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This article was the cover story of the Saturday, June 12, 2010 edition of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business section.
No longer just a low-wage workshop, China is reshaping world markets through innovation – including a revolutionary alloy that takes aim at Canada’s nickel belt
Andy Hoffman, Asia-Pacific Reporter – Xuzhou, China
Ask Li Guang about the prospects for his business and a self-assured grin creeps across the young executive’s face. It’s a smile that means trouble for Canada’s nickel-mining capital of Sudbury, Ont., more than 11,000 kilometres away from Mr. Li’s office in eastern China .
“Our production has quite a lot of advantages compared to refined nickel,” says the budding metals titan, who is all of 30 years old and dressed in a short-sleeve dress shirt and black jeans. “Now, in China, many other enterprises are going to enter this market. Gradually they will take over a lot of the share of refined nickel.”
Mr. Li and his company, Jiangsu Mingzhu, are among the many Chinese manufacturers churning out a revolutionary product known as nickel pig iron or NPI. Despite its prosaic name, the alloy has set the global nickel industry on its ear by providing a low-cost alternative to the refined nickel that has typically been used to make stainless steel. Cheap NPI threatens to squelch demand for the refined metal, which is produced in places like Sudbury, as well as in Russia and Australia.
In less than five years, NPI has reshaped the world nickel industry, marking a new stage in China’s capitalist evolution. Since it opened itself to trade in the late 1970s, the Asian nation has become famous for two things – lowering the price of manufactured products with its cheap labour costs, and driving up the price of commodities with its aggressive demand. Now it is altering the fundamentals of a vital industrial sector with a homespun innovation.
NPI, a material produced in low-tech Chinese factories, already accounts for as much as 10 per cent of the world’s $21-billion-a-year nickel market, more than all the nickel that can be produced annually in Sudbury. Some analysts expect China’s NPI producers to double their output this year.