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