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What`s Driving China? A glance at China`s Automotive market in 2012.

What`s Driving China? A glance at China`s Automotive market in 2012.


The automotive market in the People’s Republic of China has been the largest in the world since 2008, as measured by single unit production. Propelled by government incentives, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers reported that, in 2009, vehicle sales in China reached a record 13.6 million sales. Of these roughly 44% were produced by local brands (BYD, Lifan, Chang’An etc.), while the rest were produced by JVs with foreign carmakers, such as Volkswagen, General Motors and Suzuki. Like most joint ventures in China, foreign ownership in the auto industry is capped at 50%. Although most of the cars manufactured in China are sold domestically, automobile exports still topped 800,000 units in 2011.

If you briefly consider the history of Chinese auto manufacturing, one thing is certainly clear: growth has been breathtakingly rapid in recent years. Between the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966) and Mao Zedong’s death (1976), China’s self-imposed 10-year isolation from the world ensured that little to no technological advancement was made in the stagnating auto industry. As such, it was not until 1986, when a combination of Deng Xiaoping-initiated reforms and a shortage of foreign currency prompted the Ministry of Machine Building to authorize the creation of six JVs with foreign carmakers, that the Chinese auto industry took off. This progress was officially cemented in February 1994, when the Party enumerated a set of key objectives in the Implementation Policy of the Motor Industry (IPMI).


Although initial goals were ambitious – 1.2m annual passenger car production by 2000 and 6m target for 2010 – production targets have not just been met, they have been completely outstripped. China’s entry into the WTO in 2001 marks the point at which development acceleration reached critical levels: between 2002 and 2007 China’s automotive market grew by an annual average of 21%; in 2010, China both sold and produced the largest number of cars by any country in history (18m). Of these, 13.76m were passenger vehicles – over twice the 1994 target. The number of registered Chinese vehicles (ranging from cars to buses and trucks) on the road reached 62 million in 2009, and projections estimate almost 200 million by 2020.


The majority of China’s automobile production takes place along the Eastern coast, notably in factories in or around Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing and Changchun, as well as Shenzhen and Guangzhou in the South. Two other regions of significant concentration are Hubei Province in central China and Chongqing in the West. Although greater regional consolidation in the market through the creation of automotive ‘hubs’ could reduce operating costs, demand in recent years has been so great that the disappearance of any one of the existing production centers seems unlikely. According to China Automotive Market Review in 2010 (Mark Bursa; just – auto), the six major regions are as follows:


  1. The Shanghai / Nanjing region on the East coast (300 suppliers; SAIC & local carmakers)
  2. Wuhan Province (over 300 suppliers; home of Dongfeng Motor)
  3. Beijing / Tianjin (~130 suppliers; Beijing Auto Industry Corporation & Tianjin Automotive)
  4. Guangdong Province and Shenzhen (Gangzhou Automotive)
  5. Jilin Province, specifically the capital Changchun (220 suppliers centered around First Automotive Works)
  6. Chongqing (home of ChangAn Motor)


As elucidated above, the Eastern coast remains the single biggest center for automobile and component manufacturing, accounting for nearly 45% of national production in 2010. Growth in Shanghai, home to SAIC and its notable JVs with Volkswagen and GM, as well as in neighboring provinces (Zhejiang and Jiangsu) has been particularly rapid. For its part, Shanghai proper has announced GDP growth surpassing 10% a year for roughly 15 years now; its GDP per capita is now 50% higher than Beijing’s, and double that of Tianjin. After Shanghai, Changchun is the second largest production center, accounting for roughly 20% of national output yearly. It is home to First Automobile Works, one of China’s biggest car producers and a JV-partner of Volkswagen and Toyota. Guangdong Province (notably its capital, Guangzhou) is China’s third-largest automotive production hub. The region’s largest vehicle producer is Guangzhou Automotive, which has partnered with Honda and Toyota.


China’s largest domestic manufacturers, in order, are Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp (SAIC), First Automobile Works (FAW), Dongfeng Motor Group, Guangzhou Automobile Industry Group (GAIG) and Beijing Automobile Industries Holding Corp (BAIHC). All of these firms, specifically the “Big Three” (SAIC, FAW and Dongfeng), have been aggressive in forming partnerships with foreign automakers. Although they are essentially regional powerhouses in China, attempts to grow internationally have so far been only moderately successful. Nevertheless, overseas investment plans are constantly being announced: Dongfeng Motor most recently announced plans to invest $250m US in a Turkish plant with an annual production capacity of 52,000 units.


In contrast with its largest, foreign-aligned carmakers, China has additionally seen a ‘second wave’ of industry growth over the last ten years, which is composed primarily of non-aligned, independent Chinese manufacturers. Of these, the two most high profile firms are Chery Automobile (founded in 1997 by Yin Tongyao and with operation bases in Anhui) and Geely (formed late 1990s; based in the Eastern province of Zhejiang). Despite their initial lack of major foreign partners, Chery and Geely aren’t doing too badly – Chery has been busy setting up overseas plants in Iran, Russia, Indonesia, Ukraine, Uruguay and Egypt, while Geely signed an agreement in December of 2009 to purchase Volvo Car Corporation from Ford. The deal was expected to cost around $2 billion US.



With billions of domestic and foreign capital flowing in, the real question now is when will the market reach peak growth? Well the answer is that it’s hard to tell. Emerging fears of overcapacity led the Chinese government to choke credit after sales doubled in 2003, leading to much slower growth in 2004. But concerns are being raised again by the fact that, despite expected downturns as a result of 2008, demand seems to be picking up once more. Emerging 2nd and 3rd tier cities in the Western interior have yet to fully develop as automotive markets, and will likely continue to stimulate growth over the next 10-15 years. Additional factors contributing to sustained growth are the emergence of a middle class in smaller cities as wealth spreads throughout the country, as well as sales boosts powered by global economic recovery. As reported by businessGreen in 2009, the consultancy McKinsey estimates that China’s car market will expand tenfold between 2005 and 2030, driving up diesel and petrol demand from 110 to 550m tonnes. Barring serious advancements in green technology (a hope that actually appears to have substance based on recent trends in Chinese investment), this would mean a sharp rise in carbon emissions from a country that is already the world’s biggest polluter (in terms of annual CO2).


Faced with a building surge by foreign companies like Volkswagen, GM, Ford, Toyota and the group composed of Hyundai and Kia, many experts warn that Beijing’s attempts to mitigate overcapacity will not be completely successful. And this renewed, expected demand will have some big implications. Established automakers will continue to come to China to capitalize on what seems like market growth with no end in sight – General Motors’ China sales overtook its US sales for the first time last year. As the market continues to take into account the rising demand of new cities in the interior, production will likely begin to focus more on smaller, cheaper units. This will benefit local independents Chery and Geely, who specialize in making smaller cars. At the same time, the big foreign firms should focus on their own niche: luxury vehicles. Although they are tiny vs. the SAIC’s of the world, wealthy Chinese consumers are likely to pay huge premiums for established luxury brands. Sustained demand in China will, for the most part, keep domestic producers occupied with their own country in the near future. As such, seriously ambitious expansion plans into foreign markets are likely to be shelved for the time being.


Exports will additionally remain affected by the fact that Chinese crash testing and emission levels still do not hold up to developed world standards (this is not to say that Chinese exports are enjoying more success in less sophisticated markets, however, where their brands are both unappealing and confusingly unpronounceable). Chinese manufacturers will not see success in Western markets until they take an active interest in making their brands and products appealing to Western customers: at overseas motor shows vehicles are often still given mistranslated names (e.g. Geely PU Rural Nanny), but owners seem hesitant to hire experts who could help them breach the culture gap.


In the interim, increases in local demand promise to drain already scarce global resources – both in terms of physical manufacturing materials and in terms of fossil fuel resources. In addition, overcapacity threatens to strangle attempts by local expertise to initiate a shift to electric power, which might be a necessary game changer in the auto industry. Of interest is local Chinese manufacturer BYD, or Build Your Dreams, which may become one of the first victims of a glut of small commercial vehicles (despite its funding from high-profile investor, Warren Buffet). “The company took off like an eagle, but is now flapping like a chicken”, said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the US-based Center for Automotive Research, in reference to the struggling automaker. Unfortunately, problems of overcapacity may not go away anytime soon. Although the Chinese government wants to build an industry around SAIC, Dongfeng and FAW, we are now in an age where entrepreneurial spirit can trump central planning: despite the Party’s intent, local and provincial governments are more than willing to bankroll their own, smaller firms.


As of now, the unstable market position of manufacturers, low prices caused by increased competition, restrictions on car ownership, overcapacity and continued dependency on depleting oil reserves continue to pose major challenges for the Chinese automotive market in the years ahead. At the same time, several important obstacles to the industry that were prevalent a few years ago (such as lookalike models) have become less of an issue currently. Market growth expectations should be sizable enough for all of the players involved (both domestic and foreign) to prosper, and it should be remembered that the Chinese market has yet to fully form. But if Chinese automakers continue to believe that they can follow the business model of the Japanese in the ‘70s (i.e. breaching the market with cheaper cars and building brand value over time), then they are sorely mistaken. The same opportunities do not exist today – there are no weak firms in the market, and to enter by virtue of low-cost alone would make Chinese operations intrinsically unprofitable. There is big room in the market for expansion, but the big boys are also well established. Anyone considering entering the market will need to carve out a niche position and a strong brand to compete. Ultimately, more significant corporate consolidation and stronger brand-building policy are two initiatives that will eventually become necessary for future growth.








Navigating the Webs of Guanxi: An Overvi...

Navigating the Webs of Guanxi: An Overview of Corruption in China.


“Corruption is an inevitable accompaniment to social progress,” said the People’s Daily in the late 1990s. Whilst times have changed for businesses operating in China, navigating the intricate web of personal connections and business bureaucracy remains paramount to success and daunting to most foreign small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).


During China`s first boom in the 1990s, it was almost impossible to secure a loan outside the aegis of a state-owned enterprise. Individuals who wanted to try something entrepreneurial used their mutual support network – known as guanxi – to obtain chops and permits, borrowed money from their direct families, and closed deals with “gifts” to the right officials. The process was tightly controlled by local, provincial and central governments and their SOEs.


One of the few private companies to find legitimate ways of raising capital was Orient Group, which in 1994 became the first private company to be allowed to list shares. The group’s founder, Zhang Hongwei, said that in China, “…..doing business is different from doing business in other places: you only spend 30% of your effort on business. The other 70% is spent with dealing with all kinds of inter-personal relationships”.


Fast forward to 2012 and how much has really changed? State owned enterprises are still at a major advantage versus their smaller, private sector competitors when it comes to accessing credit from the banks. When the government turns off the credit taps, it’s always the smaller firms that suffer first, and yet, these are the companies that contribute most to China’s GDP growth. In June 2012, Andrew Wedeman released a series of analysis on corruption data in China since the early 1980s. Citing data on cases involving mid-level to senior officials and significant sums of money, Wedeman reconfirmed what other studiers of Chinese corruption have been saying for years: since the early 1990s, the regime has only become more corrupt.


The questions at hand, then, are twofold. First, how can we explain the paradox of sustained economic growth under a regime that practices predatory corruption? And second, what type of corruption is China really plagued by? According to the annual Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International (TI), the Republic of China was ranked well under countries like Canada (#8) and the US (#24), coming in at a clean #32. Although the use of third-party survey data will always call an index’s results into question, public perception in 2011 seemed to lean towards a moderate stance on shadowy practices in the Great Republic. How then, does this corruption go unnoticed?


Some scholars have argued that one of China’s saving graces was to undertake economic reform before corruption got too bad. Because the transition to a market economy was initiated in the 1980s (when corruption was limited to petty plunder), dynamic growth was achieved before significant corruption set in. As to the intensification of corruption in recent decades, many blame the sale of land-use rights and privatization of state-owned enterprises (Wederman, 2012). Although privatization continues to allow previously inefficient areas of the Chinese economy to flourish, the transition process is filled with opportunities for officials to pocket a quai. Effects on growth seem negligible in the short-term: as the Chinese government continues to allocate trillions of dollars in fixed investments towards development, what does a few million here or there matter? Unfortunately, the long-term costs of this scenario are borne by the state-owned banking system, which is forced to back poor, corrupted investments like high-speed railways.


So what does this all mean? Well, not very much in the near future. Although the Party has promised to assume a stronger stance on corruption, we all know not to put too much faith in abstract vows. China’s export sector still accounts for roughly 2-3% GDP growth annually – money that is out of the reach of Chinese officials, and just about enough to offset the price of corruption. Unlike many corrupt governments that became progressively cleaner as democratization and development followed their natural course, China is an autocracy unimpeded by legalities. Finally, as TI’s index indicates, corruption in China is often viewed as merely one more element of the status quo.


Ultimately, it’s a one sided game. The fact that one can’t win in China without effectively navigating the different relationship structures and favours that are expected is well known. While the government talks a good game about wishing to stamp out corruption at all levels, its corridors are stuffed with individuals who would be far from exonerated during any full-scale investigation. In fact, studies have shown that the Party’s corruption prosecution rates have actually fallen relatively since 2000 (although the bureaucracy has expanded, prosecution numbers have remained roughly the same 2,500 each year).


Instead, the government can wield the corruption axe at will. Got a rowdy, trouble making provincial governor who is getting above his station? Kaboom! Corruption charges, life in prison. Got a multinational organization that isn’t playing by the rules or is winning a bit too much market share from local players? Kaboom! Senior managers are found to be currying favour illegally via corruption. Ten years each inside a Chinese prison, or deportation and disgrace for their company. Got a major scandal on your hands that you need someone to blame for (here queue a railway accident or earthquake)? Kaboom! The Minister for X is to blame due to his gross mishandling of his office and, yup, you guessed it, corruption.


Corruption is certainly not unique to China, nor are Western organizations the saints that they proclaim themselves to be. But as development persists, and corruption continues to make food unsafe, exacerbate uneven development and threaten sustainability, the time may come for China’s Premier to persecute its looters more severely. 

New Migration Trends in China.

New Migration Trends in China.

Over the last generation, the greatest wave of internal migration in human history has transformed China’s cities, and with it the global economy. Although estimates vary, studies report that up to a staggering 103 million urban migrants currently exist in China. This number could increase to 243 million by 2025 – catapulting the urban population to nearly 1 billion and dramatically shifting city demographics. Already, estimates show that migrant workers compose nearly 40% of Shanghai proper’s 23 million people.

Critics of Chinese migration, most notably from the West, have historically been plenty. These stem primarily from the Chinese government’s tendency to use the hukou system (a permanent residence registration system that dates back to ancient China) to restrict internal movement by denying rural migrants certain amenities within its coastal cities. For example, children born to rurally registered parents will themselves count as ‘rural’, even if their parents migrated years before and they were born in urban centers. Like their parents, their lack of a hukou for where they live will make it more difficult for them to get a driver’s license, or even purchase a house and car. Escaping this cycle is, for most, nearly impossible.


All evidence shows that these trends are unlikely to change anytime soon. One reason is that China’s growing factories still benefit by employing large numbers of cheap migrants – a supply that the current system guarantees. Another significant force is the cities’ lack of educational resources for non-locals. In Shanghai, migrant children are eligible to attend local primary and middle schools, but are denied access to high schools. In lieu, some of the smartest migrant children attend vocational, or trade, schools. Although Premier Wen Jiabao criticized the hukou system on March 5th of this year, promising that “migrant workers will become permanent urban residents in an orderly manner”, we all know how reliable these types of governmental promises are.


But here’s the catch: this year, for the first time in nearly three decades of rising coastal migration, studies show that the inland population is starting to work closer to home. This is a big change, and potentially a sign that recent floods of government investment in the Western interior are working. As inland cities like Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu, improve their infrastructure, many Chinese firms have begun to transfer some manufacturing away from Eastern cities in search of cheaper operating costs. This price disparity reflects both initial signs of development in the West, as well as potential signs of “over-development” in the East, leading to wage costs above the developing country norm. Another potential cause is the recent, 2008-induced downturn in European demand for coastal produced exports.


For their part, provincial officials have begun what would have ten years been unthinkable: luring migrant workers home. The Chinese government recently abolished agricultural taxes and began subsidizing rural areas. In Chongqing, a photo was even published of policemen carrying bags for migrant workers who were returning home for the New Year holiday. As domestic demand begins to account for progressively larger shares of Chinese GDP each year, firms do not necessarily need to make their homes close to a port anymore. The result is a steady influx of new factories in the interior.


Some scholars associated with the Chinese Communist Party have argued that this pattern additionally reflects shifts in China’s socio-political infrastructure. For example, some have posited that this reaction represents China’s attempt to avoid the phenomenon of “Latin Americanization” – that is, “highly unequal megacities and their attendant crime, slums and social instability” (Wallace 2009). This might seem inconsistent with typical development patterns though, as emerging economies traditionally give preferential treatment to cities. Others have argued that this trend is merely the result of changing demographics within Chinese society: according to UN estimates, the number of 15-29 year olds in China peaked in 2011. This means that the population will only continue to age from this point onwards, reducing the supply of young workers even within the country’s innermost provinces.


Regardless of the reasons behind it, China’s new, changing patterns of migration will assuredly influence the country’s development profoundly over the next few years. Already since 2010, Chongqing has allotted full social benefits to nearly 3 million migrants who had previously been categorized as immigrants from the hinterlands. Chengdu has announced plans to repeal amenities-related barriers to migration within the next year. In this way, migrants in urban areas will be able to enjoy the same social benefits as registered city-dwellers. Access to urban schools in particular will allow them to bring their children with them, in place of the current practice of leaving them with grandparents or other relatives in the village.


Although these omens point to hope for China’s glaring regional imbalances, however, it remains to be seen how these added financial burdens will be carried by local governments. In 2011, many of China’s interior provincial areas reported GDP growth exceeding 15% (Chengdu reported a healthy 15.2%, while Chongqing clocked in at 16.4%). Once this growth slows down, will government officials display the same zeal for social reform? We’ll have to wait and see.

From East to West: The Evolving Nature...

From East to West: The Evolving Nature of Chinese Outbound Tourism.


Since the beginning of reform and opening up in the late 1970s, China has consistently been in the world’s eye as a major tourist destination. Rather than convince you with words, we’ll let the figures do the talking: China is the third most visited country in the world; in 2010, 55.98 million overseas tourists made their way to the Middle Kingdom; total income from inbound tourists has reached yearly estimates of 777 billion Yuan.


Although at China Brain we pride ourselves on not being overly superstitious, we thought it interesting to point out that, in Chinese culture, the number 7 symbolizes “togetherness” and is a lucky number for relationships. It is also notably one of the rare numbers that is considered harmonious by both China and the West. We’ll leave it to the readers to draw their own further conclusions.


Despite sustained development in the inbound sector, however, the number of tourists heading to China each year continues, in fact, to be outpaced by those heading out. Over the last few years, Chinese outbound tourism has been way ahead in comparison with inbound tourist arrivals – simply put growth is absolutely phenomenal. During the 2004-2008 period, the total number of annual Chinese outbound tourists grew by 12% CAGR to reach 45 million. In 2011, a research report published by RNCOS estimated that nearly 61.9 million Chinese crossed the border to see the world. The China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) predicts that by 2015 100 million travelers spending 100 billion US$ on outbound tourism will turn China into the world’s #1 international tourism source market.


Ongoing government programs and an increasing number of international agreements between Asian countries and the West, coupled with Internet penetration and incessant economic development, suggest that this trend will only continue in the near future. For its part, the Chinese government has been active in signing bilateral agreements with neighboring countries and relaxing visa restrictions, making it easier than ever for Chinese citizens to explore life outside the Great Wall. Although these efforts have been mirrored by foreign governments (the U.S. was among the last Western countries in obtaining Approved Destination Status (ADS) in December 2007), there is still room for improvement. It remains especially difficult for some independent travelers to obtain visa permission for travel, leaving little choice but to engage the often-expensive services of an established travel agency.


Who are these travelers, what do they expect, and what does this mean for the rest of the world? For starters, rising Chinese outbound tourism will only continue to facilitate a marked Chinese global presence – one that will become a much firmer reality for many in the West, as those who have fueled the export-driven Chinese economy for years finally ‘meet their makers’. As the Chinese tourism industry expands beyond leisure vacations to include industrial technology and cultural tourism, medical tourism and investment tourism – areas of tourism that are currently still undeveloped – how will the rest of the world react?


Many studies argue that rising outbound tourism may be a key factor in solving what has often been a turbulent relationship between China and the rest of the world. Rather than occurring at the intergovernmental level, these authors believe that successful cooperation between the people of China and those of the West, Asia and even India will be founded upon the construction of mutual social and cultural bridges. This type of dissemination usually works both ways, and as a whole generation of Chinese teens mature in a country distinctly more open to the world than their parents’ ever was, we remain optimistic of future collaboration. Could Mark Zuckerberg’s March 2012 visit to China be the first of many? It is still too early to predict.


Regardless, the question of the moment for American tourism and hospitality practitioners is increasingly becoming: What kind of services should we supply to Chinese tourists? Initial studies published in Tourism Management (Vol. 32, Issue 4, 2011) have yielded interesting results. For instance, findings suggest that “the major benefits sought by Chinese visitors in a pleasure trip include scenic beauty, safety, famous attractions, different cultures, and services in hotels and restaurants among others” (Yu and Weiler 2001). Mainland tourists also seem to prefer package tours involving multiple destination countries to a single-destination package. This reasoning stems from the common belief that, with a package tour, you are getting a better bang for your quai. As for shopping, analysts found that Chinese tourists are most inclined towards purchasing electronics and famous brand-name items, often as gifts for relatives.


The most common complaints registered by Chinese travelers targeted the lack of certain amenities at Western destinations, which would typically be found in China. Visitors to hotels in the US frequently criticized the lack of hot drinking water and Chinese tea, as well as the absence of one-use toiletries (e.g. toothpaste, toothbrush, comb) that Chinese hotels generally provide. Concerning food and restaurants, one study’s participants found that Western food was either too sweet or unhealthy (fried food and high calories), or it surpassed their approximate food budgets of 10-30 US$ per day. Almost every participant expressed a desire for more readily available, authentic Chinese food.


While the phenomenon of Chinese outbound tourism is still in its infancy, Chinese visitors to the West are rapidly developing into a large and sophisticated group of consumers – one for whom travel will only continue to become more affordable as the Chinese government allows further re-evaluation of the Yuan. Satisfying and meeting these tourists’ needs, as well as treating them with the cultural understanding and respect that they expect, will be a crucial task for Western marketers in the years to come. A better understanding of Chinese outbound tourists and their intrinsic cultural values will result in a more pleasant stay for all those involved.





Changing faces of China

Changing faces of China

To many people, China’s growth statistics over the last decade can be staggering and slightly abstract: growth of 10 or 11% a year, 3.3 trillion US dollars in foreign reserves, over 40 companies in the Fortune 500. But what does it mean to actually live through these figures and what impact does it have on the lives of normal people? As long time China residents, we have taken a small area in Beijing called San Li Tun and shown you in images exactly what the ‘China miracle’ looks like.


10 years ago, San Li Tun was an unremarkable, military owned district right on the outskirts of Beijing, just inside the 3rd ring road. It had been designated a Diplomatic area in order to move the city’s diplomats away from central Beijing. Beyond this area were farms and factories that fed and supplied the Capital. Now San Li Tun is both an entertainment and shopping Mecca for Beijing's bourgeoisie: a Swire Hotel, a flagship Apple store and a Bentley Showroom are the landmarks, taking the place of scruffy housing blocks and military out-houses.


The evolution of San Li Tun is an extreme example of China’s evolution – the decade long sprint from relative backwardness into the shining light of capitalism and all its excesses. The question we would ask is, whether the high heeled and fashionably dressed Beijing fashionistas that strut their stuff around the area’s Village shopping precinct are genuinely happier than the Mao suited wearing former residents who have long been relocated (usually forcibly to new apartments near the 6th Ring Road)? The sense of community that used to pervade this area, as dusty and run down as it once was, is long gone. All that remains is the odd housing block that clings on to its crumbling past, surrounded by a miasma of neon, wealth and an awful lot of Western expatriates getting drunk. Perhaps we’re being overly misty eyed about the past. We’re pretty sure Bentley isn’t too concerned about what has been lost. After all, over one in four new Bentley`s are sold in China (1,839 units in 2011).


The images below reflect a personal experience on the changes in a small area over the last 10 years.


All Photographs courtesy of Patricia Calvo ©2002-2012

Soft power and the personality void

Soft power and the personality void

Later this year, both China and the US will go through some fairly major political upheaval. In the States, the people will go to the polls to deliver their verdict on whether they are willing to give Barack Obama another four years to build upon the moderate successes of his first term. If they decide that the country's economic recovery has been too sluggish, his health reforms too radical, or his rhetoric too lofty, they will usher in Mitt Romney as the next President.



When the results are in, and regardless of whether it's Obama or Romney who is sworn in to office, you can be assured that almost every single person in the country will have some view on the man set to occupy the oval office until 2016. This is not necessarily because they will all be politically curious and opinionated, but because such is the nature of politics in the US; both candidates will have been figuratively hung, drawn, and quartered a hundred times over by the opposition in the run up to the elections.


The national media will have wall to wall coverage, exposing any inkling of weakness or scandal in the candidates, and no stone will be left unturned in their quest to dramatize the proceedings. No American will be able to listen to the radio, watch TV, or even surf the internet, without having their day interrupted by some kind of party political broadcast. Nines times out of ten, these broadcasts will take a negative point of view, creating a poisonous, febrile atmosphere between the two political parties.


Outside of the US, anyone with more than a passing interest in the next leader of the free world will easily be able to read up on Barack and Mitt at their leisure, coming to their own conclusions about the choice the American people will make in November.


Meanwhile, around the same time in China, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will (one assumes) be packing up their offices in Zhongnanhai and heading out the door to be replaced by their anointed successors, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.

Of course, there will be no elections in China, but nor will there be much of an opportunity for anyone inside or outside of the country to find out much about the men due to take up the position of President and Prime Minister of the most populous nation on earth. To most people inside and outside of China, two faceless Communist Party suits will be replaced with two faceless Communist Party suits. Only a smattering of insiders will have any real and reliable insights into how these men think, what their plans are for the country and to what extent we can expect either more of the same or radical changes in terms of government policy.


The smart money is on more of the same, but isn't it somewhat remarkable that, in this day and age, when China is so focused on building its soft power beyond its national boundaries, that it has not thought it appropriate to invest in educating the world about these two men who are about to take up the hot seats at the pinnacle of power? Xi Jinping did make a well choreographed trip to the US last year, but given how suspicious most nations and people are of China's rise, why has there been such little effort to try and break down the image of the country being run by shadowy, characterless figures, devoid of personality and of public proclamation?


When the author visited Hanoi to attend an APEC business summit back in 2006, the difference between China and the US's approach to building their international image and relationships based on mutual trust could not have been more stark.


The first speaker of the day was Hu Jintao. Hu arrived on time, his speech was placed on the lectern by one of his flunkies just moments before he arrived, and he proceeded to read out the statement in a voice that suggested this was the very first time he had read the words in front of him. He paused for polite applause at the end of his speech, and then departed as fast as his legs would carry him. His entrance and exit were closely guarded by his entourage, who seemed utterly convinced that any interaction with the audience or waiting media could only end in tears. The auditorium was no doubt impressed by the speed and efficiency of his appearance, but there was certainly no feeling of warmth, friendliness or care emanating from the platform.


Next on stage was then Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. This meeting was occurring right in the midst of the war on terror, and Ms Rice was not the most popular person in the world at that time. Even more provocatively, she was appearing at an event hosted by the government of a country that the US had entered - also uninvited - forty years previously.


Things did not start well for her as she arrived conspicuously late, but her entrance was immediately captivating. She paused on her way to the stage, shook several of the audience's hands, made sure everyone could see her smiling, and if my memory serves me correctly, she even embraced the person who was tasked with introducing her. She then spoke for 20 minutes using prepared notes, but speaking with utter conviction and passion on her chosen topic - the fact that people would look back at the war in a more favourable light than they see it now.


Most of the audience disagreed with her and I don't think many were won over by her argument. But few could not have been moved by the way she stated that amazing things can happen in current affairs, and to those who kept faith in what they believed in. After all, she said, who could have envisaged forty years ago that a black female Secretary of State would be standing there addressing a friendly audience in Hanoi in 2006? She completed her speech to a standing ovation lasting several minutes and then proceeded to take Q&A for another twenty minutes, clearly enjoying herself and the intellectual debate she was able to enter into with the people fortunate enough to be attending.


The above story is demonstrative of the challenge China faces as it advances its interest on the world stage. America is unpopular in many places, but at least most people know who its leaders are and what they stand for. For all its investments in Confucius centres around the world, and its attempts to turn CCTV into a respected global news channel and voice of the Party (shame about the xenophobic statements by its news anchor then), very few foreigners really feel comfortable with China's rise.


Would it make a considerable difference if there wasn't such a deep personality void at the very top of the echelons of power? We all know what happened to the last senior politician in China who dared to run a 'campaign' around personality, so one suspects monochrome statements from monochrome men in monochrome suits will be the norm for some time to come... but here's hoping that in an era when China is stepping into its role as a global leader, the new Party leaders surprise us all by appearing to at least care what the rest of the world thinks of them.


Reserve rates cut but government still...

Reserve rates cut but government still behind the curve

The accusation of being 'behind the curve' has dogged the current Chinese administration since it took office in 2002. The announcement of a reserve requirement cut at the weekend isn't likely to weaken that charge. A reserve cut had been expected since mid-April. Still, the government failed to act, despite mounting evidence from the provinces that industry was really struggling in the face of anemic global demand and Beijing's own anti-inflation policies.

That rates moved a day after a set of dismal economic data reports highlights again the State Council's inability to reach consensus on policy decisions, and its tendecy to allow problems to build in the system until a set of bad news prompts a kneejerk -- and often overly-aggressive --response.

It has been five years since the collapse of the U.S. housing market, and China has had a relatively good crisis. The government's aggressive CNY4 trillion response helped compensate for lost external demand, and the economy averaged 9.6% growth between 2008 and last year. That stimulus, announced in November 2008, was an uncharacteristically bold response to a once-in-a-lifetime systemic crisis that threatened the global financial system. Since then, it has been business as usual; responding to inflation only when prices have surged to the point of widespread public anger and now tentatively easing policy as private sector firms struggle for survival amid soaring curbside interest rates and anemic domestic demand.

China's current slowdown was engineered by government policy designed to tackle rising inflation and deflate nationwide property bubbles. The rationale has always been that the government's overwhelming control of the levers of the economy meant it could restimulate activity just as easily as it slowed it, and that underpinned this year's confident 8%-plus GDP forecasts. Moves to cut the reserve requirement in December and February boosted confidence that the central government had finally let go of its worries about inflation, and was moving to kickstart growth as price pressures faded and as euro-induced panic weighed on global risk sentiment. The weakness seen in January-February -- and, to a certain extent, March data -- was written off as distortions created by the Chinese New Year holiday.

But the weeks following the end of the holiday season have brought little respite. If anything, evidence mounted pointing to an industrial base struggling in the face of policies designed to keep prices and speculation in check. That it has gone on too long is reflected in business surveys, particularly those produced by HSBC/Markit, which tend to focus on smaller, privately-held firms that exist at the mercy of the unregulated underground financing system.

The index remained below the 50-mark separating expansion from contraction for a sixth straight month in April. More worryingly, the survey indicated that companies are shedding jobs at the fastest rate in 37-months.

The government hasn't been sitting on its hands in recent weeks. The People's Bank of China has injected around CNY400 billion into the interbank market via open market operations since the start of the year, while Beijing has announced key reforms, including the start of a private finance program in Wenzhou, the eastern-seaboard city which has arguably suffered most from the domestic credit crunch.

But it has been negligent in heeding calls from industry for a more aggressive pace of policy easing, including access to credit. While the State Council has debated the economy's need for looser policy and struggled to reach consensus on action -- opting for relative inaction instead -- industry has suffered. This culminated with the release of economic data reports at the end of last week. Trade, industrial output, investment and retail sales growth all fell short of market expectations, triggering a wave of analyst downgrades for growth this quarter and this year.

But the myth of Beijing's apparent insouciance was betrayed on Saturday evening, when the PBOC announced the reserve requirement cut. A cut had been expected ever since the release of first quarter GDP in mid-April. That it followed the miserable April data reports signaled a degree of panic within the establishment, and suggested a realization that officials waited too late to heed industry's call.

The reserve cut has been followed by the predictable flood of analyst reports, instructing clients to expect more loosening moves in the weeks and months ahead. They more than echoed the reports following the December and February cuts, despite the weeks of inactivity that followed. Inflation now appears to be firmly under control, while global economic conditions only appear to be worsening, even without the threat of a partial unraveling of the European Union.

Domestically, weak bank lending activity points to inadequate credit, but also falling demand for loans -- a situation that will require far more than the CNY400 billion that will be released into the system by this week's reserve cut. The reserve cut suggests the government is now suitably spooked about the economy and onside, ready to act to support the domestic economy and achieve 8% growth this year.

But the central government will need to follow up Saturday's move with more policy loosening, including taking advantage of its relatively comfortable fiscal position, if investors -- and corporate officers -- are going to avoid the sense that it's deja vu all over again.


China Brain Predicts, Part One.

China Brain Predicts, Part One.


Trying to predict anything in life is often a futile exercise. Trying to predict anything related to China even more so, especially in light of the events that the first part of 2012 has already witnessed. Disregarding all of this, and some common sense besides, China Brain has put down some predictions for what the remainder of 2012 may hold. Some of these are serious, some of them less so, but all are intended to create some lively debate and discussion. Please do let us know what you think. More to come as and when we feel inspired.


  1. China's GDP growth for the whole of 2012 will come in at a healthy 8.0%. Many doom-laden pieces have been written on the negative impact of Europe's continuing woes on China. Although we are concerned that the Continent is being rocked to the core by a combination of economic stagnation and political upheaval (most recently in France and Greece), we would point out that only 20% of China`s exports head to Europe, that signs of recovery in the US are particularly encouraging, and that many if not most emerging markets are powering ahead. Any renewed moves towards breaking up the Eurozone which have been hinted at by the new French President, could impact our prediction, but we are quietly confident that Angela Merkel will hold fast, as will the Chinese consumer, who is starting to demonstrate an important willingness to spend more at home and abroad. Knowing how much the government likes both round numbers and the number 8, we're quietly confident that there will be no major surprises on this one.



  1. The handover of power will be peaceful in Beijing but bloody elsewhere. With the transition fast approaching and the Party apparently locked in battles of an ideological nature, we remain optimistic that President Hu and Prime Minister Wen will make their exits in relative and appropriate harmony. We are not going to predict, however, how their legacy will be viewed in years to come. At such a critical juncture in China`s history, when Party eyes are focused on machinations in the capital we are likely to see a re-flaring of trouble in the country`s restive regions and a potentially very severe crackdown by the country`s new leaders who will want to be seen as no pushovers.


  1. The number of Chinese dissidents who gain entry into the US Embassy in Beijing: 0. The number who will try: more than 10. Since the Bo Xilai / Wang Lijun ‘incident’ and the remarkable escape of the former prisoner known as CGC, we expect the US embassy to come under increasing pressure to take in more dissidents. We find it highly unlikely that any of them will actually be let in. Two reasons: the US won`t want to risk jeopardizing its relationship with China any further than it already has done by continually providing safe harbor for opponents of the Chinese government. Perhaps more importantly, we can expect a rather large local security presence keeping a close eye on the gate 24/7 from now on.


  1. Chinese outbound investment will surpass last year`s figure of US$60 billion. We're still waiting for the mega deals to start rolling in – well the bankers are – but we expect to see a continuation of Chinese investments characterized by mid-sized acquisitions and large greenfield investments. As mentioned previously, the world is increasingly welcoming Chinese capital, except when it gets close to sectors related to national security. But, from a pragmatic perspective, beggars can no longer afford to be choosers. We boldly predict at least one major (US$10 billion or more) deal in the remainder of the year, which will no doubt get held up in red tape for at least another 12 months after being announced.


  1. Talking of deals…China will approve the Google / Motorola deal. We`re sticking our necks out on this one but if rumours are right that Google has offered the Motorola handset business to Huawei as something of a sweetener, we see little reason for the government to hold up the deal. The impact of a negative decision on China`s ability to pull off deals around the world could also be somewhat cataclysmic.


  1. China will fail to beat its 2008 gold medal haul at the London Olympics. Four years ago, China's rise to the international stage was completed by its talented and young (in some cases, a little too young) athletes, who whipped local crowds into a nationalistic fervor via their haul of 51 gold medals. China Brain expects things to be a lot closer at the top of the medal table this time around. We would be surprised if China took more than 45 golds.


  1. Chinese people will make over a 100 million overseas trips for the first time. As incomes rise and government policies enable more foreign travel, more and more of the population will step outside of the nation's borders for the first time. The impact on popular destinations will be at once exciting and terrifying. Profits will be up, but the thought of another 1 billion Chinese visiting the same places in years to come may push tourists from other nations to visit these sites sooner rather than later. Queuing at Disneyland might never be the same again; new queues will form outside luxury goods stores in Paris, New York, Milan and other cities famous for fashion.


That's it for now. We'll check in at the end of the year on how we did. Let us know if you think we're right, wrong, or wildly off the mark. Feel free to suggest other predictions too.

China goes global, this time its persona...

China goes global, this time its personal

Despite the media’s best attempts to whip us up into a frenzy of fear and loathing, the first serious wave of Chinese outbound investment that occurred felt rather distant to most people in the West. While some people were vaguely aware that the ThinkPad laptop had lost its IBM branding and had morphed into something called a Lenovo, most people were relatively unconcerned that the hungry Dragon was acquiring a serious number of mines and oil fields. After all, unless you were working for a company directly impacted, the bearing of these deals on peoples' daily lives was negligible. The most recent wave of M&A, sparked off by the financial crisis, feels distinctly different. As asset prices across all industries remain depressed, savvy Chinese acquirers are picking up distressed companies that have much less choice in who they sell themselves to or partner with. For many, it’s work with the Chinese or fold altogether.

One senses that the mood is starting to become a bit tense. While local and national governments polish off their shiny new Mandarin investment brochures, looking to the East for investments into greenfield and brownfield sites as well as help with new infrastructure projects, some of their citizens feel decidedly less comfortable about the Chinese buying spree, especially when it comes to treasured national brands. While Volvo slipped into bed relatively quietly with Geely, and the Swedes didn’t seem too overtly bothered by the deal, rumblings are afoot elsewhere.


China Brain suspects that the straw (or wheat in this case) that breaks the camel’s back has just been announced. That is, of course the fact that Bright Foods, a behemoth Chinese food company, has set the British breakfast table in its sights – in the form of the brand Weetabix. Apparently one billion pounds is the offer. Dating back to 1932, Weetabix was family owned for 72 years before eventually being snapped up by a private equity firm. Now, one wonders if the fact that this private equity firm is Texan was widely reported in the British press at the time. Or is the fact that a Chinese company is buying a beloved British brand far more newsworthy?


Whatever the case, this is another example of ordinary people really feeling the impact of Chinese companies’ increasing adventurousness on the global stage, as their balance sheets remain strong and loans are relatively easy to come by. But one can see that some of the new deals are ones that the man on the street might object to a little bit more than previous ones that had no noticeable impact on their daily lives. In Britain, a Chinese retailer has picked up the royal tailor Gieves and Hawkes, while just last month in New Zealand, the government approved an application by the Shanghai Pengxin Group to buy 16 dairy farms which are about as close to royalty as you can get in New Zealand.


The wave of deals is expected to strengthen – unlike the last one that fizzled out a little with CNOOC’s failed mega bid for Unocal. In fact, outbound deals have already tripled since 2006. It would appear that Chinese firms have dramatically improved their understanding of PR and corporate relations, giving themselves a much better chance of success. Ultimately though, the key factor is that the companies they are often interested in have very little choice. Expect some uproar and some gnashing of teeth around the British breakfast table, but a stiff upper lip will no doubt prevail, and a begrudging acceptance that this is the shape of things to come. Just think, in New Zealand, you might be able to eat a breakfast entirely produced by Chinese companies…


Who's up for a game of sponsorship?...

Who's up for a game of sponsorship? Huawei`s foray into sports sponsorship.


If you’ve spent the last week focused on continuing machinations behind the closed doors of Zhongnanhai - where if we believe the rumours to be true, the Party has been pulling itself apart at the seams in order to piece itself back together again - you might have missed the biggest news of the month. That was of course, Huawei’s decision to sponsor the Canberra Raiders Rugby League Team.



The decision to hand over a cool US$1.8 million to see their logo adorning the shirts of a fairly unknown team - certainly to anyone outside of Australia  - may have confused you at first. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the move has everything to do with the Australian government’s decision to turn Huawei’s bid to work on the rollout of a national broadband network. Rather than having a hissy fit and storming back to the firm’s mega campus in Shenzhen, they chose instead to sponsor the Raiders.


The reason is simple. Huawei hopes to ingratiate itself with the locals and throw off its image as an instrument of the PLA, something it has repeatedly failed to do despite a string of attempts in the past and which continues to hamper its expansion into developed markets.


Disregarding Huawei Australia CEO’s outlandish claim that “with Huawei’s 140,000 staff, it’s safe to say that the Raiders have just gained 140,000 new fans around the world”, it does look like a canny piece of PR. It’s sending the right message: you turned us down but we’re not going anywhere; in fact we’re so mad about Australia we’re going to sponsor your rather mid rate rugby league team. This week a team, next week the entire League perhaps?


Foreign companies sponsoring sports teams is nothing new of course. As economic power has shifted West to East, we’ve seen a correlated increase in the number of Western teams sponsored by Eastern firms. Just look at the English premiership. The Japanese were at it in the 1980s – JVC sponsored Arsenal, Sharp sponsored Manchester Utd, and er…Crown Paints sponsored Liverpool (woops).  The Koreans adorn the Chelsea shirt in the shape of Samsung, while Arab nations are now well represented via Emirates’ sponsorship of Arsenal and Etihad’s of Manchester City.


But up until now, we haven’t seen too many examples (at least not to China Brain’s knowledge) of Chinese companies sponsoring Western teams. In the same way Chinese demand has raised prices for assets in the past, should we expect to see a similar effect occurring in sports sponsorship?  We wouldn’t be surprised to see representatives of the many teams who are struggling financially in these times of austerity heading over to China. Much in the same way business junkets continue to arrive on a daily basis attempting to flog all and sundry to the Chinese, who’s to say that they won’t succeed where others have failed? It’s just a shame for Glasgow Rangers that Scotland’s oil has run out, otherwise we would be fairly confident of seeing PetroChina’s or CNOOC’s name on the shirt and an easy way out of their insolvency crisis.


Huawei has made a bold first foray into foreign sports and it is once again blazing the trail for Chinese firms overseas. Its first task is to test whether the Raiders will really live up to the company’s vision, which according to its web site is ‘To enrich life through communication’. Anyone who’s shared more than a few drinks with a representative of an Australian Rugby League team will affirm that their communication style can certainly be colourful. Enriching might be stretching it a bit though. Good on yer’ Huawei.


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