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Protons in China - Regular Voltaire

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February 11th, 2011

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11:05 pm - Protons in China
When Mahathir made his first official trip to China in 1985, they made a feature documentary about the trip and aired the program on TV. It was actually quite entertaining and memorable, given how isolated China still was at the time, and it was quite reasonable to produce a movie as Mahathir's trip was an extended one, so there was a lot of footage from the trip. I still remember quite a bit about it.

One of the things that I can remember clearly were the Proton Sagas. An exhibition of Malaysian manufactures was held in conjunction with the trip, and the Proton, which was still quite new at the time, was what I recall seeing on display at the exhibition. Looking back, I would say that these cars were probably far more advanced than any models being manufactured in China at the time. VIPs were still ferried in the old-style Hongqi limos, with benches, polished to gleaming but clearly from a different era.

Today, a little over 25 years later, Proton has no place in the China market. The largest manufacturers are either foreign majors such as General Motors and Volkswagen, or locals that got their start as JV assemblers for foreign makes. When we look back on the little exhibition a quarter century ago, we ought to ask serious questions: why was it that despite an enormous head start in technology, we could not exploit a market that we were already exploring way back then, when barriers to entry were much lower? Either someone decided that it was too hard, or no serious thought was put into cracking the problem.

There are plenty of possible excuses, but none should be allowed to hold water. For instance, if we were to say that 'we are too small, too backward', then consider how so many allegedly backward and small nations have cracked large markets, or otherwise excelled over their competitors in a more 'advanced' country. I could use modern examples like South Korea, but I think that is not so interesting. Consider instead the cases of pre-World War 2 Czechoslovakia and Poland. Both were new countries that were supposed to be in the technological shadow of their highly esteemed neighbour Germany. Remarkably, both made ingenious technological and industrial innovations that were clearly superior to their future invader in the 1930s. Not many people know that the Volkswagen Beetle was actually influenced by a Czech Tatra model that bore a close resemblance to the future iconic 'bug'. As for the Poles, while their military codes were easily broken by the German Army, they were themselves able to figure out a technique to crack the much-vaunted Enigma code used by the Germans. Although this success was not enough to save their homeland from invasion, the work of the Poles, again largely unknown to today's public, helped the British enormously in their efforts to systematically crack the Enigma code.

In this world, there are plenty of David and Goliath success stories. There are also plenty of stories of could have beens and never was's. Proton could have seized a wide open opportunity, and made its way to true world-class status by today. It just never really did it.

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