L’industria cinese e lo stato – Il mito dell’azienda Cina

1/9/05 The Economist
edizione di Hong Kong
Storie di paura e
caotica realtà
L’argomentazione di
fondo dell’articolo è la seguente: è in atto un’aggressiva espansione economica
da parte delle imprese cinesi verso gli altri paesi, soprattutto in settori
strategici, e questa espansione è supportata dall’intervento dello stato, che
persegue l’interesse di una crescita politica della Cina stessa. Poiché in
questa sua azione di supporto lo stato cinese agisce in maniera spericolata e
caotica, spesso indebolendo le aziende stesse che sostiene, allora gli altri
paesi sono costretti a proteggere
le loro imprese dai tentativi di acquisizione.

Ad esempio, nel settore
petrolifero gli Usa hanno respinto il tentativo di CNOOC di acquisire UNOCAL.
L’India valuta di contenere l’espansione del gruppo delle telecomunicazioni
HUAWEI,  presumibilmente collegato agli
ambienti militari.

Lo stato cinese
controlla direttamente un terzo delle imprese, denominate appunto  SOEs (state-owned enterprises); nel 2003 è
stato creato un ente (State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission,
SASAC)  per gestire le principali 190
SOEs, molte delle quali erano in difficoltà. L’intervento dello stato
nell’attività economica di queste imprese viene presentato come un’ingerenza di
burocrati, tale da scoraggiare gli investitori stranieri, che non sanno dove
mettono i loro soldi, anche a causa delle liti tra potere centrale e autorità
locali. Lo stato cinese, tuttavia, condizionerebbe in maniera negativa anche i
restanti due terzi delle imprese, costrette a rivolgersi alle banche
governative per avere dei prestiti e quindi sottoposte alla politica dei
burocrati. Ad esempio, il governo del Guandong 
ha rovinato l’azienda di frigoriferi KELON, imponendole l’acquisizione
di una SOE sull’orlo del fallimento ad un prezzo esorbitante. Oppure, la SASAC
ha decretato che la HAIER, azienda leader nella produzione di elettrodomestici,
venisse acquisita dal governo del Qingdao, e i manager artefici della sua
ascesa sono stati rimpiazzati.
Invece la LENOVO, che è
sfuggita al controllo statale spostando capitali ad Hong Kong, ha avuto grande
successo e ha comprato il ramo computer dell’Ibm.
George Gilboy, del MIT,
ribadisce che mentre le imprese giapponesi sono affidabili, quelle cinesi fanno
paura per il modo in cui si comportano sul mercato.
protezionistici (vedi soprattutto il caso Unocal) presentati come una difesa
del liberismo!Chinese industry and the state

The myth of China Inc

Sep 1st 2005 | HONG KONG

From The Economist print edition

The scare stories—and the chaotic reality
AS HU JINTAO, China’s president, flies to
America this month, commercial ties between the two countries are at a new low.
Alongside tensions about China’s currency, its growing trade surplus with
America and intellectual-property theft, is a new concern: the aggressive
international expansion of China’s corporations.


In Washington, the $18.5 billion bid by
CNOOC, a mainland oil producer, for Unocal, a Californian rival, was portrayed
not as a commercial deal, but as a state-funded grab for strategic American
assets. It triggered such political opposition that CNOOC abandoned its bid.
The FBI has just launched an initiative to expose economic espionage by
visiting Chinese students and businessmen. And in Congress, Richard D’Amato, a
Democrat and the chairman of the US-China Economic and Security Review
Commission, worries aloud that Chinese firms listing shares in America are
siphoning American money into a “China bubble”. Nor is concern confined to the
United States. India’s security bureau is reportedly considering restricting
the expansion in India of Huawei, a Chinese telecoms-equipment maker, over its
suspected military ties.
The real scaremongers assert that the Chinese
state is a single—and single-minded—entity with a master plan to reclaim
China’s rightful place at the centre of the world. China’s companies are thus
mere tools of an expansionist policy propagated by Beijing’s leadership. More
subtle are the fears that, because it is impossible to untangle the ownership
of most Chinese companies, foreigners cannot be sure to whom they are selling.
When the ultimate authority could be the Communist state, that is a worry.
The Chinese government certainly wants to
create globally competitive firms and it is pushing some to secure strategic
resources, like oil and metals, overseas. The Chinese state also still has a
broad influence over business. But the chaotic way this power is exercised
contributes to the weakness, not the strength, of Chinese firms. “It is not a
plausible argument that China Inc can take a co-ordinated Long March overseas,”
argues George Gilboy, a research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It can’t even manage that domestically.”
After two decades of reform and
privatisation, only about a third of China’s economy is still directly
controlled by the government through state-owned enterprises (SOEs). But these
are concentrated in key sectors like defence and utilities. While many of the
biggest state firms have publicly quoted subsidiaries on international stock
markets, the government retains ultimate ownership—one of the objections raised
against CNOOC. The top 190 or so SOEs are directly controlled by the State
Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC)—set up in 2003 to
restructure these often moribund firms.
And yet even this group of elite companies is
not guided by a single, controlling hand. Take telecoms: China’s early
decision to deregulate the sector and break up the state monopoly into four
competing firms—two fixed-line (China Telecom and China Netcom) and two mobile
(China Mobile and China Unicom)—was widely admired. It made China the world’s
largest telecoms market and created fat profits for operators. Yet Beijing’s
bureaucrats now threaten to undo this good work. Frightened by the growth of
new services and a price war, they recently forced the bosses of the four firms
to take each other’s jobs to discourage competition, to the amazement of some
independent directors.
Infighting among bureaucracies with competing
agendas crops up again and again across China’s industrial landscape. It made
life so difficult in the power industry, that some foreign investors quit in
disgust, causing power shortages. Overseas investors have been equally
befuddled in the media sector, where joint-ventures promised over the past two
years are suddenly off the agenda. The media regulator, SARFT, which also
oversees cable television operators, is battling MII, the telecoms regulator,
to prevent the big telecoms operators from launching competing internet TV
services. That SARFT happens to be the last of four stamps of approval needed
to obtain a licence could cripple the industry before it is born.
Battles between competing branches of central
government are overlaid by struggles between central government and local
officials, who want to protect jobs in their own backyard. In a country with a
saying “the hills are high and the emperor is far away”, edicts from Beijing
are routinely ignored.
The contrast with Japan is stark. The
Japanese government had less direct control over its corporations, but its
officials co-ordinated their domestic development before earmarking sectors for
overseas expansion. The Chinese bureaucracy, while in direct charge of more of
the national economy, is riven by factional infighting.
Unhappily, the resulting chaos is also
hurting the most promising two-thirds of the economy that is in private hands.
Private companies are often beholden to state banks for capital and to local
officials for favours and contracts. Since private enterprise was not even
acknowledged until 1988, entrepreneurs had to bring state investors aboard as
political protection, becoming so-called “red-hat” companies. Yasheng Huang, a
professor at MIT, says that the results can be disastrous: “Government
shareholders may be passive at first, but once a company succeeds, they
interfere. Countless Chinese firms have been driven to bankruptcy or failed to
grow big because local governments decided to exercise their legal claims on

Take Kelon, a refrigerator maker. Currently
on the brink of collapse after an embezzlement scandal, it once was China’s
best firm. With the help of its tiny township government in Shunde county, its
founders, Pan Ning and Wang Guoduan, turned it from the 42nd-largest fridge
maker in 1984 into China’s biggest in six years. Focused management and
marketing flair (Chinese people put fridges in the living room to impress
visitors, so Kelon made the smartest models) led to a Hong Kong listing and
global awards. However, in the late 1990s, Guangdong’s provincial government
forced Kelon to take over a loss-making SOE air-conditioner maker at an exorbitant
price. Because Mr Pan and Mr Wang had not shifted ownership to Hong Kong,
Guangdong officials could force the Shunde shareholders to fire them and
appoint a bureaucrat to replace them. He then rapidly ruined the company.

Now, worryingly, something similar may
threaten Haier, China’s leading white-goods maker, which recently failed with a
bid for Maytag, an American rival. Admired globally for its efficiency and
innovation, Qingdao-based Haier is the creation of Zhang Ruimin, China’s most
famous entrepreneur, who transformed a company so demotivated that its workers
used to urinate on the factory floor. Yet Mr Zhang has just lost a long fight
to reward his managers with shares via a Hong Kong listing. Late last year
SASAC ruled that Haier was owned by the Qingdao government and that management
buy-outs at big SOEs were forbidden. Compare that with Legend (now Lenovo),
which bought IBM’s computer business—it escaped state influence and has
flourished. A “red-hat” company, it was originally banned from selling personal
computers in China, so went to Hong Kong to export, set up a joint venture and
obtained a Hong Kong listing. Although it returned to China to manufacture, its
production and research facilities are registered as Hong Kong affiliates, not
with Legend China, and it is reducing the share owned by its state sponsor. Mr
Huang of MIT argues, “there is nothing domestic about Legend except the
nationality of its managers. It is as foreign in China as GE.”

Reasons to be fearful

Foreign fears about the expansion of Chinese
firms are often compounded by the murkiness of their ownership. Take Huawei, a
telecoms firm that is the most global of any Chinese company, and also among
the least transparent. Although technically private, its shares are probably
owned by local state telecoms customers. It also has a $10 billion credit line
from China Development Bank, famed for its loans to support state policy. Its
founder, Ren Zhengfei, was a former People’s Liberation Army officer. But the
fact that no one knows who runs Huawei could weaken it. It has grown fast in a
booming market, but its unclear ownership means it cannot easily get a
stockmarket listing, nor reward staff with stock options. It may also hinder
plans for overseas expansion—like a rumoured bid for Britain’s Marconi—since
potential foreign partners will be wary of a firm with such an opaque ownership

Fears that Chinese firms are acting as the
commercial arm of an expansionist state are thus belied by a more complicated
and disorderly reality. The real reason to fear China’s overseas expansion is
quite different. Because Chinese firms have grown up in an irrational and
chaotic business environment, they may export some very bad habits. As Mr
Gilboy puts it: “when Japanese companies took over American ones, they mostly
made them better. If the Chinese run foreign firms like they operate at home,
driving prices down, misallocating capital and over-diversifying, that is
genuinely something to fear.”

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