Silicon Hutong

China and the World of Business • China Business and the World

Silicon Hutong - China and the World of Business • China Business and the World

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.

Quotable Friday: Sir Martin Sorrell

“I remain an unabashed bull on China,” said Sorrell. “There are worries about the slowing of growth but that was inevitable. It was natural it was going to slow. We are concerned about the stock market bubble and the fall in the stock markets has implications. Having said that, we still believe in the longer term in the economy. We think it is a short term phenomenon.”

Source: WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell bullish about China prospects despite sales slowdown | Media | The Guardian


Concept of the Week: Urbanizing In Place

Urbanizing in placeconcept – the idea that China’s urbanization is not being driven entirely by migration from the countryside to the cities, but that large areas that Beijing’s statisticians might once have considered “rural” are now considered “urban.”

In-place urbanization could occur in one of three scenarios.

The physical area of a municipality has been expanded to include what was once surrounding countryside.

In the second scenario, a village that was once considered part of the countryside has now grown into a town that a demographer or statistician would now classify as urban.

In the third scenario, a group of villages in a given area are considered to be conglomerated as a single administrative entity and reclassified as a single town.

In these cases, China’s urbanization is taking place without migration, and presents a different set of policy, marketing, and personal challenges and opportunities than classical migration-based urbanization.

The Third Way on Xi

English: "Long live the great Communist P...

English: “Long live the great Communist Party of China” in Xinhuamen, Beijing ‪中文(简体)‬: 新华门左标语“伟大的中国共产党万岁” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Is the Chinese dragon losing its puff?”
Peter Harcher
The Canberra Times
March 16, 2015

Professor David Shambaugh’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that China’s political system is about to hit some very rough times (“The Coming Chinese Crackup“) has provoked intense debate. Peter Harcher’s article written in response offers a neat summary of what makes Shamgaugh’s conclusions so debatable.

I nevertheless absolutely reject his conclusion which I find astonishingly ill-informed. The pervasive sense of dramatic change is, I have found, combined in almost all Chinese minds with satisfaction and confidence that the change is urgently needed–indeed long overdue—and in the right direction.

It also demonstrates that the American academy has powerful competition as a source of cogent analysis on Chinese politics.

Any serious discussion of China’s future must include non-Academics like economist Arthur Kroeber and Australians like Geremie Barmé of the Australian National University and David Kelly of China Policy in Beijing.

Barmé, for his part, writes off Shambaugh’s collapsism as the view of an American deeply anxious about America. Kroeber, an American himself, argues that the Party remains as strong and adaptable as it was in 2008, when Shambaugh wrote his excellent China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation.

My problem with both sides is the determinism implicit in the arguments. The Party’s collapse might not be imminent, but neither is its adaptability without real limits, imposed upon it by important groups and individuals within its own ranks. I find it hard to believe that Barmé and Kroeber would argue that point.

We thus must agree that there may be circumstances under which the Party might prove insufficiently adaptable to avert an existential crisis. And before you protest, let us agree that there may be circumstances under which any polity, however strong and adaptable, might face the same limits. In that case, the answer is neither “the Party will collapse” nor “the Party is too adaptable to collapse.” It is, rather “under what circumstances would the Party face the danger of collapse?”

Like most of us, neither I nor my clients can afford to treat China like its future is a game of roulette: bet on Red, the Party stays in power. Bet on black, and it collapses. Creating strategy in business means contending with all possibilities, balancing them, and coming up with a pathway that appropriately addresses them.

We can be neither Cassandra nor Polyanna. We should not overestimate the considerable challenges Xi Jinping faces as he guides the nation through roiling and uncharted waters, but none of us can afford to underestimate them.

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 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
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 “” 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 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.

Beijing’s New Internet Buzzphrase

Hutong Forward
Planespotting at Reagan National
1655 hrs 

In a ten minute speech last month in London at the 50th Meeting of ICANN, Lu Wei, the Minister of China’s Cyberspace Affairs Administration, introduced a set of seven principles under which, according to him, the Internet should be governed. While not much attention was paid Mr. Lu or his speech outside of the confines of the attendees, we can assume that it was an official statement of government policy, and therefore worth understanding, analyzing, and discussing.

His principles, as I heard them, are:

  1. The Internet should benefit all mankind and all of the world’s peoples, rather than cause harm;

  2. The Internet should bring peace and security to all countries, instead of becoming a channel for one country to attack another;

  3. The Internet should be more concerned with the interests of developing countries, because they are more in need of the opportunities it brings;

  4. The internet should place emphasis on the protection of citizens’ legitimate rights instead of becoming a hotbed for lawbreaking and criminal activities, let alone becoming a channel for carrying out violent terrorist attacks;

  5. The internet should be civilized and credible, instead of being full of rumors and fraud;

  6. The Internet should spread positive energy, and inherit and carry forward the outstanding culture of human beings;

  7. The Internet should be conducive to the healthy growth of young people, because that concerns the future of mankind.

There is a lot to grist in these, but what jumped out at me was this catchphrase “credible Internet.”

There is a ring to it that suggests that we are going to be hearing this much more in the coming months, but the aim seems clear. While in the past the boundaries of online expression have been defined by prurient content on the one hand and seditious content on the other, there is now a third piece to that troika: rumors.

This is worrisome: “non-credible” content implies a much wider scope for restriction than the modus vivendi we have enjoyed in the past, and opens to official censure a vast swath of online content. You can avoid posting prurient content rather easily by avoiding adult themes and illustrations. You can dodge seditious content by steering clear of domestic political issues. But “non-credible” content is in the eye of the beholder, and can easily extend to commercial content and company web sites as well as posts on Weibo or WeChat.

Watch this space, as I suspect we are going to learn more about where the authorities are going to be drawing the line. In the meantime, any company or individual producing a content-laden Chinese site or posts on Weibo or WeChat should err on the side of caution. Chinese law is unkind to those whom the authorities accuse of spreading rumors, and demonstrable veracity may not be enough to keep you out of the wrong kind of spotlight.

China Goes West: The Coming Rise of Chinese Brands

China Goes West: Everything You Need To Know About Chinese Companies Going Global
Joel Backaler
May 2014

If there is one question that vexes many observers in China, it is this: how can Chinese companies begin to build – or become – global brands? Thirty-six years after the beginning of reforming and opening, only a handful of Chinese companies – Lenovo, Huawei, Haier, Tsingtao – have made the leap to global leadership in their sectors. This invites a rude comparison: 36 years after it was flattened by the US Army Air Corps, Japan had already produced dozens of leading consumer brands – Sony, Panasonic, Toyota, Honda, Canon, Nikon – that were disrupting industries around the world. Why has China not produced a similar – or even larger – crop of world leaders in the same time frame?

In an intriguing new book, China Goes West: Everything You Need To Know About Chinese Companies Going Global, author Joel Backaler offers us a glimpse into why there are so few Chinese global brands. And some of the reasons will surprise you. I won’t spoil it for you, but the reasons go way beyond marketing competency.

Backaler, who has spent the better part of a decade studying Chinese business and is the author of a highly respected blog on the subject, was given unprecedented access to the companies and their executives, and tapped the knowledge of some of the wisest observers of Chinese companies.

Through the stories of these firms, Backaler explains what drives Chinese enterprises to even consider going global in the first place. He describes the painful path that China’s pioneering Champions followed to get there. And he leaves you wondering why, despite the potential rewards, an more than a handful of Chinese companies would bother.

But Backaler pulls no punches – he clearly believes that we are on the cusp of a major change, one that will see a rash of Chinese companies go global, and in the process disrupt global markets much the same way the Japanese did in the 1980s. You may not agree – but Backaler’s makes a persuasive case, and he makes some pointed suggestions on what the rest of us should do in response.

China Goes West is not a marketing book, but it is a book all of us must read for a simple reason: it describes how China will build global companies, and it gives us the strategic insight we are all going to need to either help them – or to help their competitors stop them.

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And Here Come the Microfilm Regulations

In the Hutong
Beijing Youth Politics College
1603 hrs

A few weeks ago, we noted that the growing phenomenon of microfilms – motion pictures produced inexpensively with digital technology and distributed online – was becoming too popular to long avoid the attention of regulators.

Now, it appears, those regulations have come. As the Associated Press notes:

This week’s update of a two-year-old regulation on the supervision of online dramas and microfilms has raised fears of stifling creativity. The broadcast administration now requires content makers to register with their real names, production companies to obtain operating licenses and report their content before it is put online, and video-hosting companies to keep records of uploaded content.

This places microfilm producers in one of two boxes: they will either be legit, or they will go guerrilla, and if they do the latter, the best avenues of distribution will be closed to them. Of all of the regulations, the last is the kicker. Video hosting companies, who thrive because the government chooses not to look too closely at whether their most popular content has been approved for broadcast, will anxious to avoid antagonizing their regulator.

Depending on how stringent the regulations are and the spirit under which they are enforced, there are two likely outcomes to these regulations: a vastly larger and more creative film industry; or the world’s largest guerrilla film market. If the government simply uses the licensing regime to turn microfilms producers into legitimate small businesses, they create a tax base and the wherewithal to fill the digital pipeline with legitimate, local entertainment. They also take a step toward turning China into the global film powerhouse the government aches to create.

At first blush, this outcome seems unlikely: why regulate if you are trying to grow an industry? In China, though, because a business license is granted for one or more specific activities, the act of regulation actually creates a channel to legitimize a business, and thus afford it the ability to operate above board. Further, if the government only requires “reporting” of content and not approval prior to posting, this alone represents a major step for filmmakers.

Even under such a regime, the government will continue order the removal of any film that steps beyond the bounds of Party propriety into forbidden topics or prurient content. That door of control remains open to them, as it is today.

If, on the other hand, the government is niggardly with microfilm licenses, or if it lays upon producers onerous approval requirements as a part of the reporting process, the result will be a community of guerrilla filmmakers and sites that distribute their works. At that point, there will be no regulating the content, and filmmakers will feel free to take on even themes that would discomfit the party.

Under a draconian implementation of these laws, distribution will not stop: it is, actually, easy to envision people sharing forbidden films via email, torrent, thumb drive or other means, from person to person, much as samizdat literature did in the Soviet Union during its final decades.

The rational choice seems to call for a robust, regulated film business that builds China’s soft power and draws its eyeballs away from foreign content. We will know within six months how this will all shake out.

Five Predictions: China’s Business Environment in 2014

Hutong West
Sunday Afternoon Countdown to Morning in Beijing
1526 hrs. 

Much ink and focus has been given of late to understanding China’s political evolution. Too little, on the other hand, has been given to what it will all mean to those of us who must decide what role China will play in our business plans in the next two to three years.

Futurism is alchemy in the best of circumstances, and nowhere more so than in the case of China. Nonetheless, if we extrapolate from current events, it appears that China has embarked on a course of commercial nationalism, if not outright mercantilism.

In the spirit of the season, then, we offer our five predictions for 2014:

1. China will build a more protected environment at home for its state-owned, state-coopted, and “accidental champion” enterprises through an increase in the use of soft protectionism.

2. Those enterprises will thrive at home, but increasingly will be pushed abroad, seeking prestige, less competition, and faster growth.

3. Trade and industrial policy will test the absolute limits of what China can get away with under the WTO, and Beijing will conduct a propaganda campaign to try and undermine the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

4. Foreign brands will find it more difficult to gain share in China. In addition to soft protectionism, they will face the continued relative decline in the prestige of foreign goods/brands in a growing number of sectors.

5. In 2014 we will see the beginnings of a new crop of Chinese entrepreneurs, more of whom will be starting their companies from second, third, and fourth tier cities, or even overseas. The cost and complexity of doing business in China’s first tier cities – along with the declining quality of life – will shift focus away from Beijing and Shanghai.

I’ll be addressing these more in the coming year.

Big Pharma, Bad Medicine, and What GSK Can Teach MNCs in China

Hutong West
Watching Louis Malle films
0813 hrs

I’m a little late to the bar with my take on this, but here it is, in three parts. Experienced China hands – go straight to the third section below.

When I first joined a global PR firm in China in 2000, I spent one day in my first week reviewing potential clients with my new boss. While my beat at the time was technology companies, I suggested we also look at pursuing some healthcare clients, maybe the big pharmaceutical companies. Surely, I thought, growing prosperity would send the demand for medicines skyrocketing, but local challengers would bring increasingly heated competition. A high-profit industry vulnerable to local competition sounded like the ideal client for us.

My boss gave a derisive snort and told me to forget big pharma. Seeing my confusion and taking pity upon the ignorant, she softened, and then gave me an eye-opening education in the ways of the pharmaceutical business in China. I won’t recount the details, but the gist was that pharmaceutical firms didn’t need public relations, because, allegedly, they marketed their wares in a rather more straightforward manner: they simply spiffed hospitals and physicians for prescribing the drugs.

Why spend money on PR, the thinking went, if what you needed was sacks of cash? I promptly forgot about Big Pharma in China until two weeks ago. Now it is clear that the plight of GSK and its cohorts is something none of us should forget.

The China operation of GSK stands accused of price fixing, of bribing doctors and hospitals by funneling those funds through travel agencies, hiding the bribes as travel costs and thus engaging in fraudulent financial accounting, and of conducting an internal investigation that failed to turn up any of these actions – actions the company now acknowledges were perpetrated by at least some employees.

This is an ugly litany, but it is not a new one. For over a decade it has been something of an open secret that some major pharmaceutical firms have been pursuing some variant of the pay-for-prescribe model. Doubtless, over the years many of those companies were counseled to cease such practices by employees and advisers. (There is some speculation as to why GSK was singled out as the monkey that would kill the chicken, but I’ll leave that to others.)

But one wonders whether, under the circumstances, GSK had a choice. It is a China business truism is that once a company has been through the market entry obstacle course and has begun generating (often spectacular) profits here, the pressure to sustain and grow that flow of cash is enormous. News about a company’s business in China moves the share price, and the prospects for business in the PRC is a key topic at a growing number of quarterly earnings calls. And the question is never “how” a company is doing business in China, but “how much.”

Capital, like justice, is willfully blind.

In a market where doctors make a pittance, where hospitals are overwhelmed yet constrained from charging reasonable rates for  care, the medical profession aches for streams of revenue that will keep the wheels on, if not line the otherwise threadbare pockets of underpaid physicians and administrators. Pharmaceutical companies foreign and domestic offer a ready source of cash, inciting a practice so pervasive that any drug firm unwilling to pony-up is simply not in the game. Add those pressures together, and a company could find itself fairly pushed down a slippery slope.

Having invested heavily for years in people and facilities and immersed in an industry where “everyone does it” and apparently gets away with it, it is easy to see why a company like GSK might be tempted – nay, compelled – to engage in behavior considered unethical or illegal elsewhere. At that point, the only alternative was to pack up and leave. This, it seems, was never an option.

And that is precisely the point.

GSK and several other multinational pharmaceutical firms look set to undergo a public revelation of the ugliest parts of their China businesses. That these revelations will damage the companies prospects in the world’s largest market is a given. All that remains to be seen is how far the Chinese government is prepared to go in sanctioning these companies for their past behavior.

Those events will take their own course. What must concern us now is a more urgent question: what other industries in China hide similar practices?

Already in the past week the Chinese government has taken to task the handful of international firms supplying infant formula to the Chinese market. The charge: price-fixing. Never mind that local companies in the same industry, by taking production shortcuts, have earned a reputation for sickening and killing children with their product, and that parents able to afford it in desperation have taken to buying imported formula often smuggled from abroad.

In so doing the government has sent a powerful message not once, but twice: no industry or company, however vital to the well-being of the Chinese people, will be allowed to engage in illegal and unethical business practices, and the foreign firms will be punished first and with greatest vigor.

In so doing, the government accomplishes three aims: it slows or stops practices likely to enrage the populace; it sends an unequivocal warning to its own local industry; and it cripples or eliminates foreign competition for its own local firms.

To every other multinational company in every other industry in China, ask not for whom the bell tolls. Xi Jinping’s administration has put the world on notice that no matter what local firms do, unethical and illegal business practices on the part of multinationals in China will no longer be tolerated, and in fact they’re coming for the foreigners first.

It is time for an immediate and thorough self-examination for the kinds of business practices that will not withstand government or public scrutiny. The time to clean up is right now, even if it cost contracts, relationships, and hard-won business. Failure to do so only puts off the reckoning and ensures that the cost will be much higher when that reckoning comes.

And there is one more lesson for the leaders and directors of any company that does or would do business in China, perhaps the most important of all.

A company entering the China market may well decide how much it is willing to spend in time, resources, and capital to attempt success there. No board worth its name would underwrite a leap into the PRC with a blank check: at some point, the cost is higher than it is worth. There would be no shame in such a decision, if for no other reason than the list of companies who have given up on China after finding no long-term payoff is long and distinguished.

But it is rare to find a company that has set an explicit limit on how far it is willing to go ethically to succeed in China, to say “here are the things we will absolutely not do in order to win in this market,” and gain board and shareholder support for that initiative. The readiness to define how much a company is willing to invest in the pursuit of success in China, but the failure to define how far it is willing to go to do so is what ensnares good companies like GSK in a web of worst practices.

And that is the lesson for all of us: if we do not draw a line in the ethical sand, stating in advance that our success in China will not be won at the cost of our ethical bottom line, we are effectively licensing the people building and operating our offices and operations in the PRC to do anything in the pursuit of financial gain.

Whatever your ethics, the Chinese government is now making clear the practical costs of pursuing such a path. If there is a future for foreign enterprise in the PRC, it belongs to companies who are prepared to live and die by a better standard of behavior, not to those who follow the lead of the meanest actors in the market.

China and Soft Protectionism

In the Hutong
What, cold again?
2142 hrs.

Protest in Hong-Kong against WTO on december 2005

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though we may not be talking about it much, those of us who watch China for a living are looking forward with a mixture of dread and anticipation to the upcoming “two meetings,” the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and the China People’s Political Consultative Committee. Even though the die of China’s future leadership was cast at the Party Congress in November, the coming NPC is the juncture where the reins of government are handed over to the new leadership, and the retiring members of the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao entourage graduate to the status of “elder statesmen.” For that reason, this is the point at which we will all be watching for some indication of how Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will run the show a little differently.

While some will be looking for signs of political reform, my eyes will be cast elsewhere, namely to trade. What I want to find out is whether and how the new administration plans to play by the rules it signed up for when it acceeded to the WTO eleven years ago. Or, indeed, how it intends not to do so.

Since at least the early days of the Hu Jintao administration it was clear that the so-called Fourth Generation of leaders was somewhat less enthusiastic about playing the globalization game, and much more interested in just keeping a lid on the place. Stability was the name of the game, and the spirit of we-can-take-whatever-free-trade-can-dish-out that exuded from Zhu Rongji like a heavy cologne was blown out the window when Zhu left the building in 2003. In its place came a series of policies that I term collectively “Soft Protectionism (软保护主义),” a series of measures and behaviors that allow China to circumvent the intent of the global free trade regime almost at will.

Soft Protectionism, as I see it, consists of several pieces.

National Standards. We see this most blatantly when it comes to technology. The government establishes a standard based on a technology that is locally developed, and by so doing secures all or at least part of the market for Chinese output. The TD-SCDMA standard for third-generation mobile phones is a great example, as is the WAPI wireless LAN standard that was supposed to supplant Wi-Fi. China has learned that this policy is best conducted when it is done within the parameters of global standards-making bodies like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE.) Through organizational activism, horse-trading, and the occasional theatrical tantrum, China is able to gain acceptance for standards that are, in some cases, little more than laboratory experiments. Using this global legitimacy, the standards ploy becomes legitimate. And lest you accuse me of being biased, let me make clear that we Americans all but invented this game, and we perfected it with our bull-headed nationalist behavior when it came to standards for digital televisions and the first digital phones. China is simply turning the tables.

Creative Use of Non-Tariff Barriers. Despite the openness promulgated by the WTO, there are still back doors that will allow governments to selectively protect industries. The first and favorite of these is the so-called National Security Exemption from the World Trade Agreements. The key phrase is “Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed . . . (b) to prevent any contracting party from taking any action which it considers necessary for the protection of its essential security interests”

That exemption gives wide latitude to any government willing to interpret it liberally, and China can and does do so, especially when it comes to information products and software. Other countries use this exemption to ensure that they have access to weapons production in the event of international isolation. The U.S. uses it, for example, to ensure its ships, tanks, and warplanes are all made by factories on US soil, but it does not use it to stop the import of foreign merchant hulls, diesel trucks, or civil aircraft. China, according to Nathaniel Ahrens at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is comfortable crossing that line.

China also manages to restrict the free trade in publications, television, film, and music by stretching the WTO’s Cultural exemption (introduced by France in 1993) beyond the breaking point. Under the guise of protecting its vulnerable culture, China requires specific approval for any publication, recording, video, or film coming into the country. Keep in mind that we are talking about the culture that for nearly two thousand years has managed to assimilate every culture and nation that tried to subjugate it. Nonetheless, the exemption is used at every juncture.

Passive resistance to WTO Rulings. Rather than submit to WTO rulings it does not like, China conducts a passive-aggressive policy of resistance, even at the risk of undermining the institution. Dan Harris of China Law Blog fame put it like this:

“China still intends to remain within the WTO so as to be able to obtain certain trade benefits. Rather than openly disregard the minerals decision, China will resort to “procedural games” (游戏规则) to render any response against China ineffective as a practical matter. China is proud of how it has  used “procedural games” to avoid its responsibilities to respond to adverse WTO decisions and it openly states that it will continue to use this approach in these “national interest” cases. In fact, the term “procedural game” has become a standard feature of the China’s trade policy vocabulary.”

Government Catch-up initiatives. These are the micro-level great leaps that the government attempts to engineer over time in order to substitute domestically-made products and technology for locally-made equivalents. The past thirty years has seen China-government sponsored initiatives succeed in “catching up” in several industries, including shipbuilding, digital telephone switches, heavy trucks, wind-power generators, and solar power, and it is attempting to do so in automobiles, commmercial aircraft, microprocessors, and encryption software. The end result is the same: serviceable and appropriate products from overseas are gradually pushed out by government programs designed to deny them access to the market.

Government encouraged SOE support. This comes in many forms, but the most prevalent is outright cash payments. By offering low-interest or permanently rolled-over loans for state owned enterprises through state-managed policy banks at either the national or local level, China creates effective trade subsidies that are not counted according to international standards. A senior Obama administration official confided in me on the sidelines of the Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing last year that China’s export loans dwarfed even the U.S.’s generous programs through the Export Import Bank.

There is not much that the US, the EU, or any grouping of governments can do about any of this, short of an all-out trade war, if China chooses to continue with these policies. What this means is that even as a full-fleged WTO member, China is still capable of providing a protected environment for its firms, and has proven willing to do so.

Such policies will help companies beat foreign interlopers at home, but at what cost? At some point China will confront the other edge of that sword, whether in the form of having its behavior mirrored by other countries with tit-for-tat trade measures within the scope of the WTO; or by discovering that the companies it protected at home were weak and unprepared when venturing abroad.

For Xi Jinping, the choice in the coming months is whether to continue to use Soft Protectionism as the nation’s de-facto trade policy, or whether he will instead switch off the pumps and force Chinese companies to build the resilience necessary to beat global competition away from home. For the companies themselves, as Sunzi said, “Enemies strengthen. Allies weaken.” The wise Chinese company will seek to step out from under Beijing’s umbrella as early as possible to learn to compete on a globalized playing field, rather than a nationalized one.

Business and The Xi Team: Focus on the Drivers

Xi Jinping 习近平

Xi Jinping 习近平 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Hutong
Information coma
1958 hrs.

Over the last couple of weeks, several people have asked me what the changeover in the Communist Party leadership will mean for international business in China. The short answer is that if I knew, I’d be wealthy. The longer answer is a bit more helpful.

Many years ago I had a mentor and boss who taught me that the parade of personalities and the flow of policies were fun to watch, but that sticking your finger up to feel the political winds would never offer the insight a business requires to make decisions beyond a six month threshold. What you need to understand, she told me, were the fundamental drivers of policy, not the policies themselves.

By fundamental drivers she meant the five or six issues that the nation’s leaders worried about the most, overlaid with the three core goals of the party at any given time. Add to that a general understanding of the climate in the country, and any relatively educated person could at least have a general hunch about a company’s horizons.

For example, I believe the thee core goals of the Party are:

  1. The continuance of Party rule
  2. The social stability of the nation
  3. China’s rise to global economic and political leadership

No rocket science there. Beyond this, though, things get tricker. What are the five things the members of the Politburo Standing Committee worry about when they wakes up at four o’clock in the morning?

Here is my list of the top five.

  • Controlling corruption without blackening the entire Party in the process
  • Getting the economy stabilized and on track for continuing growth
  • Keeping the PLA in line while retaining its political support
  • Cleaning up the environment without disrupting the economy
  • Keeping expressions of popular discontent from coalescing into a coherent anti-party front.

These are certainly open for debate, but what all of this suggests is that global companies will be welcome in China to the extent that they address (i.e., demonstrably take into account) these five priorities. What is more, given that domestic attitudes about foreign investment in China have, in the past five years, gone from “generally positive” to “generally ambivalent,” companies are going to find themselves compelled to make a case to their local stakeholders that they have something unique to offer just by being here.

Mind you, I’m not necessarily talking about approvals to do business, although that is an issue. Instead what I mean is that with every audience, from regulators to consumers, every business would do well to remember that being foreign no longer buys you much, and that in the current environment there is no particular priority placed on letting foreign firms into China.

In short, the outlook is not exceptionally good in the near term, but there is as yet little cause to be pessimistic. All of us need to stay tuned.

The Economist Nails the Case for Elections in Hong Kong

Consultation Document on the Methods for Selec...

Consultation Document on the Methods for Selecting the Chief Executive and for Forming the LegCo in 2012 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Leaving aside any ideological preferences one might have, The Economist makes a realist’s case for elections in Hong Kong.

In this case, though, there are practical reasons for China allowing a proper election, with non-acceptable candidates running too. It would bolster the mainland’s pitch to Taiwan: that “one country, two systems” means what it says. Full democracy may also be the safest option in Hong Kong. The uneasy coalition of Beijing’s supporters on the island—tycoons, party hacks, trade-unionists—could fracture under the weight of another ludicrous selection process. As for everyone else in Hong Kong, they showed in 2003 that when denied electoral outlets for their frustrations, they will take to the streets.

via Hong Kong’s chief-executive “election”: The worst system, including all the others | The Economist.

I can add two more: it would offer the world an opportunity to see the Party administering a high-profile local election, thus adding a much-needed bit of buoyancy to China’s bid for global soft power; and it would provide a laboratory for the Party in its own efforts to evolve.