Looking at how the rise of China is altering the rules of diplomacy, economics, business, national security, the academy, and the arts.

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.

 

Cadillac takes on Tesla

Source: Cadillac has a secret weapon in its quest to beat Tesla at self-driving – The Verge

All very interesting, but it serves as a reminder that GM is still playing catch-up with Tesla in the space.

I’d still by a Tesla before a Cadillac, and I reckon I’m not alone in either the US or China. What about you?

Apocryphal, to be sure, but it suggests that the venerable marque has a brand problem that innovation alone will not solve. I suspect that winning in China will be critical for the future of the Cadillac brand, determining whether it keeps up with Lexus, or whether it struggles to keep pace with Lincoln.

Yahoo and China, Part MCLXIV

Yahoo! office in Burbank, CA
Yahoo! office in Burbank, CA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2007, Yahoo agreed to pay millions of dollars to set up a foundation to aid Chinese political dissidents, after the company was accused of turning over information to the Chinese government. A lawsuit filed on Tuesday claims most of the money is gone, and little went to help imprisoned activists.

Source: Yahoo Accused Of Mismanaging Millions That Were Meant For Humanitarian Aid – BuzzFeed News

Yahoo! made billions on its Alibaba investment, and for many years could credit the Alibaba shares in its vaults for much of its market cap. For that reason, a lot of us would mark Yahoo’s efforts in China as a success.

It is probably too early to make that call. The full story of the company’s China experience has yet to be told, and now that Yahoo no longer exists as an independent entity, it will either be told now or buried for a long time.

But some things won’t die, and if this most recent lawsuit actually makes it to a courtroom, we may get to see the details of how successive generations of leaders at Yahoo used China to burn cash, divert the attention of company leadership, and destroy shareholder value.

Sadly, I’m betting this case will settle. Verizon doesn’t need the headache, and it really wants to get focused on turning its collection of Yahoo and AOL leftovers into something profitable. It is a shame: buried in Yahoo’s vaults lies the raw material of a China business “how-not-to” textbook.

 

The LeEco Problem

Source: Outspoken Billionaire Works to Salvage His Tech Empire in China – Bloomberg

Even if LeEco and the rest of Jia Yueting‘s business holdings implode over the next few weeks, those of us who will pick through the wreckage looking for the lessons will surely learn two things very quickly.

The first thing that we will discover will be that anyone who dismisses Jia as a “fool” or an “idiot” will be wrong. Under the bluster, we will find that Jia is an exceptionally smart guy who had a fantastic vision for his company.

The second thing we will find is that the reason for Jia’s failure was not his overall strategy. Let me explain that a bit.

Jia is an implicit subscriber to an ethos that is common among entrepreneurs that I call “conglomeration mystique.” Seeing himself as cut from the same cloth as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos, Jia sees no reason why he cannot do what they did.

All things being equal, he’s right. Other entrepreneurs, supported by a war chest from a core cash-cow business, have leapt into unrelated fields and surprised their critics. I know of no gift possessed by those people that Mr. Jia might have lacked. So the vision was not wrong.

Jia’s mistake is one that has plagued so many Chinese entrepreneurs: operating in a market that rewards speed and short-termism, he became convinced that he had to do everything right now, or the opportunity would be lost to him.

As the Bloomberg article hints, Jia’s pace of execution outstripped his ability to build the capital to support it. At several points, he likely had the choice to slow down and let the capital catch up. Instead, he chose to risk overextension, to gamble on things working out just right, and in so doing proved Gordon Sullivan’s maxim that “hope is not a method.”

The question this leaves is thus: how do you get an entrepreneur, forged in China’s Make-It-Today-For-Tomorrow-The-Government-Will-Change-the-Rules business environment, to eschew the very thinking that made him money in the first place? I don’t think you can, which means that the kind of grand-scale Hail Mary approach that has tripped LeEco is likely to become a fixture on the China business scene in the coming years.

For some, it will work. And LeEco is down, but it is not out, yet.

 

Did Uber Win in China?

In all of the discussion lately about Uber in China, one topic that is not getting a lot of airplay is the way in which the outcome for Uber is being positioned. One person for whom I have a great deal of respect believes that Uber did great, that they wound up with exactly what they wanted in the first place, and that overall the outcome – as junior partner to Didi Chuxing in a combined business – is a victory for Uber.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, to me that seems a bit like spin. First, it is highly unlikely that this is the outcome Uber sought all along. Had it sought a minority stake in Didi, it could have (as Apple did recently) simply written a check, swapped stock, and agreed to work together globally. And it could have been done more quickly, easily, and with less of a drain on company attention and coffers.

Second, all that their efforts won them is a weak role in Didi, just another seat at the table with a group of powerful investors to whom Uber is a very small potato. Had they gone in with an offer early, they may well have saved everyone money and saved Didi from the need to turn to outside investors. Uber may well have ended up with a less diluted position.

Third, they sit with no better odds of a payoff now than before. Didi is a rapidly-growing company with a need for a huge war chest in order to secure its market position. Payback to investors will be some time down the line, and others will decide when and if Uber will ever see a dividend. Even if it does, the question will remain as to whether that dividend was a fair compensation for the price and a fair return to investors on the risk.

Finally, with its new A-List of global investors, Didi may well prove to be a more formidable rival outside of China in the long term than it might have been otherwise, especially if Uber had shown up at the beginning offering a strategic tie-up. Now Didi has international ambitions, and with an 85% market share at home in a much bigger market, will be in a better position to face Uber in other markets.

So did Uber win? Events will tell us, but probably not for some time. And that’s about the most you can say. From a removed perspective today, Uber is salvaging the most it can from a shipwreck, and pretending that it intended to be on the rocks all along won’t do much for the company’s credibility with the Street.

 

Does Didi Deserve Credit for Uber’s China Fail?

For two years, Jean Liu and Travis Kalanick were mortal adversaries, as their businesses, the world’s two largest ride-sharing companies, fought an increasingly bitter and expensive war. Kalanick, CEO of Uber, the San Francisco-based ride-hailing app, was trying to muscle into China, where Liu is president of Didi Chuxing, Uber’s Chinese equivalent.

Charles Clover at the FT offers this dramatic lede for an article that lays the credit for Uber’s defeat in China at the feet of Didi Chuxing’s Jean Liu.

Ms. Liu and her team at Didi deserve much credit for their victory in China’s shared-ride wars. All of us wish them only the best as they take on what will undoubtedly prove to be the far more formidable adversary: a Chinese government decidedly uncomfortable with leaving in the hands of a privately-owned company an increasingly essential piece of the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

But an honest assessment of the battle must conclude that Ms. Liu was helped at many turns by a series of unforced errors on Uber’s part. I won’t go into them here – take a look at my interview with Jeremy Goldkorn at SupChina, where I lay out Uber’s four most fundamental mistakes in China.

In addition, let’s also remember a few things:

  • Didi’s financial backers gave the company the war chest it needed to fight a street battle of attrition against one of the planet’s best funded unicorns.
  • Ms. Liu’s boss, Didi Chairman Cheng Wei, was hardly a figure head in this battle. Not for nothing did Forbes Asia name him 2016 Businessman of the Year.
  • Didi came to the battle fighting on familiar, home ground, and was in substantial possession of the field already when Uber showed up. Uber was battling an entrenched player as an interloping underdog in a market increasingly unfriendly to outsiders. Uber’s rhetoric and war-chest aside, they were the weaker player.
  • It was not “Jean vs. Travis.” It was Jean vs. the Uber China team, and as time goes on it will become more clear that Travis and his team were relatively hands-off, allowing the local team to run things. Didi defeated Travis’s partner’s team.
  • Regulatory changes in the market played a significant role in the driving Uber’s surrender. Unless Didi orchestrated those (not impossible), the government was also a player in the game. And if Didi did orchestrate those, protectionism beat Uber as much as Didi’s executive team.

To the victor goeth the spoils, and Ms. Liu is clearly a capable executive whose career is now pointed toward even bigger and better things. But there is nothing learned by pretending that this was not a far more complex battle than the FT seeks to portray as it graces Ms. Liu with the laurels.

One more interesting point from the article. Ms. Liu and Didi continue to play the outcome as a “win-win” for Didi and Uber. I’ve spent a career in PR in China, and to me that messaging carries a very heavy whiff of spin. I’ll explain why in a later post.

 

Responsa: The Influence of Business on Government

Hutong West
Shivering in SoCal
1601 hrs.

In response to my article “Standards of Influence,” an old friend and fellow China PR executive raised his hand to offer a gentle objection. While agreeing with the premise, he suggested that if commercial interest disclose their efforts, won’t the public sector put up resistance to their input, as it would be seen as bowing to foreign interests. He further suggested that there might be circumstances when it would be best to allow such processes to take place behind close doors.

This is a fair point, and needs to be addressed.

The combination of popular sentiment, social media watchdogs, and the Party’s desire to short-circuit the cycle of corruption is fostering greater transparency in China around the influence that companies (especially multinationals) try to exert on political decisions. Companies caught trying to change the rules in their favor are finding their operations subject to greater official scrutiny, and officials who appear to have taken part in such discussions are being investigated (or worse) with greater regularity. The potential downsides of the process are starting to outweigh the potential benefits.

This does not mean businesses cannot or should not have a voice in public decision making. Indeed, the wise regulator seeks the open input of a wide range of stakeholders, and businesses owe it to their own stakeholders to stand up and be counted. But when that voice is cloaked, the slope to malfeasance and corruption steepens and is carpeted with bacon grease. Sunlight ensures that the role of commerce in the process serves the public good as well as the private interest.

This means that those of us who operate at the nexus between industry and government in China cannot rely on the time-tested tools of government influence. We must chart a new path that is radically transparent yet equally (if not more) effective. That is a very narrow bridge to walk, and will require a great deal of imagination even in those cases where there is a high congruence between the needs of the nation and the desires of the merchant.

Yet it is critical for us to do so – and not only in China. Around the world there is a growing distaste for (and pushback against) the role that commercial interests play in the formulation of policy. Indeed, China has a deep ideological bias against such interactions. To continue to act as if these sentiments are irrelevant is aught more than denial.

Certainly, there will always be situations where it is better for all – including the public at large – for government discussions with industry to take place behind closed doors. But we should take for granted that in most cases, secrecy does not serve the public, and companies should thus shy from such approaches. If the mounting social and environmental costs of China’s development offer proof of nothing else, it is for the virtue of public scrutiny.

For a company to have real influence in policy in the future, it must first carry the burden of proof that the policies it is advocating are in the service of the public interest. Public relations people should encourage this: not only does this eliminate for companies the risk of later disclosure and the implication of impropriety, it also serves as prima facie proof of good corporate citizenship.

NGOs and Chinese Law

At the invitation of the folks from LinkedIn, I am experimenting with blogging on their platform as a compliment to what I do here. LinkedIn won’t replace what I do on this blog – in fact, as I’ve discovered, it is getting me back into blogging after my overlong book hiatus – but I’m going to avoid cross-posting entire posts – I’ll just link back-and-forth as I figure out what best belongs here, and what is more suited for posting there.

One of the first posts I’ve placed on the site is one that examines the meaning of the upcoming legislation on international NGOs in China. My prognosis for the law itself is not cheery – no surprise to anyone following the current regulatory climate in Beijing. Nonetheless, the piece is not a screed against the Chinese government as much as it is a warning to NGOs to prepare in advance for the government to be more meddlesome.

If you are not on LinkedIn, Dan Harris at the superb China Law Blog reprinted the post in its entirety, with some very generous prefatory comments.

I’ve got another article in the works on NGOs in China, so any thoughts you might have on this one would be welcome.

We were never the “big shots”

Hutong West
Contemplating the mathematics of wavelets
1335 hrs.

The misleading promotional lead-in to an otherwise pretty good story on expats in This American Life reads:

It used to be that the American expats in China were the big shots. They had the money, the status, the know-how. But that’s changed.

That line is a big, smelly load of unadulterated bunkum. American expats in China were never the big-shots, and any who acted or thought they were soon found themselves either wrestling with terminal culture shock, alcoholic, on a plane back to the US or some combination of all three.

The reason was simple: any expat, American or otherwise, who believed himself or herself to be a big-shot was worse than useless to the organization for which they worked and would rapidly wear out their welcome and usefulness.

No doubt it must be comforting to a few people to think of the first and second generations of American expats as a privileged, arrogant, cloistered lot who behaved like a bunch of swaggering weasels. There were a few. But we didn’t all have money, we didn’t all have status, and many of us who had know-how found that China was often in no position to compensate us for it.

Shameless Plug Dept.: New Fast-Food Paper

Hutong West
Contemplating lunch
1253 hrs.

My most recent paper, this one on addressing the challenges facing fast food franchisors in China, “Jumping China’s Great Food Wall (pdf),” is now up on the Allison+Partners website.

Failing that, you can find the paper on Academia.edu here.

This is more of a practical paper than my last one, giving a quick overview of the uneven success enjoyed by fast food companies in China, and offering a series of prescriptions designed to avoid some of the more serious rocks and shoals, and mitigate the effects of many others.

Case Study: Why You Should Seek Multiple Opinions on China

“Three Things TLD Registries Must Know About China’s Domain Name Regulation”
Chang Jian-Chuan
CircleID
June 18, 2015

I get to talk to groups of businesspeople and business students on a regular basis, and one of the maxims I include in just about every speech or presentation is this:

Don’t get your China advice, whether generally or on a specific issue, from any single individual. China is too large and complex for you to trust the future of your enterprise in this market to the viewpoint of one source, however knowledgeable he/she/they may seem.

The news this week offers a superb example of why this is the case. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has had one if its periodic regulatory spasms regarding the Internet. One of the specific areas covered by the current policy outburst is the arcane but important area of top-level domains (TLDs).

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN, the international body that, among other things, operates the system that makes it possible for you to type “amazon.com” into your browser and get to a bookstore instead of an error page) has recently presided over an explosion of top-level domains (TLDs), those bits of an site name to the right of the dot, like “.com,” “.net,” and “.org.” Where there was once only a handful (in addition to nation-specific top-level domains,) there are now literally hundreds, if not thousands of these, and we’re all having to adjust to a world that includes “.law,” “.ninja,” “.guru,” and “.me,” and .”porn,” among hundreds of others.

China’s adjustment is coming in the form of a new regulation (“Interpretation (Reading) on Carrying Out the Domain Name Registration Services Market Special Action Policy”, promulgated by the MIIT on May 12) restricting how registries (the companies that own the top level domains and collect fees for domain names that use them) can sell domains to customers in China. This is causing a bit of a panic.

Chang Jian-Chuan, a Ph.D. and a research fellow who covers the field for a local registry, offers this piece in a leading industry publication as something of a palliative, and I agree that panic is unhelpful, but he loses me when he writes:

Nowadays a revision of the regulation is under way to reflect the latest expansion of registry operators. However, except for the new requirement that any foreign registry has to establish a legal entity in China, all the other requirements for the license have maintained unchanged. Therefore, it is fairly safe to conclude that there is no “tightened control” or “new move” against New gTLD registries and registrars.

What we have here is a disagreement (to put it mildly) over terms. While a superficial reading of the regulations may suggest no significant change, if you understand both the challenges faced by the companies affected and the knock-on effects of the law, it is clear that the change doe represent a new move that tightens control of the industry and endangers the business of many foreign registries currently selling into China.

From a business standpoint, the regulations throw the business of many registrars into a spin, if for no other reason than they are required to set up and register a local operation in China with $170,000 in registered capital, with local technicians and customer service personnel. Someone familiar with the global registry sector would know that most registries, including some of the larger ones, are not yet operating in China, and for all of those this represents a costly process and significant ongoing expense. For the vast majority of non-Chinese registries the cost will be prohibitive, in effect shutting them out of China.

From a legal standpoint, attorney Allan Marson at Ishimarulaw.com noted in November:

When MIIT promulgates these revisions (and barring any last-minute amendments), they will substantially change the status quo for non-Chinese registries in China. While users in China will continue to be able to access websites outside China (subject to passing through the “Great Fire Wall“), in order to promote and serve Chinese customers, a non-Chinese registry will be required to set up a subsidiary registry or entrust a China-based registry to operate its TLDs in China. Failure to do so will likely result in Chinese registrars refusing to sell domain names under the non-Chinese registries TLDs and preventing resolution of any websites that are already registered under those TLDs.

Contrary to Dr. Chang’s fairly offhanded dismissal, a common sense reading of the regulations from the viewpoint of a foreign registry and from an attorney is that this regulation and its knock-on effects represent a new move and tightened control over the field, one that significantly changes the way most companies in an entire industry must operate in China.

While most of us shy from anything that may seem ad hominem, when seeking advice in China you must consider the provenance and possible motives of any advisor. For example, Dr. Chang is a former official with CNNIC working for a local Chinese registry. This would suggest that, far from being a dispassionate observer, Dr. Chang has some skin in the game. It is worth noting that his company, KNET, stands to gain if the new regulations are enforced to the greatest extent possible. It is also worth noting that his publishing an article in an international industry publication praising an MIIT regulation will not hurt his company’s regulations with its regulatory overlords at MIIT, and that it would have been impolitic – if not commercially suicidal – for Dr. Chang to have written a different opinion.

Let me be clear: the goal of this article is neither to impugn Dr. Chang nor his employer. I am sure Dr. Chang is a wonderful person and an academic of great integrity, and that his company is a fine organization operating in a highly competitive and heavily regulated industry.

The point, rather, is that the advice you receive from anyone about China is often influenced on where the individual comes from, where he or she sits, and the pressures under which he or she operates. The only way to get a true picture of the challenges and opportunities your company faces in China is to reach out to a range of advisors, tapping each for their thoughts, questioning each, and forming a picture based on all of the above.

Brands in China: Cheap or Premium (and Aught Twixt ‘Em)

China’s brandscape is bimodal, polarized between omnipresent discounting versus high prices born of aspiration.  Cheap Xiaomi mobile phones, Yili ice cream and Nestle “three-in-one” instant coffee exist in the same universe as premium Apple, Haagen Dazs and Starbucks.

via Digital Commerce in China: Cheap Tricks or Deep Love? | Tom Doctoroff | LinkedIn.

Once again, the brilliant Tom Doctoroff nails it.

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.

The Confucius Institute Question

To: Dr. Gene Block, Chancellor, University of California, Los Angeles
From: David Wolf, California taxpayer, UCSD alumnus, UC Davis alumnus UCLA extension alumnus, and son of a UCLA alumnus

Dear Dr. Block:

I know that you are busy, so please pardon my intrusion into your holiday week. I have a concern I need to raise with you.

You have enough money in the campus budget to teach Afrikaans, Ancient Near-Eastern Languages, Arabic, Armenian, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Greek (Ancient and Modern), Hausa, Hebrew, Hungarian, Quechua, Iranian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, Hindi, Vietnamese, Thai, Tagalog, Indonesian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, Turkish, Uzbek, Azeri, Ukrainian, Yiddish, Yoruba, and Zulu.

But when it comes to teaching Chinese, the language spoken by more people on the planet earth with the exception of English, you find it necessary to go begging to the Chinese Communist Party – via the Confucius Institutes – to adequately fund and staff instruction in that language.

This is, at best, a misallocation of priorities. If there are three languages that should be taught at your institution, they are English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. All of those should be funded as a matter of necessity. Choosing to fund staff in French, German, and Norwegian over Chinese suggests that the university might be losing touch with its core mission.

At worst, this compromises the independence of a public institution of higher learning. The Chinese government official charged with the oversight of the Confucius Institutes is not shy about her goals.

May I respectfully suggest that the university seek a way to fund instruction in the Chinese language and literature that does not entail a dependence on the funding of a foreign government with complex motives? And may I further suggest that such alternate funding not come paired with implicit leverage that might be used to undermine the political, philosophical, and behavioral freedom of the UCLA community?

Many thanks,

David Wolf