Santa Ana Fever
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.