Daily Summaries 11/29/2010

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Institutionalizing China’s Hackers

Back in the Hutong
What a Long, Strange Trip it Was
2129 hrs.

An interesting thought from a professor at Case-Western Reserve University: the freelance Chinese hacker is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he can serve to disrupt and hack on behalf of his government. On the other, he can help himself and hundreds of others break through the firewalls put into place by the very same government.

I tend to agree, and as such I would wager neither the Chinese government nor Internet libertarians would like to see Chinese hackers go away anytime soon. It’s an ugly bargain out of a William Gibson novel, but it works: even if the central government could bring adequate cyberwar talent in-house, there is a lot to be said for deniability.

What I suspect will happen eventually is the development of a large and varied defense industry that focuses on information warfare in China, both for defensive, offensive, and stealth penetration purposes. Instead of just being suppliers of hardware and software, however, I would wager these companies will actually conduct operations on behalf of the government – info-defense contractors, if you will. That leaves in the deniability, ensures that the government retains access to high-quality talent, and allows the uniformed services to focus on “kinetic” defense.

A Little Medicine for a Big Pharma Deal

In the Hutong
Making Dastardly Plans
1650 hrs.

I am starting to follow with interest the current effort by Charles River Laboratories International to buy Chinese pharmaceutical research outsourcing company WuXi PharmaTech for US$1.6 billion.

The deal, which was announced on April 26th, has not been covered extensively, but is starting to get some attention because an activist hedge fund holding 7% of Charles River’s stock, Jana Partners, is opposing the deal, suggesting WuXi PharmaTech is overpriced.

What fascinates me, though, is the silence (thus far) of the Chinese government.

China’s Foreign Investment Vortex

China is in the midst of trying to build industries around a small cohort of local firms in clean, high value-add, science and technology-based sectors, in the hopes of pushing the nation’s economy past reliance on the export of cheap manufactures. As a company engaged in contract pharmaceutical research, WuXi PharmaTech would seem to be right in that hot spot.

The central government has a history of opposing the outright acquisition by foreign companies of all but the smallest or most crippled local firms. What is more, they have shown their willingness to do so in industries that are not central to the government’s planned direction for the economy. The two most memorable examples are The Carlyle Group’s failed effort to purchase a stake in construction machinery giant Xugong, and Coca-Cola’s blocked purchase of local juice maker Huiyuan just over a year ago.

As I noted in my post-mortem of the latter deal, “Seven Reasons for the Coke-Huiyuan Epic Fail,” government policy is emphatic that foreign companies not be permitted to purchase a majority interest in a “large and successful established Chinese company.”

What is more, Charles River has a bit of a timing challenge. We are going through a period during which Beijing’s policy makers are, for a range of reasons, questioning the value – and the need – for foreign direct investment in China’s industries.

None of this is to suggest that the deal will not go through. WuXi PharmaTech is listed in the Cayman Islands, which may limit the central government’s ability to oppose the deal (though I doubt it, given China’s recent insistence on examining large mergers of non-Chinese firms.) The team handling the deal may have done their spadework with the government and obtained buy-in in advance. Or the government may not consider WuXi PharmaTech a large and successful established Chinese company.

Just in case, though, I am going to offer some free advice to the Charles River/WuXi PharmaTech deal team: 

1. Explore with competent and wise local legal counsel the extent to which this deal might fall under provisions of China’s anti-monopoly law, make sure you skirt it with a wide margins, and make sure you are prepared to make that case in the face of public opposition by your biggest local competitor.

2. Familiarize yourselves with the full range of FDI policies, written or not, understand the mood in Beijing and around the country around foreigners buying local firms, and be prepared to address it well with all audiences.

3. China’s government wants value-add from foreign investors, not just a fat check. Make very clear what China is going to get out of the deal, and make it a lot.

4. Be prepared to make a logical, intelligent, and sensitive case for the deal to the general public. You may think you operate outside the scope of public interest because you are in pharmaceuticals, but don’t bet on it.

5. Don’t ever let up or appear to hesitate. They can smell weakness on you when you do, and it will be all over.

6. Keep the people at the Department of Commerce, the FDA, and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing informed all the way. You may need their help at some point.

7. Finally, don’t take the current silence as assent. You need to begin your charm offensive now

Good luck, Charles River.

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China, Brands, and Black Swans

In the Hutong
Grokking the term “sheet lightning”
1734 hrs.

In my recent Op/Ed in AdAge Magazine, I explained why China was going through its most disruptive changes in three decades, and that this slow-motion change has largely been missed by many in the mainstream media.

But for me, the crux of the issue is this: just as China is going through all of these changes, we are giving Chinese policymakers and consumers reasons to doubt their long-held faith in Western institutions, and corporate brands are every bit as succeptible as “Brand America” or “Brand Europe.”

A commentator on the piece correctly pointed out that the Chinese are hardly abandoning foreign brands, and I agree. It would be overstating the case to suggest that, given the choice, Chinese consumers would rather drive a Geely than a Mercedes, wear Li-Ning instead of Nike, or even Changhong over Sony.

Unfortunately, I think as marketers and marketeers we tend to focus a bit to much on past performance and the current situation, and draw straight lines into the future, when we really don’t have that luxury. How much better to anticipate the emergence of strong local competitors and use that as an impetus to raise the level of our game than to wait for their arrival and scramble to deal with them then? And how much wiser to expect the disruption of our market position by entropy, disruption, or “black swan”  events than to be surprised or defeated by them?

Too much of what passes for planning in our business is little more than glorified scheduling. Enough of that, especially here in China: it is time to don our binoculars, scan the horizon, and reclaim the future of our companies and our clients.

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Three Better Questions for Counsel

In the Hutong
California Dreaming
1522 hrs.

Going through my backlog, I came across this brief interview of venture capital attorney Richard Kline, of the Shanghai offices of Wilson Sosini Goodrich & Rosati.

I don’t doubt that Mr. Kline knows his stuff (I don’t agree with everything he said, though he gave reasonable answers), but the softball questions that the reporter from The San Francisco Chronicle tossed at him hardly gave him a chance to prove it.

The questions:

1. Why is the trend of Chinese companies seeking financing in U.S. markets an important one to watch?

2. Why has China become such a rich source of IPOs?

3. What do you make of concerns of lower-quality companies entering the listings and starting a Chinese listings bubble?

These are what we in the corporate flackage trade call “warm-up questions,” not the sort of questions you would ask when you only get three chances to force a lawyer to come up with some worthwhile insights. 

I don’t blame the reporter: that he did not have the knowledge of China to ask some really penetrating questions is his editor’s fault. In my mind, this is one more proof that media cannot hope to cover China with any cogence from six thousand miles away.

The questions I would have asked Mr. Kline:

1. What are you doing to improve the transparency and reporting standards of the Chinese companies you are bringing to western capital markets? What more could you be doing?

2. Even prominent Chinese executives bemoan the dearth of management talent in China, and the difficulty of keeping talented people from defecting to go build their own business. What must Chinese companies do right now to address the growing talent gap in the top ranks of their leadership?

3. Given the uncertainties faced by companies operating in a country where the government is constantly changing the rules and the playing field, and given the lack of sophistication about China even among supposedly sophisticated institutional investors, are current risk disclosure practices really adequate? Why/why not?

But that’s just me. What would you ask Mr. Kline, Esq.?

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Not So Easy to Replace

In the Hutong
Six Days
1250 hrs.

Elizabeth Holmes at the WSJ explains how apparel retailers like Coach, Guess, and Ann Taylor are starting to look around Asia for sources of low-cost labor as wages in China grow in the low-double digits.

That prospect has sent retailers scrambling to find new ways to reduce production costs. If they fail, they will have to absorb the higher costs, battering their margins, which have just begun to recover from the recession. Or, they could pass the costs along to consumers, a risky move at a time when shoppers are beginning to regain some of their appetite for spending.

A New Day for Labor

It is a sucker bet that this is going to get worse, and fast. Labor relations in China have entered a new era over the past month. The Foxconn suicides and the Honda strikes, resulting as they did in significantly improved wages, look to be the impetus of a wave of copycat labor actions around China.

And why not go out on strike? The past four years have proven that China’s supply of labor, while large, is not bottomless. Workers are starting to feel like they have less and less to lose, and the government, determined to nip any public display of discontent in the bud, is siding with the workers in a growing number of these cases (particularly those involving foreign or non-Mainland-based companies.)

This could all peter out, or we may witness a massive increase in labor actions, with the result that 2010 could witness not just a significant increase but a large jump in labor prices.

The Only Substitute for China?

At the moment, there aren’t many ready alternatives for the schmatte business. Indian labor is even more expensive than China’s, and transit times (and costs, as fuel prices rise) add to prices. Vietnam is limited in what its workers can do with a piece of fabric. And Mexico is most notable in the article by its absense: one can only assume that the escalating violence and unrest in the country’s border regions are making buyers in the rag trade say “maquiladora” with much less excitement than before.

You would expect Li & Fung’s Rick Darling to deliver the money quote: “The only replacement for China is China.” And for now, he’s right. But that will change, and despite the protestations of China’s leaders that they want to lead the nation out of the realm of low-end work like textiles, in truth China wants and needs to keep the mid- and high-end apparel industry right here at home.

In the near-term, this is going to mean that the industry will migrate to the west and north of China as long as shipping costs and transit times are held in check. That’s not a given for China: the expense of moving products manufactured in China’s interior to a major seaport can make up as much as 40% of the products FOB cost, and physically getting the goods to port can be time-consuming and fraught with delays. The nation is building superhighways and railroads to help address those challenges, but we are years away from a time in which it is as easy (and fast) to move a container of goods from Gansu to Shanghai as it is to move that same container from Seattle to St. Louis.

Fashion Capital

Eventually China will fix the logistics problem, but in the meantime I am betting that we have found the bottom for apparel prices in China, and those prices are about to start rising. I also think we are on the cusp of a major restructuring of the industry in the PRC based on several trends:

  • Consolidation among manufacturers, leaving in place those with appropriate scale and with the most efficient operational processes.
  • A shift in focus away from exports and toward a greater emphasis on serving the local market.
  • For manufacturers still focused on global markets, a renewed effort to move parts of the process offshore to Vietnam, Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, Africa, or Mexico.
  • Vertical integration of manufacturing to incorporate the full process from threads all the way through to branding and marketing (“looms to labels.”)
  • A wave of new or enlarged domestic apparel retailers similar to Li-Ning, Zara, or Giordano who become the primary locus of domestic fashion design. (Expect design in China to be retail-driven, rather than following the European model, which is somewhat the other way around with its design houses and haute couture.)
  • Government assistance (tax breaks, etc.) to manufacturers to relocate to rural, remote, or revitalizing parts of the country and away from higher-cost regions like Guangdong and the Yangtze River delta.

We have to be realistic: the China price will not sustain the apparel industry here, but Shanghai is not going to become Paris or Milan anytime soon. The industry in China is entering an awkward adolescence that could either kill it or see China become the fashion capital of the world. Getting to the latter won’t be easy, and it is still not clear that the industry – even with the above trends – is capable of getting there.

The easy days are over. The Chinese apparel business is about to grow up. Whether it will do so in time to remain the manufacturing capital for the global fashion retailing sector is another matter entirely.

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Creating a Tipping Point for 3D TV

The Silicon Hutong Suite, Singapore
Running to Clark Quay
17:38 hrs.

Media Asia is running an interesting article describing how some of the first content to be available for the upcoming 3D televisions will be pornography collections.

No surprise there. As Arik Pre pointed out to me, the uptake of many major home entertainment technology innovations, beginning with cable TV and the VCR, have been driven by a desire to enjoy prurient content in one’s own home.

I actually think the industry has another major market for 3D televisions: hotels. Not only would it give the manufacturers an opportunity to show off the innovation to people who otherwise might not get a chance to see 3D TV, it would be a shot in the arm, as it were, to their pay-per-view revenues, both for standard fare and for videos that appeal to a more mature crowd.

If retail sales stall, watch for the manufacturers to undertake a major effort to seed the devices in airports, sports bars, and hotels.

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How Deng’s Ghost Threatens China’s Innovation Economy

In the Hutong
Contemplating Demographics
2051 hrs.

In what is probably the most interesting and thought-provoking part of an article in Policy Review comparing the economic trajectories of China and Russia, Paul Gregory and Kate Zhou debunk a popular myth about China’s reforming and opening: that the credit goes to Deng’s policies. Not so, say the authors:

Our narrative contradicts much received doctrine. The standard account is that China succeeded because a wise party leadership deliberately chose gradualism, retained the monopoly of the Communist Party after rebuffing democracy at Tiananmen Square, and carefully guided the process over the years. The narrative says that Russia failed because the tempestuous Gorbachev ignored the Chinese reform model, moved too quickly, and allowed the party monopoly to fall apart. This standard account is incorrect. Deng Xiaoping and his supporters, contrary to popular legend, did not agree on a reform program at the Third Plenum of the Eighth Party Congress in 1978, which installed him in power. A Chinese reform official by the name of Bao Tong later admitted as much: “In fact, reform wasn’t discussed. Reform wasn’t listed on the agenda, nor was it mentioned in the work reports.”

Throughout the reform process, the Chinese Communist Party simply reacted to (and wisely did not oppose) bottom-up reform initiatives that emanated largely from the rural population. Deng Xiaoping’s famous description of Chinese reform as “fording the river by feeling for the stones” is not incorrect, but it was the Chinese people who placed the stones under his feet.

Now, before you start tossing zongzi at me for being a revisionist, I give due credit to Deng Xiaoping and the leaders around him for yanking China out of its ideological stupor and creating the political headspace within the Party to allow this evolution to take its course. Even if they were not great policy virtuosos, their political acumen – and their willingness to give the country a little rope – was laudatory.

And we have to pause for a moment and consider our source: Gregory and Zhou are publishing in the house organ of the Hoover Institution, an entity that might be fairly labeled the West Coast headquarters of neo-conservative thought. Naturally, therefore, they would posit a soft version of Thomas Paine’s old adage “That government is best which governs least.”

Believing Their Own PR

Yet, as China’s central government undertakes a long-term effort to foment “independent innovation” through industrial policy, one has to ask whether this effort is based on a received myth among policy makers that, basically, stuff happens when the government makes it happen, and the last 30 years of economic development in China are living proof? If this is the case, that mistaken perception may be one of the core blockages to the nation undertaking policies that will actually restart China’s innovation engine after several idle centuries.

Trying to change that perception among regulators would be a waste of time: wagering on China’s bureaucrats arguing against their own importance (or power bases) while debunking a leader who has been all but deified in the national canon is a sucker bet.  If anything, regulators look set to deepen their involvement in technology driven industries. The government’s core economic policy document for the next five years, the Twelfth Five Year Plan, is being drafted. My gut feeling is that the plan will not only mention independent innovation, it will enshrine it in the form of specifying industries and sectors to be supported by the government in its effort to jump-start China’s innovation economy.

C’mon, People Now…

The answer, of course, is parallel efforts. The government will focus, as it does, on large-scale projects and enterprises as the nexus of economy-changing innovation. The government is comfortable with such efforts, and they are not entirely wrong: many of the innovations that lie at the core of American competitiveness emerged from government or defense research in universities or large enterprises.

But critical mass – and the kind of opportunistic development work that drives an innovation economy – comes from small enterprises, and this is the part of the equation with which the Chinese government is least comfortable. The challenge will be for China’s entrepreneurs to understand what they need from to be successful, to communicate that to the government, and to band together to make sure they are not steamrolled by the more politically powerful SOEs.

And the last bit is the hard part. Chinese entrepreneurs are a tough bunch to get to trust one another, and in order for grass-roots innovation to be allowed its role in China’s development, innovators need to generate a powerful, unified voice. The questions are: can they; and how long will it take?

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Terror and Schoolyards

In the Hutong

Shanzhai Memorial Day

2254 hrs.


Han Han – “Children, you’re depressing grandpa”

http://www.danwei.org/crime/han_han_children_youre_depress.php

Reading this piece was thought-provoking, but the following paragraph took me down another track entirely:

In these recent attacks, the twisted murderers have all chosen to attack nursery schools and elementary schools, believing this to be the best way to exact their revenge on society. It has become fashionable to go to nursery schools and elementary schools and kill people. There, the murderer faces the least resistance and can kill the most people, causing us to feel the greatest pain and panic. This is indeed the most effective method to exact revenge on society

Antisocial attacks on a vulnerable segment of the population  conducted in a manner designed to incite fear and insecurity. If the government could find a link between the school attacks and an organized group, would this not then be terrorism?

On a parallel track, there was some reporting done last month in the foreign press suggesting that the government seemed to be putting the kibosh on press coverage of the attacks. The coverage was critical of the move. Nonetheless  I can appreciate the law enforcement reason behind limiting the coverage: the less you cover something like this, the less likely it is that other attention-deprived sociopaths would decide that filleting a group of kindergarteners was their route to a few days of fame.

At some point the line between crime and terror seems to disappear into the sand. The lessons China is learning with these crimes test not only law enforcement, but China’s nascent homeland security apparatus as well.

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Fix Foxconn, But Don’t Stop There

In the Hutong

Abiding

2246 hrs.


An interesting post that is worth reading in the wake of the recent tragedies at Foxconn.

Child Labor in the Developing World
http://enterpriseresilienceblog.typepad.com/enterprise_resilience_man/2009/01/child-labor-in-the-developing-world.html

Kristof makes it clear that just because working in a sweatshop might be more pleasant work than scavenging around in a toxic waste heap it doesn’t justify ignoring the working conditions in sweatshops. On the other hand, he insists that eliminating sweatshops rather than working to improve working conditions there is also the wrong tactic.

For all of the emotion induced by Hon Hai’s Neanderthal handling of the crisis and its (allegegly) reactionary labor management practices, Kristof and de Angelis remind us that the goal is to fix Foxconn, not destroy it. At the same time, they make the point that the issue of labor practices in emerging markets defies the simplistic bumper-sticker solutions proferred by advocates on either side of the issue.

Good solutions demand wisdom and a feel for local realities. That requires constant local engagement as well as credibility ans trust from all parties.  

And, in the end, it requires some customer activism. The way your stuff is made is to some degree up to you. Companies will design products for consumer preferences. The next revolution in consumer goods will be to get companies to design their processes to match the concerns of their customers.  

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Are We Looking at a Slowdown in China’s Outward Investment?

In the Hutong
Sweating, finally
2317 hrs.

Catching up on my reading (I’m waaay behind, but for all the good reasons – work, family, exercise, etc.), I came across a superb op-ed in The New York Times by columnist Philip Bowring explaining why China’s overseas acquisition strategy was not going to grow as quickly as some may have thought:

It will grow as trade relations deepen and Chinese technology and brand names have global impact. But this will be gradual. After a first flush of cash-driven enthusiasm, Chinese firms are proceeding with greater caution, less likely to throw money at countries and industries with which they have scant experience. They are also meeting increasing obstacles in some countries.

In the case of consumer goods companies in particular, many have discovered that their best bet for rapid growth in the near- to medium-term is right here at home. There are exceptions, of course (consumer electronics and white goods leap to mind), but companies like Lenovo, Geely, Li-Ning, Haier, SAIC, and most of the major local online companies – to name a few obvious examples – are making only tentative, careful steps offshore, preferring instead to focus on growing consumer opportunities at home.

Bowring makes the excellent point that the bargain-buying opportunity for Chinese companies offered by the global slowdown is probably over. The bigger issues, in my opinion, are a) that when the opportunity arose, China’s companies were not ready from either a financial or operational standpoint to make the jump, and b) offshore acquisitions have not yet proven to be an efficient way to grow a Chinese company. PRC corporates looking for access to resources – human and intellectual as well as natural – will continue to acquire them, but it seems increasingly likely that China, Inc. will develop its offshore markets more carefully, organically, and methodically in the future.

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Sell Gadgets for What Your Users Want To Do With Them

In the Hutong
Practicing Zen Television Viewing
2234 hrs.

Jeff Jarvis tweets: “Many early adopters recognize no distinction between what you *can do* with a device and what it’s *made for.*”

My response: most early adopters ignore what a device is “made for” and spend more of their time figuring out what you “can do” with it. And that’s a very good thing for the rest of us.

I’ve seen many device manufacturers create gadgets with one usage model in mind, and early adopters (being the obstreperous nonconformists that they are) ignore that and instead wind up using those devices for the purposes for which they are actualy best suited. I wound up using my Palm, my iPod Touch, and my Moto BACKFLIP for purposes other than those advertised. I’m not alone. Short message capabilities in mobile phones were an afterthought, but that they became the most popular mobile data application for pre-3G handsets, especially in Europe and China, to the extent that many people text more than they call.

Wise device manufacturers, in my opinion, will recognize this reality and create and market devices accordingly. What delighted me about the iPad from the beginning was that Apple seemed to be saying “yeah, this beast can do some cool things, like email, music, browsing, books, and games, but we know you’re going to be the ones to actually figure out when, where, and how this device makes your life better. And you’re going to do it by playing with the thing. We’re just going to sit back and watch.”

Make no mistake, taking such an approach is inherently risky, and cannot be used with every device. Even the iPad had (and still has) its share of detractors who wonder what use the thing is, anyway, because a clear compelling usage model was not spelled out for them in 25 words or less. Yet I suspect Steve Jobs remembers another generation of detractors (including some brilliant and successful computer engineers) who couldn’t figure out why any normal person would want to have a personal computer.

Going with what the users want to do with your device seems an obvious approach to marketing gadgets. Sadly, it seems only a few really excellent companies are tuned-in to that reality.

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Dealing with China’s “Soft Protectionism”

In the Hutong
I am not a tuna
2017 hrs.

Stan Abrams makes an astute observation about Chinese industrial policy in a recent article about China’s clean energy market: while the central government welcomes high-tech firms from overseas, the implicit quid pro quo for market access is technology transfer and local manufacturing, and it has always been this way.

Somewhere on the road from China’s Reforming and Opening in the late 1970s to the decade following the nation’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, global businesspeople lost sight of that fact, or believed that it had somehow quietly changed.

It hasn’t.

Across a host of industries, China continues to pursue – and hone – policies designed to give its companies a competitive advantage both at home and abroad. China is not alone in this regard: Japan, Europe and arguably even the United States have been doing the same for years, and they’ve been doing so as full, developed-nation members of the WTO.

Even if time-consuming WTO actions against China’s most eggregious protectionst policies eventually succeed, Beijing can (and likely will) continue to draw from a playbook of industrial policies written in Paris, in Berlin, in Washington, and in Tokyo. The global powers that forged the world’s trading system left for themselves sufficient wiggle room to accommodate their own favored industries. China knows where those loopholes are, and with good reason expects to use them with virtual impunity.

Chinese industrial policy – or what I would call “soft protectionism” is not going to go away. As a result, two things need to change:

  • First, businesspeople facing China as a market or as the cradle of competitors must expect that China will do everthing it can short of a blatant abrogation of its international agreements to foster and support champion industries and companies. If you are in any doubt, assume your industry is a potential Chinese champion: even if you are wrong, you will come out ahead.
  • Second, the WTO’s remit must be expanded beyond trade in goods and services to encompass a global agreement on foreign direct investment. FDI restrictions have become a popular non-tariff barrier to equal market access among all of the major powers. If the world wants China to allow open investment access to its industries, all nations have to drop their own efforts to restrict foreign investment. Of course, this presumes political will to do so. Ask yourself – is the United States prepared to sell the Port of Long Beach to a Chinese state-owned enterprise in return for open access to China’s clean energy market? If not, we had best be prepared to take other steps.

So letting the issue lay may not be a bad idea. We have to recognize – without being dismissive – that a strong industrial policy does not a global competitor make. Good companies benefit from government largese, but lousy companies with lousy products are not made better by government coddling.

China’s pursuit of industrial policy is but one of a host of factors that foster world class companies and products. If we allow ourselves to focus too much on government policy, we will lose sight of the other drivers of competitiveness, like innovation, a tolerance for failure, creativity, and speed.

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Is Legend Abandoning the PC Fight?

In the Hutong
Testing the Ale
1933 hrs.

TIME Magazine’s May 10, 2010 article on Lenovo (“Lenovo’s Legend Returns“) was a well-written and long-overdue review of the company’s internal challenges since its purchase of IBM’s personal computer unit in 2005. What the article does not do, however, is instill confidence in the future of Lenovo as a computer company.

Giving Up on Globalization

While the top of the article suggests that Lenovo is trying to reform itself to blaze a pathway to globalization, a careful read makes it clear that the return of company co-founder Liu Chuanzhi means something else entirely: he wants to create a diversified Chinese industrial conglomerate, focusing the company on up-leveling management skills across a range of industries, based on the computer maker’s parent company:

He intends to transform Legend Holdings — an investment firm that is Lenovo’s largest shareholder — into a holding company, which, through acquisitions, would collect a stable of firms in industries such as energy, biopharmaceuticals, information technology and environmental protection. Then Liu and other lieutenants at Legend would work with the executives at the acquired companies to help them raise capital, strengthen strategic planning and improve everything from supply-chain management to human-resources practices. “For the Chinese economy to really rise, one of the key drivers will be capital from the private sector,” Liu says. “We can find and identify the best people and use our funds and our experience to help them so their companies will grow very fast.”

On the one hand, I have to applaud Liu’s domestic focus. Given the company’s current and foreseeable management skills, and keeping in mind that the Chinese economy looks more promising than just about any other in the medium term, Legend Holdings is better off focusing on opportunities in the market it knows best.

Deserting Lenovo

On the other, I cannot help but worry about poor Lenovo. While Liu has eliminated one leadership issue by returning cultural homogeneity to Lenovo’s executive team, he stands on the verge of creating another by spreading his limited management resources across a wider range of businesses. Instead of keeping himself and his best people focused on beating Apple, HP, Dell, and Acer, he will spread their attention across a half dozen complex and  highly competitive industries.

Even worse, Legend does not look like it plans to use its cash to bolster Lenovo’s strength as a computer manufacturer. Instead, it seeks to divert its capital and profits into the acquisition of other businesses that bear little relation (and can offer limited help) to Lenovo’s business.

Lenovo’s efforts to improve its products and its focus on mobility are all good signs, as is the 58% annual jump in PC shipments in the first quarter of this year. An optimist might suggest that Lenovo can build a decent run on this. But Liu’s planned long-term strip-mining of Lenovo’s brains and cash suggests that Legend’s leaders have already decided that the company’s future does not lie in computers or consumer electronics. Instead, they are giving up, and getting ready to take their ball and go play somewhere else.

Adíos, ThinkPad

I am not a big fan of the conglomerate as a business structure, for both business and personal reasons. Yet I am willing to grant that diversificiation may be the right path for Legend, and that a sober assessment of the direction of the information technology and consumer electronic industries may have led Liu and company to conclude they could not or should not be a computer company.

This cannot be encouraging news, however, for companies in China and around the world who are staking all or part of their future on selling Lenovo products, and I suspect Apple, Dell, HP, and Acer are getting ready to divide the spoils as Lenovo retreats.

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If They Want It, They’ll Get It

In the Hutong
Prepping for lunch with Imagethief
1023 hrs.

Fun article on how 15,000 Chinese managed to bypass the block on Twitter, motivated not by high-minded ideals, but by a popular Japanese porn star (link is suitable for work, but barely.)

My take, from the article:

“It’s simple for someone with some minimal technical acumen” to scale the Great Firewall, said Wolf. “But that means that it’s too difficult for most of China.”

The interesting question, of course, is how long that will be the case. The paradox for the government is that whenever they wall-off content or services that people in China want to use, the  more wall-jumpers (armed with aforesaid minimial technical acumen) they create.

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