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Analysts explain the rise of China’s EV sector—and how it might navigate protectionist backlash and Beijing withdrawing support

Analysts explain the rise of China's EV sector—and how it might navigate protectionist backlash and Beijing withdrawing support

China’s world-dominating EV sector hit two major milestones last year. First, China overtook Japan as the world’s largest car exporter, thanks in part to affordable Chinese EVs. And second, EV giant BYD briefly overtook Tesla as the world’s largest seller of battery electric cars in the final quarter of 2023. (Tesla has since retaken first place.)

But the threat of a flood of cheap EVs is spooking foreign governments. The European Union launched an anti-subsidy probe against Chinese EV companies last year, which could result in higher tariffs for Chinese EVs. The U.S.—which deems Chinese cars a national security threat—is warning that “excess capacity” in China could overwhelm world markets.

But at the Fortune Innovation Forum in Hong Kong last week, Roger Atkins, founder of Electric Vehicles Outlook, an EV consultancy, noted that previous car exporters found a way to manage protectionist backlash.

“We’ve been here before,” Atkins said. “Japan had its export onslaught in the U.S. and Europe back in the 1970s and 1980s. The Europeans and Americans imposed tariffs, and then the way the Japanese got around that was to embed production plants in those locations.” 

Atkins then pointed to BYD’s new plant in Hungary as an example of how the Chinese carmaker is now expanding its global manufacturing footprint. (BYD is also building factories in Thailand and Brazil, and is considering new manufacturing facilities in Indonesia and Mexico.) 

Christopher Beddor, deputy China research director at Gavekal, saw parallels to earlier Beijing-led campaigns to encourage the solar and wind power industries. “China is essentially doubling down on industrial policy,” he said.

“The central leadership will say: We want to target a certain industry. Everyone focuses on that, it’s conducted in a campaign style,” he later explained.

Beijing is now starting to worry about overcapacity in the system, with one official in early January promising to take “forceful measures” to address new EV projects that weren’t supported by demand. 

This push-and-pull is part of China’s industrial playbook, Beddor said. “[Officials] go forward, [then] at some point, there’s a recognition [they’ve] gone too far. They pull it back,” he said.

Beijing started offering tax and infrastructure incentives in the early 2010s, helping to foster as many as 500 EV companies at one point. That number has since come down to about 100 companies.

China is now rolling back its support for the sector, which could lead to further consolidation in the sector as EV companies, many of which have yet to make a profit, exit the market.

Yet Paul Gong, executive director of autos research at UBS, said at the Forum last week that the “fierce competition” in the sector—between startups, legacy automakers, and even tech giants—has been good for the industry. 

Thanks to market competition, China’s “carmakers have really brought down the EV cost on par versus [internal combustion engines],” he said. “It is this market force that has brought the innovation [and] efficiency game.”

BYD and Tesla

Gong, at the Forum last week, also discussed the differences between BYD and Tesla, both battling for the position of the world’s top EV seller.

After a teardown of the Tesla Model 3 five years ago, Gong said the UBS team was “shocked how much Tesla was ahead in terms of technology leadership.” Yet a similar teardown of a BYD car, just a few years later, revealed the company’s level of technological sophistication was approaching Tesla’s.

“There is little gap [in] technology, but just different priorities,” he said. Tesla prioritized top speed and autonomous driving, while BYD focused on space and 5G connectivity, he continued. 

Yet Gong noted one critical difference: a BYD car, comparable to the Model 3, cost 15% less than production in Tesla’s Shanghai Gigafactory.

Unlike Tesla, BYD makes its own proprietary battery, the Blade Battery, and so does not have to rely on an external supplier like CATL or LG Energy Solutions. (The battery can make up as much as 40% of an EV’s cost.)

“We were shocked at how fast BYD has caught up,” Gong said.