A Reset Across the Straits

Map of the Taiwan Strait
Map of the Taiwan Strait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following up on my post last week about it being time for a US reset on China, it appears that the time has come for Beijing reset on Taiwan.

Without challenging the maxim that Taiwan and the mainland provinces all remain an inseparable part of China, and leaving aside the issue of of independence, let us step back and look at the situation without the filters of nationalist emotion.

Instead, let us assume that at some point, Taiwan will decide that its prospects would be brightest as a part of a single political entity with the mainland. It may seem hard to imagine, but given the great changes taking place in the world, it is certainly not outside of the realm of possibility.

If that is in fact Beijing’s desired end game, the leaders of the CCP need to ask themselves a practical question: given the choice, how would they like re-unification to unfold?

Does the Party‘s leadership want Taiwan to come crawling back, craven and broken, into the embrace of the Motherland? Does the Party want Taiwan resentful and permanently troublesome because of a loss of face in slinking back?

Or do Beijing’s leaders prefer that Taiwan should return proudly, willingly, and with face and good feelings, so that “reunification” does not simply paper over deep, abiding wounds that will fester )and eventually erupt?)

It would seem that a willing return would be the preferred endgame. And if it is, Xi Jinping has an historic opportunity over the next five years of his term in office to reset the tone and direction of cross-straits relations. Given the variety of powder-kegs that surround and suffuse China, this might well be a good time to place China on track for a win-win.

Time for a Sino-US Reset

English: President and Mrs. Ford, Vice Premier...
English: President and Mrs. Ford, Vice Premier Deng Xiao Ping, and Deng’s interpreter have a cordial chat during an informal meeting in Beijing, China. ID #A7598-20A. Français : Gerald Ford, sa femme, Deng Xiaoping et une traductrice lors d’une réunion à Pékin en Chine (1975). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Watching the Sino-US relationship evolve, and then not evolve, since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I have to confess some disappointment. Let me qualify what follows by noting that I am not a fan of POTUS 45. I not only crossed party lines to vote against him, I left the GOP outright and joined a tiny third party when he was selected as the Republican nominee.

So all of that said, we have reached a point in the relationship between the US and China such that a reset is in order. It has been 44 years since Nixon went to China, and nearly 40 years since Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping recalibrated the US-China relationship.

That relationship was formed when the United States was entering the fourth decade of its Cold War with the Soviet Union and the Sino-US tie-up promised to subtly but importantly shift the balance of power in favor of the West. It was formed when China was crawling out the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution, and out from under the long shadow of Mao Zedong.

That relationship was framed between a large and slightly desperate third-world country that constituted absolutely zero threat the world order and a developed nation that boasted the most prosperous economy in history, the most powerful military on Earth, and leadership of an international system that it had forged with its allies a mere three decades before.

Four decades hence, China has changed, the United States has changed, and the world has changed. Yet we have been conducting this bi-lateral relationship on terms that are increasingly irrelevant and unrealistic. Let me put that another way: the US continues to conduct its side of the relationship on that basis. China has made clear to us for a long time – without ever actually saying it – that it will conduct its relationship with us on terms dictated at least as much by immediate expediency as decades-old agreements.

So it is time for a strategic reset in our relationship that accurately reflects what China is and wishes to become, who we are and what we wish to become, and the fluid state of the global order.

The call that Trump placed to President Tsai of Taiwan, representing as it did a break from diplomatic tradition if not international accords, once appeared to be Trump’s opening gambit in his version of that reset in the Sino-US relationship, and a possible change in the rules that govern that relationship.

That no longer seems the case, and one can hope that the change in tone from the White House reflects a practical desire to compel a resolution to the North Korea question rather than acquiescence to a Chinese view of international affairs. Putting off a reset in Sino-US relations for too long will only make the necessary changes all the more disruptive.

Happy July 4th!

Concept of the Week: SinoSkeptic

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. 

Lu Wei’s Facebook Gambit

Hutong West
Writing the Book
0935 hrs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Challenge of the State-Co-opted Enterprise

Hutong West
Santa Ana Fever
1124 hrs.

When we talk about broad categories of Chinese enterprises, we focus on ownership: state-owned enterprises, or those companies owned and guided by the government; private enterprises, or those companies owned by other companies or by individuals; and foreign enterprises, those companies legally or functionally owned by non-Chinese corporations or individuals.

You don’t need to work with this taxonomy for long to discover that it is inadequate. Hybrids abound, and there are a growing number of firms that do not fit neatly into these distinctions.

One type that we must address, even if it seems chimerical, is the “state-co-opted enterprise.” This is a private company, one not owned by the state, that has not only submitted itself to the modicum of government oversight mandated by law and policy, but also by intent or action has made itself an extension of state policy. Most often, this is done in order to secure a right to operate in a particularly sensitive sector.

The reason this phenomenon needs to be examined is that there is an implicit belief outside of China that many Chinese companies, while ostensibly not state-owned, are in fact controlled by the Party or some arm of the Chinese government. This is especially the case for large Chinese companies with a growing international presence and opaque ownership structures.

Huawei’s singular employee-ownership structure, for example, vexed US Congressional investigators. The ownership of Qingdao-based white-goods maker Haier remains obscure at best. Lenovo protests that it is “100% market oriented,” but the Chinese Academy of Sciences retains 36% ownership of the enterprise. And Tsingtao Brewery Group, the majority owner of Qingdao’s Tsingtao Brewery, has an ownership structure that remains unclear. These arrangements, unconventional and strange to western observers, seem tailor-made to hide the hand of government or military behind these enterprises.

But ownership is not the sole source of concern. There seems little question that China’s internet giants – Baidu, Youku/Tudou, Alibaba, Tencent, and Sina – are not state-owned by any measure. But their leadership in an industry where foreign participation is limited by government policy gives them the status of what Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster called “a state-sponsored monopoly.” Such a status could be seen as leaving these companies inordinately beholden to the government if the Party were ever to call in its chits. Worse, as we enter an era where cyberwarfare is becoming a core mode of international conflict, the capabilities encompassed by China’s internet giants offer the Party and PLA motive and opportunity to co-opt these companies.

None of this is to say that these companies dance to the government’s every pull on the string. But for each of these firms it is going to require more than bold assertions of independence under questioning to convince the world that they are not somehow in the thrall of the Party, particularly if Xi Jinping stokes commercial nationalism.

Those of us who work with, represent, or do business with China’s emerging non-state enterprises either need to be demonstrate their independence from the outset, or we need to address the relationship between these firms and the government proactively, so they are not “discovered” by accident.

Luxury Cars: The Non-China Chinese Market

Lamborghini & Ferraris
Lamborghini & Ferraris (Photo credit: Axion23)

In the Hutong
Work Break
1945 hrs.

On Valentine’s Day, the always excellent Jing Daily published an article (“Ultra-Luxury Auto Sales In China Surprisingly Robust, But Are They Sustainable?“) that calls into question whether those stunning new Lotus, Maserati, Bentley, and Ferrari dealerships that are sprouting up around China are in for some hard times. Economic uncertainty and the potential that Xi Jinping‘s administration might discourage conspicuous consumption apparently has many buyers holding off on purchases. The spectacular Beijing accident a year ago that claimed the son of a powerful Party official and one of his passengers has made ultra-luxury cars an unintentional symbol of cosseted elites and official malfeasance. Markers of success are becoming stigmata of excess.

But the Chinese party is not over for the luxury car-makers, although a change in strategy may be in the offing. It may be time for the Ferraris and Bugattis of the world to learn from the purveyors of less expensive luxury goods, because the real market may not be in China: there is a fair chance that the majority of Chinese who will be buying ultra-luxury cars in the future will be buying them overseas.

Naturally they won’t be doing so in order to ship the cars back to the PRC (with the exception of the occasional gray-market beast that cannot be found in China or Hong Kong). Instead, they will be buying their high-speed bling to park them in the garages and and driveways of the homes they are buying in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Adjusting to this shift will mean changes in the way these cars are sold outside of China. Dealerships will need Chinese speakers on the showroom floor and in the service bays. Sales literature and owners manuals will need to be available in Chinese as well as the local language. Manufacturers will need to create Chinese websites for markets where Chinese isn’t usually spoken. And that is just a starter list.

The really smart manufacturers will set up Chinese-language customer service hotlines and owners clubs that cater to Chinese speakers in North America and Europe at least. They will advertise online in Chinese and in the mass media of the Chinese diaspora. And if they’re really smart, they’ll offer those special models and features that are designed to cater to the tastes of the new global Chinese elite.

None of this is mandatory, of course. For some brands, the snob appeal is derived in part by the derision with which it treats even its best-heeled customers. But the wiser luxury car manufacturers will realize that the Chinese are coming to the world: best to reach out and meet them before they decamp to the competition – or decide to spend their money on something else.

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.