Armed conflict, new protectionist regulations, and worsening international relations are snarling the flow of goods, services, and people across borders.

But Dongsheng Li, the founder and CEO of TCL Technologies, gave his own account of deglobalization at the Fortune Innovation Forum on Wednesday. He believes it’s being driven by U.S. policy. 

“When we are talking about deglobalization, we mainly talk about the deglobalization of technologies, represented by the U.S.,” Li said in a conversation with Fortune China executive editor Maiwen Zhang in Hong Kong. (The conversation was conducted in Mandarin, with simultaneous translation into English).

New rules from the Biden administration are targeting China’s ability to develop strategic technologies. The U.S. blocks the sale of advanced chips and chipmaking equipment to Chinese companies, and bans outward investment into sectors like AI and quantum computing. 

The U.S. also bars electric vehicles with components made in “countries of concern”—a designation that includes China—from qualifying for tax breaks under the Inflation Reduction Act. More recently, the Biden administration has called Chinese EVs a possible security threat due to fears that cars could send data back to Beijing. 

The U.S. is “restricting the technological development of China” with measures like these, Li said on Wednesday.

While Li criticized U.S. policy towards China, he did accept some of the more general critiques of global economic integration. “We should admit that the benefits of globalization are not allocated in a fair way among all the countries,” he said. 

TCL’s global expanison

TCL is a major Chinese electronics conglomerate, founded by Li in 1981 in the southern Chinese city of Huizhou. The company is perhaps best known globally for its cheap TVs; it’s the world’s second-largest TV manufacturer, behind Samsung Electronics. But it also makes smartphones and household appliances, and is investing heavily in semiconductor and solar-panel production. 

As Fortune wrote in 2004, TCL was one of the first Chinese state-owned companies to bring its level of government ownership below 50%. The company listed on Hong Kong’s stock exchange in 1999. 

In Hong Kong on Wednesday, Li reminisced about the company’s path to global prominence. 

During his first visit to CES in Las Vegas in the 1990s, TCL only had a small nine square meter booth in a pavilion run by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. TCL’s booth at the show has since expanded to 1,700 square meters, similar to Samsung’s footprint at the show, Li said.

But TCL’s path to global growth wasn’t always smooth.

In the early 2000s, TCL made a big play for the global stage by launching two massive joint ventures with European companies. In 2003, TCL launched a joint venture that merged its TV manufacturing operations with those of French manufacturer Thomson, making the world’s largest TV maker at the time. The next year, TCL tried another joint venture with French telecoms company Alcatel to make phones. 

Neither venture worked out. By 2006, both joint ventures had collapsed after extended losses. (One reason for the collapse of TCL’s deal with Thomson? The French company continued to make bulky CRT televisions even as the world moved on to flat-panel displays)

On Wednesday, Li remembered that he pursued the joint ventures to give TCL a foothold in international markets. “Back then in China, we were the best in terms of color TVs and mobile phones, but in international markets we didn’t have any presence,” he said.

But the joint ventures were too much for a Chinese company inexperienced with how things worked internationally. “Suddenly, we became a global company. I have to take care of a lot of American and European employees,” something he wasn’t “capable” of doing at the time, Li said. 

Today, TCL has operations in 160 countries, and runs 32 manufacturing bases worldwide. On Wednesday, Li suggested the company’s global supply chain can help insulate it from rising trade protectionism around the world. 

At its most extreme, “if you produce every bit of your product in the U.S., then the protectionism measures from the U.S. will not be effective, right?,” he mused.


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