Covering the progress Chinese companies are making as they move into international markets

Mi Home

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Back in the Hutong
Thinking Geek
1427 hrs.

Visiting Xiaomi’s Mi Home store near company headquarters in Beijing.

At first glance, the store’s appearance bears a passing resemblance to the retail outlets of a famous Cupertino fruit company. As with many Xiaomi’s products, though, what is surprising and delightful about the Mi Home store lies beneath the surface.

If I can sum up the difference simply, it is this: Apple stores are a celebration of the devices. Mi Home stores are an on-ramp into a what can best be seen as a modern lifestyle enhanced and simplified at a hundred points by digital devices.

Apple talks about the digital home, but it is mostly smoke and mirrors. Xiaomi is actually delivering in a relevant and affordable way, and the Mi Home stores make that plain.

A growth-focused Apple would be advised to take notes – for their product development teams, not their lawyers.

The Other Wanda Question

Apropos of my post last week about Wanda, a quick thought.

One of the issues that remains a matter of our ongoing fascination with Wanda revolves around a series of important questions that remain largely unspoken: Do Wang’s purchases in the US constitute a simple diversification of his investments? Are they part of a strategy to globalize his businesses?

Or are we witnessing something quite different, Wang’s slow divestment out of China and the flight of his capital to safer havens abroad? And if not a flight out of China, is he at least shifting his money out of real estate?

The company bears close scrutiny if for no other reason than they are a harbinger of what is likely to be a larger trend, and understanding the forces that drive this trend are going to be essential in helping business address Wanda as a strategic challenge, and policymakers address it from a regulatory standpoint.

 

Huawei’s PR Struggles

And so within the space of half an hour the Financial Review was shown the new and old face of corporate China.There’s paranoid Huawei that will not answer questions and refuses to explain itself in any detail to its stake holders around the world. Then there’s the likes of Green Valley, which represent a new, more open face to corporate China.

Source: Huawei’s epic PR fail | afr.com

This is an oldy but a goody, and I do not mean to pick on poor old Huawei: the organization is led by people for whom transparency and engagement are just not a part of the plan. This is not an especially Chinese failing: I have watched American, European, and Japanese companies build public relations organizations that were little more than beautiful stone walls.

I agree with reporter Angus Grigg completely: let us hope we see more openness from Chinese companies, rather than less.

What concerns me, though, is that for every wise, open, and transparent company that I encounter, I still come across a dozen more who believe that that the “new” face of corporate China is not private, independent, or entrepreneurial, but government-owned, government-subsidized, and expert at blowing smoke up the hindquarters of foreign journalists.

And of course, that’s not new: that’s a giant leap backwards in China’s evolution into a nimble, innovative, and commercial economy.

Which is why I talk so  much about public relations in China here. The degree to which a nation, and organization, or a company is prepared to institutionalize an ongoing, open, and wide-ranging conversation with its stakeholders has great predictive value about its success, and the degree to which we should feel comfortable dealing with it.

Wanda and Hollywood: Three Questions

The craft of filmmaking is a perilous one, a balancing act between the art of cinematic storytelling and capricious public taste. Overt inclusion of foreign propaganda would likely be a destabilizing ingredient in any film, just enough to turn a potential blockbuster into an expensive turkey, undermining a studio’s reputation in the process.

But facing a U.S. administration that is hostile to China (at least on the surface), Hollywood’s new Mandarins, in particular the squires of Wanda’s interests in The Business, must be prepared for three questions that are likely to arise in the coming months from either the public, a Republican-dominated Congress, or the new Administration.

First is a matter of US law. In what is known as the Paramount Decree, in 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an anti-trust case against Paramount Pictures, a ruling that compelled the separation of motion picture production and exhibition companies. On its face, Wanda owning both production assets like Legendary and exhibition companies like AMC appears to be a potential violation of US Law, and Wanda will be required to explain why it is not.

The second question touches on the issue of whether films made by a studio owned by a Chinese company will produce propaganda. To this point, we have focused on Wanda CEO Wang Jialin’s promise not to turn the studio into a propaganda machine. For what it is worth, I believe that is Wang’s intention. But let us not forget that the Party still holds considerable sway over Wanda’s fortunes and its core assets in China. Wang’s best intentions aside, Wanda must prepare to answer this question: what will Wang Jialin do when or if Xi Jinping comes calling with an unrefusible offer? Can Wanda afford to decline the call of Beijing if that call should come?

And finally, a third question. We have, in the last forty years, taught China how to create everything from machine tools to smartphones, and Chinese companies now lead the world in the creation of those products. Motion pictures and microchips are not analogous, but what has ensured Hollywood’s continued global leadership in filmed entertainment has been an accumulated century of technical and process know-how that results in marketable films if not global entertainment phenomena. Hollywood as a whole must be prepared to answer: at what point will Hollywood have sold its Mojo to Beijing? And to what degree does the presence of Chinese conglomerates in Hollywood speed that process?

At the very least, these companies must have answers at the ready. Ignoring or dismissing them will only serve to convince potential opponents that there is more to Wanda’s motives than a good business deal.

 

Zhang Yimou, Race, and Chinese Film

We finally allowed ourselves to watch Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall. I have seen worse films in the genre (I’d argue it was probably no worse than Cowboys and Aliens, for example.) The flick gave us an opportunity to resuscitate the debate surrounding Zhang’s choice of Matt Damon to play a lead role.

If Zhang made the controversial selection in order to curry favor with US distributors, what he did was no more or less objectionable than the creative compromises Hollywood makes daily to ensure success in the China market. Chinese auteurs are learning that they must not only contend with government oversight of their productions, but that they must also strike a balance between the aesthetic and the marketable.

Creative compromises are rarely good things, but they are an indelible part of the cinematic landscape until filmmakers no longer need to depend on others for finance, distribution, and marketing.

It is worth remembering that identity-shifting actors have been a feature of Chinese entertainment for many years as well. For centuries, men played the roles of women in Beijing opera. And to give a personal example: my Chinese father-in-law, now 87, spent much of his career as an actor playing foreigners onstage and in film. In fact, one of his career highlights was playing Canadian doctor Norman Bethune in “whiteface.” (There’s a picture around here, somewhere, and I’ll post it if I can find it.) I mention this because it points to a different set of sensitivities in China around matters of race and gender portrayal in entertainment than those to which we subject filmmakers in the US.

Indeed, Damon’s role may hint at a tiny crack of light in the otherwise depressing China media landscape. The very fact that authorities greenlit the movie with a western star playing a role that could have gone to a Chinese face, represents a tiny degree of forward thinking among filmmakers and censors in an industry where the forces of progress are fighting a rearguard action against reactionaries.

The movie itself aside, I would argue that we should see Damon’s inclusion as reflecting both an interesting creative choice on the part of the director, and a recognition on the part of authorities that China cannot build a globally successful film industry without injecting wider relevance into the subject matter.

The real concern, then, is not that we are going to see a decline in the number of leading roles for Asians in global cinema. Global demographics and organic trends in Hollywood suggest the opposite is as likely to be the case. The concern, rather, is that the Chinese are learning the rules of the market quite quickly, and that they will be contending with the Hollywood studios sooner than Hollywood realizes.

 

State of the Union: American Business and The China Challenge

In the wake of the inauguration of Donald Trump, I have been getting calls from clients, from past clients, and from perspective clients all asking what this is going to mean to them. I expected to get the calls from US and European companies. What surprised me – and probably should not have – was the number of calls coming from Chinese companies. On the surface, one is tempted to ascribe this preoccupation to Trump’s acerbic anti-trade rhetoric.

But concerns about China are nothing new to American elections. The role of China in business and the US economy has been on the national docket since Bill Clinton ran for his first term. What is more, the concerns coming from the people I was speaking to were both immediate and urgent. They weren’t worried about some abstract degree of market access in the coming years: they wanted to know what would happen to their plans over the next twelve months. All of this stands as circumstantial evidence that, more than at any other similar juncture in the past, Chinese companies appear poised to leap into the American sea, and right soon.

Challenged but Determined

Perhaps the most urgent challenge facing China’s enterprises today is learning how to reach successfully beyond the home market and build viable international, if not global, businesses. China’s more thoughtfully-led companies are figuring out that in order to “go out” they need to learn how to operate in environments where local government and consumers are at best indifferent, and at worst hostile. They are learning that they will need to figure out how to innovate consistently and meaningfully; and that creating, building, and defend their own brands against local and global competitors overseas (and especially in the US) is going to require a new thinking, a lot of money, and outside help.

Of course, understanding this intellectually and actually doing it are two different things,  and considerable cultural obstacles lie ahead of China, Inc. But leaders of US, European, and Japanese companies would be foolish to assume that China’s companies will all fail in that effort. Some, possibly many, will succeed. The challenge for which we should all be preparing, then, is how to compete with – and beat – China’s emerging global companies.†

We’re From the Government, and We’re Not Here to Help

For the moment, let’s leave aside the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration. Belligerent bombast aside, there is not much that the White House can do to halt the slow but inexorable globalization of Chinese brands. Raising barriers to protect domestic enterprises against a Chinese onslaught requires more than the election of a populist president with anti-trade chops. Without a broad national consensus against trade, Congress and economists remain too haunted by the ghost of the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930* to raise significant barriers to a global trading giant like China, and the number of US jobs that depend on exports to China is significant and continues to rise.

Even if legislators found the resolve to act, the speed of business and the nature of lawmaking limit the ability of legislation to respond to specific commercial threats. Ditto the creaking machinery of the World Trade Organization: even when a government can be persuaded to lodge a formal protest against China, such cases require years to work their way through the process and evoke an outcome.

And all of this ignores the expanding influence of Chinese investment in US and European business. High-profile investors like the Dalian Wanda Group and Anbang Securities are just the visible apex a vast and varied group of companies and cash-rich entrepreneurs setting down commercial roots in America. Except in matters of national security, legislating against such inflows would be political suicide, especially as Chinese investments reach ever deeper into the rusting industrial hinterlands of the developed west.

We Are On Our Own

In short, the Chinese competition is coming to America and Europe, and companies need to rely on themselves to address this new threat.

Doing so will mean approaching the China challenge with the same resolve and flexibility with which American enterprise addressed the Japanese challenge, but doing it sooner and with greater alacrity. Japan’s economic expansion in the 1970s and 1980s wrought unprecedented disruption to US business in no small part because most executives didn’t see it coming. They were too late to realize that the iron triangle of government, enterprise, and organized crime in Japan left many US industries facing an existential threat.

The US business community cannot afford to be as slow on the uptake with China. Forget wait-and-see: a nimble and aggressive Chinese company with a deep home market in China is an existential threat even before you find out they’re looking in your patch. Assume they’re coming, and will hire the local expertise to disrupt your markets, undermine your customer relationships, and beat you to innovations.

Winning demands insight. Executives have to understand how Chinese companies work, how they make use of relationships and government support, and the strategy they will use to take markets away from global competitors. Then they need to drill into their specific competitors, learning the strengths of a Chinese challenger so as to use those strengths against them.

(Such strengths vary from firm to firm, but you won’t go far wrong to assume that they come with a) a deeply supportive government at home; b) the world’s largest home market, able to provide global economies of scale before they make their first sale overseas; c) a readiness to play fast-and-loose with intellectual property; and d) momentum.)

The discussion America’s business leaders should be having about China, then, must go beyond “how do we make money in China?” If that question isn’t academic by now, it soon will be. It must also be “how do we meet – and crush – our Chinese competition both at home and around the world?”

 

 

† The use of “we” here is not an affectation. China, Inc. it is no less a challenge in business services than it is with manufacturing. Sometime in the next five years, the leaders of the marketing and PR business in the US are going to face severe disruption from China. 

* Also known as The Tariff Act of 1930, The Smoot-Hawley Act was a protectionist measure passed by the US Congress that wound up inciting a trade war, one that arguably deepened the Great Depression and helped speed Europe into conflict a decade later.

 

Wanda Behind the Mask

Wanda’s Wang Jianlin has now made his fourth major acquisition in the US film industry. To his stable of the AMC and Carmike cinema chains and the Legendary Pictures production company he is now adding Dick Clark Productions. But it is rare indeed that something in China is as it seems, and that is why it is worth probing a bit into Wanda’s US acquisitions.

To their credit, US media are trying to do exactly that. Over the past several months, I’ve spoken to experienced reporters from the world’s leading financial news services, all of whom are trying to discern whether to take Wang Jianlin at face value, or whether there is something happening beneath the surface at Dalian Wanda Group that is at odds with its founder’s public positions.

What they’re getting is frustrated. It is always challenging to get information out of a firm unbound by the disclosure laws that govern public US companies. For what are probably very practical reasons related to its China business, Wanda apparently makes a fetish out of opacity.

When the world’s best investigative financial journalists start coming up empty, we are left with seeking answers based on clues rather than on answers. The best place to look is in the behavior of their partners and subsidiary companies. Some potential clues:

  • Check IMDB. Does Legendary look like it’s production slate is shrinking, or its production rate is slowing? Is Dick Clark increasing production, or is production on decline?
  • Check reviews of AMC and Carmike cinemas, especially their bigger, newer, flagship multiplexes in large US cities, on Yelp! and similar sites. Are reviews trending upward, or are they in decline? Are there complaints related to quality of service, of food, of cleanliness?
  • What is the status of partnerships with companies like Sony and IMAX? Are we seeing any action, or have things gone quiet after big announcements? Is Wanda living up to its commitments?
  • And, of course, watch for news on major moves in China’s real estate market, or from the government on restricting Chinese investments abroad.

Good reporters are already doing all of this. But journalistic standards won’t allow them to report on such circumstantial indicators. For the rest of us, they can help us gain a general hunch about where the company stands, how it is operating in the US, and where it is likely to go next.

Longer term, though, Wang will have to learn to operate in a part of the world where deep scrutiny of his operations are encouraged rather than prohibited, and where transparency is a necessary precondition for the trust he will need to sow in order to prosper.

Three Hurdles That Will Define CTrip

The OTA that recorded the strongest performance in 2015 was Ctrip, which grew by an impressive estimated 58%, to reach gross bookings of $27 billion, driven by the booming Chinese domestic and outbound travel markets. Ctrip is today the third global OTA player, and is forecast to be able to challenge Expedia Inc and The Priceline Group for global leadership by 2019.

Source: State of Online Travel Agencies: Ctrip Joins Priceline and Expedia as Global Giant – Skift

Ctrip has, it seems, now officially (and to us in China, somewhat belatedly) joined the ranks of the world’s largest online travel agencies.

In fairness, the company offers the most comprehensive travel agency service in China, and has worked hard to fend off challengers for the past 15 years, either crushing them with size or, when all else fails, buying them out or co-opting them.

Now China’s leader must master three new challenges that come along with its newfound status:

Build a Better Outbound Service. First, the Chinese challenger must figure out how to match the listings and relationships that Expedia and Priceline have built around the world outside of China. Offering a handful of cheap alternatives in major cities is not going to keep hold of China’s 125 million outbound travelers, in particular as many of those who can speak English are already skipping Ctrip for international journeys and going right to Expedia and Priceline.

Defend against tougher local competition at home. Second, it must fight a growing number of challengers at home, both hungry local players all seeking to grab part of the market; platforms like Airbnb and its local imitators that are increasingly offering shared alternatives to traditional travel; and Expedia and Priceline as they bring their challenge into Ctrip’s home market.

Break out of China. Finally, at some point Ctrip must figure out how to evolve beyond the core Chinese market. Massive the travel base in the PRC may be, but the world beckons, and continued growth will eventually depend on deft expansion abroad.

The extent to which Ctrip can address these three challenges will determine whether it will remain a specialized, local player, or whether it will one day be feasting on the remains of Expedia, Priceline, or both.

 

 

Friday Irrevrence: Labels are Important

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My wife’s aunt brought this bottle of wine to a recent family dinner at the Liu Family Restaurant next to the National Art Museum of China (Meishuguan) in Beijing.

Nobody is happier than I to see Chinese vineyards jumping into the wine business. But someone should alert this particular winery that selling a wine without a year on the bottle makes it very hard for all but the utter tyro to trust what is in the bottle.

China: State Multinational or Global Superpower?

America fights, in other words, while China does business, and not only in Afghanistan. In Iraq, where U.S. troops brought down a dictator and are still fighting an insurgency, Chinese oil companies have acquired bigger stakes in the oil business than their American counterparts. In Pakistan, where billions in U.S. military aid helps the government keep the Taliban at bay, China has set up a free-trade area and is investing heavily in energy and ports.

via China succeeds by behaving more like a multinational company than a global superpower.
A
nne Applebaum
Slate
September 27, 2010

This was a clever observation when Anne Applebaum first made it five years ago, and there is still some validity to it. Nonetheless, one cannot help but wonder if things will stay this way much longer. China’s military posture overseas continues to rise, and its companies are beginning to discover that the easy fruit has fallen. We may well have witnessed either the high point of China’s overseas expansion, or, more likely, the end of China’s purely commercial overseas expansion strategy.

 

Making Crepes is Not Cultural Theft

US Jianbing Maker Accused of “Stealing Chinese Culture” | The Nanfang.

A young American goes to China. She finds out how to make jianbing, a popular local street food. She goes home to Portland, and she opens up a shop to make it.

And is promptly excoriated by Chinese netizens for “stealing Chinese culture.”

Leave aside unfathomable presumption (or cultural chauvinism) that would prompt someone to suggest that only Chinese should be allowed to make Chinese food (or that only French should make French food, or that only Italians should make Italian food.)  Those who have issues with Alisa Grandy making her living on making Chinese crepes miss the bigger point:

This is exactly the kind of cultural diffusion that the Chinese should be applauding as a natural result of China’s rise. The world is discovering Chinese culture, and in the process more and more aspects of China will wind up woven into the world’s cultural fabric.

If Chinese chefs can make hamburgers, pizzas, and fajitas (and I know more than a few who do, and some very well), American chefs should be allowed to adopt – and extend – Chinese cuisine.

New York’s Transparent Buildings

Full Bank Accounts, Empty Storefronts: The Economics Of High-Rent Blight.

Fascinating little story that somehow brings to mind places like Kings Garden Villa in Beijing, and much of the city of Ordos.

I would wager that at least some of the money that has found its way to Manhattan is coming from Chinese investors who would rather wait for tenants who can afford their desired rents than rent out at less and undermine the likely ridiculous sums they paid for the properties.

This is not a uniquely Chinese behavior, but it is a practice that is notably common among property owners in China. What is more, the sources of cash flowing out of China and into North American investment properties are certainly not limited to giant, high-profile developers like Wanda. So while it would assume far too much that Chinese money is the cause of High Rent Blight in New York, it is likely a contributing factor.

 

Lu Wei’s Facebook Gambit

Hutong West
Writing the Book
0935 hrs.

In all of the brouhaha around Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s pandering comments to Chinese Internet czar Lu Wei recently, the China commentariat are lining themselves up on both sides. One side is morally outraged at what Jimmy Sonni at the Washington Examiner called “Zuckerberg’s efforts to ingratiate himself with an authoritarian regime – a regime that Facebook has an enormous incentive to placate…” The other side rejects the moral outrage. They believe that Zuckerberg should be applauded for attempting to position Facebook as a means to give Chinese more access to the global Internet.

Both sides (ostensibly) share a disgust with the regime in Beijing. One seeks to undermine it via isolation, another by assimilation. Yet both are naive; isolating China’s internet, thus compelling China to develop its own social media, will no more back China into a corner than did compelling it to develop its own newspapers and television networks; similarly, the belief that the Party will sit back and allow foreign social media to undermine its position belies history and underestimates the efficacy of the Party’s methods.

If Mark Zuckerberg wants to help Facebook make a fortune in China, all while serving the interests of the Chinese people over those of the Party, he start by asking himself a hard question. Why did Lu Wei really come visit Facebook?

Because it is entirely possible that Beijing needs Facebook almost as badly as Facebook needs China. Lu Wei is a good poker player, and he is surely not showing any of his cards, but it may be that in order to accomplish the Party’s goals, it needs Facebook’s cooperation and assistance, willing, witting or otherwise.

Zuck needs to pull his best, smartest people together and think this through. Because if they figure it out, they may not have to behave like lickspittles, handing over the keys to the empire in return for a handful of vague promises. Instead, they can improve their negotiating position and either stroll into China with heads high, or walk away knowing that it was the best alternative to doing so.

There is much more too all of this than meets the eye. Facebook’s founder has the wherewithal to suss this out. He should do so, and soon, before the company finds itself a pawn in somebody else’s game.

 

Wanda Arrives Arrives in Beverly Hills

“China Developer Buys Robinsons-May Site in Beverly Hills”
Julie Makinen
Los Angeles Times
August 8, 2014

The Times scored a win in picking up this story about how Chinese development giant Wanda is raising its bets on US real estate. Based in Beijing, Makinen can be forgiven, though, for not addressing what the real story is likely to be: the challenges the company is likely to face in gaining approval for its project.

Wanda has yet to reveal plans for the site, but the location has some particular challenges familiar to locals. Traffic is already very heavy going into the area on both Wilshire Boulevard and on Santa Monica Boulevard, which border the site, and during large parts of the day the proximity of Century City makes Santa Monica Boulevard a parking lot for several miles of its length. The development of a high-density complex on the eight-acre site would only exacerbate the problem.

That issue alone is likely to provoke public opposition to a sizable development. The NIMBY factor in the area is high. I know: I grew up three blocks away, and worked at the recently-demolished department store between college and grad school.

If Wanda is wise, it will embark on a campaign to woo local residents, most of whom live in homes with values far in excess of $3 million (and who are accustomed to wielding political clout with the local government,) as well as the Beverly Hills City Council. It will have architects focus on creating a site that integrates elegantly with the Century City, downtown Beverly Hills, with the Hilton, and with the elementary school and neighborhoods to the north.

If the project is clearly woven into the broader fabric of Beverly Hills, seeking to update an enhance rather than just plonking another Chinese multi-use center like it created in Beijing, Wanda will wind up with a flagship property and the respect of the business community in Southern California.

That costs money, of course. But Wanda has plenty of money, and it has every reason to make nice in the US as it diversifies its portfolio beyond China’s increasingly uncertain real estate market.

Electric Cars and China

“The mechanical value of the automobile is falling, but the electric value of the car is rising.”

— Amit Gattani, Micron Technologies

Let’s take Amit’s point one step further: the trajectory of automotive development is such that the car is evolving into an oversized piece of consumer electronics. If there is a single factor that inveighs in favor of China eventually becoming the automaker to the world, this is it.