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.
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.
SinoSkeptic (or Sino-skeptic), noun. A person who harbors honest concerns – based on China’s stated policy goals and behavior – about whether China is willing or able to be a positive participant in a global community of nations, (as framed by the system of international institutions that has evolved in the wake of World War II,) or whether its very participation is by accident or design inimical to the intent of those institutions. Different from a “China-basher” or “Panda-puncher,” a person who paints China as an implacable foe based at least in part on that person’s ulterior motives.
One of the early chapters in my book Public Relations in China focuses on the importance of the government as a stakeholder, and the means by which a non-Chinese firm could make its influence felt in the policy-making process.
In a time when the collusion between moneyed interests and government power has become a challenge in countries around the world, we have to ask, “is there any circumstance in which it is right for a commercial interest to influence policy and regulation?”
My answer is a qualified “yes.” There is no shortage of companies that have proven themselves to be bad actors, wielding a degree of influence far out of proportion to that wielded by other stakeholders, and too often acting in ways that undermine the popular best interest.
At the same time, there are occasions when it is proper for a company to make its point of view known to those proposing regulation, and, indeed, there are circumstances in which a company’s decision to withhold its expertise from the regulatory process represents an abandonment of the firm’s civic duty.
What we need is a standard, a framework within which companies can offer their input in the regulatory process without drowning the popular interest. In an effort to incite a discussion on the topic, I’ll suggest the first six criteria.
For those questions of regulation where a commercial entity has, by virtue of its collective experience or expertise a clearer understanding of a problem than a legislature or executive agency, and the commercial entity has nothing to gain or lose from the resolution of the question, that entity is obliged to offer its information and analysis to influence policy for the greater good.
For those questions of regulation where a commercial entity has, by virtue of its collective experience or expertise a clearer understanding of a problem than a legislature or executive agency, and the commercial entity stands to gain or lose from the resolution of the question, that entity may to offer its information and analysis to influence policy provided that it is open about its interests.
At no time should a commercial entity use its influence to mute or silence other voices, even those in opposition.
At all times the information provided to the government agency must be factual and presented in as clear a manner as possible.
At no time may any commercial entity provide direct or indirect payments to any government official or agency that would serve to influence the resolution of a regulatory question.
All efforts should be publicly disclosed in real time.
Arguably, China’s central government has never been as open to outside (and particularly foreign) influence as have those of the West. Looking at the lobbying-industrial complex that has turned entire neighborhoods of the US capital into ghettos of influence peddling, that is not entirely a bad thing. But the nation needs legitimate pathways to allow an appropriate degree of input by all stakeholders, and foreign companies are no exception. Those pathways should never be closed to companies that adhere to a clear and publicly-acceptable set of standards.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The Internet should benefit all mankind and all of the world’s peoples, rather than cause harm;
The Internet should bring peace and security to all countries, instead of becoming a channel for one country to attack another;
The Internet should be more concerned with the interests of developing countries, because they are more in need of the opportunities it brings;
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;
The internet should be civilized and credible, instead of being full of rumors and fraud;
The Internet should spread positive energy, and inherit and carry forward the outstanding culture of human beings;
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.
Hutong Forward In the Shadow of the Pentagon 1710 hrs
As more details about ties between the China operations of Edelman Public Relations and erstwhile China Central Television (CCTV) anchor Rui Chenggang are released, a wave of schadenfreude has risen amongst both Edelman’s rivals and the detractors of public relations. As happened when Edelman was caught in a similar ethical imbroglio when it hired ostensibly independent bloggers to post on behalf of Wal-Mart, PR‘s detractors believe that ethical lapses suffuse China’s public relations industry, while practitioners who don’t work for Edelman see this as a large, hubris-laden market monster getting its due.
Both are wrong.
Ethical lapses are common in PR in China, but “common” is a far cry from endemic. There are PR firms, executives, and teams in China who insist on the highest possible ethical standards. Rather than going broke, they discover that while some clients will shun them for these reasons, a growing number of clients, particularly MNCs, are insisting on high ethical standards and are willing to sacrifice short-term results for a clean reputation. Clean business is good: not only do these PR firms keep very busy, they have to turn opportunities away.
But while these firms are the future of the business, they are still the exception that proves the rule, and no agency executive or corporate PR manager should guffaw too loudly at Edelman’s expense. For far too long as an industry and a craft we have turned a blind eye to practices considered unethical, immoral, or even illegal in more developed markets, failing to see that China was developing and that a reckoning was coming.
Two issues prevent widespread improvement in PR industry ethics in China. First is a persistent exclusivist belief that because this is China, things are done the Chinese way, and always will be. Operating ethically is seen as naive at best, and culturally imperialist at worst (“how dare you impose your values on us!”)
The second issue is fear. PR executives and their agencies believe that if they don’t take advantage of every opportunity, however morally ambiguous, they will lose revenue and clients to competitors who lack – or opportunistically ignore – their moral compasses. The pressure is greatest among the larger agencies where the focus is exclusively financial performance. The accountants calling the shots in New York and London are not measuring ethical compliance: they measure revenues and profits. Faced with the choice of losing a sizable client or cutting some ethical corners, there is no contest.
But the persistent idea that China is an island untouched by ethical standards for the conduct of public relations is now demonstrably so much cow manure. Those who cling to such exceptionalism – and you know who you are – are dinosaurs whose time in this business is limited, regardless of the success they appear to enjoy today.
What happened to Edelman could have happened to any of dozens of local and international PR firms. Rui had made himself a target, and Edelman is the largest PR firm in the world. But the rest of us have now been given a shot across our bows. Either we bite the bullet now, change course and adopt ethical tactics and practices, or we leave our firms, our people, and our livelihoods at the mercy of government caprice. If we don’t, this will happen again, and when it does we will all find that it will not be a single firm in the spotlight – it will be every PR practitioner in China.
If we have not witnessed the peak of mass production in China already, we will soon.
It is not just that costs are rising and production is moving elsewhere: the entire mass production model may well have jumped the shark. The growing costs of energy and commodities, as well as the coming end to the ability of enterprise to externalize the social costs of production will make mass production look increasingly wasteful.
We are leaving the age of “make enough so that everyone has what they want,” and coming into the age of “make just enough of the right stuff.”
Mass is Over…
With due respect to Henry Ford, we are witnessing the birth of a long-term trend away from mass production and toward an industrial model that manufactures a product only when a customer wants it, how she wants it, and where she wants to use it.
This will undermine the consumer model predicated on planned obsolescence, overproduction, and disposable components, and will ultimately destroy economies of scale as the means to lower costs and profit. That means moving the production closer and closer to the customer, and the growth of mass customization. That, in turn, spells the end of our reliance on mass production, and that will turn every shopping mall into a factory floor.
None of this should come as much of a surprise. Mass customization has been a meme of futurists for over a decade, and technologies like print-on-demand and 3D printing are but the harbingers of a new industrial revolution that will turn the point-of-sale into not only the point of production, but, increasingly, the point of design as well.
…So are China’s Days as the World’s Factory
But the implications for China are potentially immense. It suggest that, for most Chinese manufacturers, automation will only delay the inevitable. After all, who needs a factory in China manufacturing blue jeans when you can get yours custom sewed based on your measurements and preference right at the store? Or have your phone assembled for you at a local factory, shipped to you, then upgraded rather than changed when the time comes?
What applies to finished product applies to components as well. Fabric can be woven in custom lots as and when needed – it is not hard to visualize a Home Depot-sized warehouse store filled with machines that will knit, weave, and dye on demand, or a ballroom-sized microchip fab that turns out programmable or application-specific chips in tiny lots.
The future of Chinese manufacturing, then, lies not in producing consumer products for the world, but in producing consumer products for itself, and, I expect, building the machines that make local, personal production possible.
China’s Microfacturing Future
This will not happen right away: China’s mass-production manufacturers still have a long runway ahead as the world retools. It is also likely that the economies of mass production will continue to be essential for low-cost products for sale to developing nations.
But for producers catering to the developed world and the global upper- and middle-classes, that runway is not as long as some would wish. Our best guess: a decade at the outside, but likely less.
Watching this evolve will be fascinating. China, Europe, and the US will be scrambling for the lead as the world’s factory moves in next to the cash register, and it’s anyone’s horse race.
North China Plain On the G11 HST Harmony 0900 hrs.
China has passed what I like to call “Peak Toil,” the point at which the size of the pool of labor available to manufacturing reaches its apogee and begins a long decline. Chinese workers are becoming more educated, their salary, benefit, and lifestyle expectations are rising, and because of the demographics of single-child families, their numbers are shrinking. If cheap labor isn’t dead in China, it is terminally ill.
In the coming decades, China will go from being “THE factory floor” to “A factory floor.” Many things will force that change – a shrinking pool of workers, growing local opportunities in services, tightening environmental regulations, and more expensive energy. The economics, in short, will change, and so must industrial China.
The Big Ones First
Manufacturers are facing a stark choice: raise prices, downsize, or automate. Raising prices isn’t an option in a Wal-Mart world where places like Malaysia, Bangladesh, Mexico, Eastern Europe and even parts of the U.S. are already offering competitive pricing. Downsizing only offers a short-term answer when economies of scale are driving manufacturing, and is really only an option for companies who can make the shift to higher value-added products.
Which leaves automation as the answer for large manufacturers, especially contract manufacturers like Foxconn, Flextronics, and Quanta. Unable to depend on masses of workers lining up at their gates willing to work for a modest daily wage, each is thinking long and hard about automation.
Robots Don’t Jump
Beyond rising wages, law and custom in China leave companies liable for a range of benefits. Robots, on the other hand, do not require the company to invest in the real estate for dorms, cafeterias, break rooms, and other facilities, enabling the company to utilize all of its floor space for production, logistics, and support. What is more, robots don’t get sick, charge overtime, demand bonuses, or require companies to pay the additional “social” costs to the state that it would be required to pay for each worker.
And equally important, robots don’t jump out of windows. The Foxcon story has proven that there is a perception liability that comes with a larger number of workers. Whether Foxconn has ten thousand workers or two million, a single suicide or accident affects hurts the company just as much. Statistically the likelihood of such incidents rises as the number of employees grows. The coverage given to the company’s HR troubles proves that more workers mean more problems, so the best approach from the company’s point of view is to hire fewer workers.
Not Just Tech
I talk a lot about Foxconn and the technology outsourcing firms, but they are not alone. The automobile industry is a global pioneer of robotics, and Chinese factories are increasing the number of robots they are using. The packaged foods sectors rely on automation.
It is fair to say, though, that every sector is considering automation. Until last June I lived about 400 meters from the Beijing International Exhibition Center, and in 2013 the second most popular trade show – right after the Beijing International Auto Show – was the production automation exhibition. That’s apocryphal, but it is telling, and industrial robotics is about to get very hot in China.
For Better or Worse
None of this is designed to pass moral judgment on automation. The social issues that surround the process are complex, and deserve a wider airing.
But it is safe to say that automation is the beginning of the end of The Factory Girl in China, and that this is a good thing. Having spent a lot of time in factories in this country, met some of the people on the floor, and having read Leslie Chang’s book and Alexandra Harney’s superb “The China Price,” it is hard to get sentimental about The Factory Girls passing from the scene.
For the first time in decades we now have more workers serving people than making things in China. As long as the economy keeps chugging ahead, China’s shrinking pool of young workers will have a wider scope of opportunities than their predecessors. The real question is whether China will provide these young people an opportunity to learn the skills they will need in a changing environment. Given the rigidity of the educational system, that’s an open question.
Even the most automated industries need people on the line. With respect to my friends in the software industry, there are some things that cannot be reduced to code. When it comes to quality, you cannot replace the human senses, especially a critical eye. Smart companies will reprogram robots to keep them flexible. And the best automated processes have humans watching at every step. But humans will need to improve their skills to be a part of that equation.
Whether automation works in an enterprise is a question of management. But the question of whether it will revitalize China’s economy and society or undermine them can only be answered in the realm of industry practice and government policy. The change is coming, and China’s leaders had best be ready.
Hutong Forward Somewhere in San Francisco 0930 hrs.
The issue of intellectual property rights and their protection continues to bedevil the agenda between China and the rest of the world. Do Chinese companies cheat? Certainly many do. Does China have on the books a comprehensive set of intellectual property protection laws? Without doubt. Does the government act to protect the IPR of foreign companies? Not as much as they could. All indications are that this situation will continue for at least the foreseeable future.
For that reason, it is perhaps past time to start drawing bigger lessons from this situation. It is time we started approaching IPR less as inventors and their attorneys, and more as businesspeople.
To that end, I propose six principles of what I call “entrepreneurial” IPR protection in China. Lawyers and the like are essential to the IPR protection process, but experience in China has proven that legal protection is insufficient. In addition to having legal eagles at your side, you need to take your own steps to protect yourself.
1. Start by protecting the rights of others. Remember that if it is all about you or a small subgroup, you are going to lose in the name of the greater good. The more protection benefits everyone, the more it benefits you.
2. Make it about citizenship. Actively support the creation of an IPR protection system that serves the interests of all parties, including the public at large.
3. Look inside before looking outside. Do all you can in your internal processes to protect your rights. For example, if you are walking around with a laptop that is not using disk-level encryption, but you pay for a high-power IPR attorney, you are doing this all backwards.
4. Don’t be an IPR troll. Protect only what you must. License what you can. Give away as much as possible.
5. Be a wellspring, not a storehouse. People will support your IPR if they depend on you as a source of innovation more than they depend on the innovations themselves. Remember that the well is more valuable than a bucket of water.
6. Talk about what you are doing. When you are being smart about protecting your IPR outside the court system, talk about it. Each of the steps above will brand you as smart, forward-thinking, and the kind of company people will respect. If nothing else, all of that reputation capital will serve you well when you are forced to take the nuclear option and drag some beloved Chinese company into court, as it strengthens your case politically (and make no mistake – court decisions in China are political.)
In the case of many companies, there are even more steps you can take that are specific to your industry or situation. This list, however, represents a set of general prescriptions and a place to start in rethinking your approach to protecting your IPR in China.
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.
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:
The continuance of Party rule
The social stability of the nation
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.
If you have been following the news, you will have heard that a U.S. Congressional committee has issued a report urging U.S. firms not to do business with either Huawei or ZTE. Those two companies, respectively the second- and fifth-largest manufacturers of telecommunications equipment in the world, are accused of a range of offenses. In my opinion, the real offenses for which those companies have been placed in the Congressional mush-pot have little to do with the reasons outlined in the Congressional report. The companies real offenses are:
They are from China, and this is an election year;
They are the first companies in 70 years to challenge American companies for dominance in a core US industry that have not been from an ally or a client state;
They have failed to be sufficiently transparent when doing business in a country that demands transparency from all companies, and even more from those that hail from competitor economies.
If Huawei and ZTE are guilty of anything, it is that they have built their U.S. businesses and ambitions before they have laid a foundation of trust with the American public and its elected officials. Ideally, no company should have to do that as a prerequisite do doing business in America, but trust is the price for any company stepping into a new country. The two companies are learning a lesson that must be absorbed by every Chinese company expanding overseas. China as a nation may or may not be successful in its efforts to reform the global system to suit its ambitions. Even if it is, though, Chinese companies must still conduct themselves in a manner that is acceptable to the governments and consumers in the markets they seek to enter.
At the same time, there is also an effort underway to tar Huawei and ZTE as a malevolent presence in the telecommunications industry, an effort that steps beyond fact and into the realm of speculation and rumor. As I noted in Making the Connection: The Peaceful Rise of China’s Telecommunications Giants, it behooves both the U.S. government and the U.S. telecommunications industry to stop relying on politics and the F.U.D. pump to preserve their markets. Instead, it is essential that American companies focus on Huawei as a competitive threat where it counts: in the market. A failure to do so only postpones their inevitable implosions.
I’ve spent much of the morning talking to reporters about the report, so I won’t belabor this. If you are interested in some balance about the issue, I talked about this this with Kaiser Kuo, Jeremy Goldkorn, and Will Moss on the Sinica podcast recently. Take a listen – I think the podcast covers the issue far better than 60 Minutes did. For a more U.S. policy-oriented viewpoint, I also covered this in The Pacific Bull Moose, my U.S. politics blog.
Under the increased pressure of competition and regulatory oversight in the U.S. market, many Chinese companies that are primarily listed on overseas markets are returning home. One by one these companies have fled overseas markets seeking the high prices and loose regulatory environment in China’s A-share market.
The constant public oversight, pressure of short-sellers, and the persistent difficulty of dealing with investors who have only a vague idea of what you do is trying for even the best-run companies. If you’re not so well-run, regulations are a burden as well, especially the dreaded audit requirement.
Which brings us to the less-discussed political issues. The Party is concerned about foreign auditors digging into domestic companies, not because the CCP wants China’s companies to be poorly run lash-ups that systematically deceive investors, but because the Party is concerned about the political fallout from “unmanaged” revelations that result from public audits. In the past year the CCP has had their fill of such revelations in the Bo Xilai/Gu Kailai case, and the leadership is rightfully concerned about the effect of such disruptions.
Further, though, the Party would like the soft-power win of having its stock exchanges match, then exceed, the power and importance of the world’s leading exchanges. You can’t do that when your best companies head offshore for their indirect capital. For this reason, expect the CCP to grease the ways for the Great Equity Repatriation.