China’s automakers must adapt quickly or lose out on the EV boom in the face of regulatory scrutiny abroad and competition at home


Chinese new energy vehicle giant shows off the latest version of its Han electric sedan at the Beijing auto show on April 26, 2024.

CNBC | Evelyn Cheng

BEIJING — Chinese automakers, including state-owned auto giant GAC Group, can’t afford to take it easy in the country’s electric car boom if they want to survive.

Adoption of battery and hybrid-powered cars has surged in China, but an onslaught of new models has fueled a price war that’s forced Tesla to also cut its prices. While Chinese automakers also look overseas for growth, other countries are increasingly wary of the impact of the cars on domestic auto industries, requiring investment in local production. It’s now survival of the fittest in China’s already competitive EV market.

“The speed of elimination will only pick up,” Feng Xingya, president at GAC, told reporters on the sidelines of the Beijing auto show in late April. That’s according to a CNBC translation of his Mandarin-language remarks.

GAC slashed prices on its cars one week before the May 1 Labor Day holiday in China, Feng said, noting the price war contributed to its first-quarter sales slump. The automaker’s operating revenue fell year-on-year in the first quarter for the first time since 2020, according to Wind Information.

To stay competitive, Feng said GAC is partnering with tech companies such as Huawei, while working on in-house research and development. The automaker is the joint venture partner of Honda and Toyota in China, and has an electric car brand called Aion.

“In the short term, if your product isn’t good, then consumers won’t buy it,” Feng said. “You need to use the best tech and the best products to satisfy consumer needs. In the long term, you must have a core competitive edge.”

Expanding outside China

Factories go global

Part of GAC’s international strategy is to localize production, Wei said, noting the company is using a variety of approaches such as joint ventures and technology partnerships. He said GAC opened a factory in Malaysia in April and plans to open another in Thailand in June, with Egypt, Brazil and Turkey also under consideration.

GAC plans to establish eight subsidiaries this year, including in Amsterdam, Wei said. But the U.S. isn’t part of the company’s near-term overseas expansion plans, he said.

The difference today is that the overcapacity now has come together with vehicles that are very competitive

Stephen Dyer

AlixPartners, co-leader of the Greater China Business

U.S. and European officials have in recent months emphasized the need to address China’s “overcapacity,” which can be loosely defined as state-supported production of goods that exceeds demand. China has pushed back on such concerns and its Ministry of Commerce claimed that, from a global perspective, new energy faces a capacity shortage.

“There’s always been overcapacity in the Chinese auto industry,” said Stephen Dyer, co-leader of the Greater China business at consulting firm AlixPartners, and Asia leader for its automotive and industrials practice.

“The difference today is that the overcapacity now has come together with vehicles that are very competitive,” he told CNBC on the sidelines of the auto show. “So in our EV survey I was surprised to find that about 73% of U.S. consumers could recognize at least one Chinese EV brand. And Europe was close behind.”

Dyer expects that to drive overseas demand for Chinese electric cars. AlixPartners’ survey found that BYD had the highest brand recognition across the U.S. and major European countries, followed by Nio and Leap Motor.

BYD exported 242,000 cars last year and is also building factories overseas. The company’s sales are roughly split between hybrid and battery-powered vehicles. BYD no longer sells traditional fuel-powered passenger cars.

Tech competition

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