Books: China - danger, handle with care

These books warn potential investors that this landscape is littered with the wrecks of failed joint ventures, says Alan Kemp.

by Alan Kemp, group business development director at Haymarket
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In Mr China, Tim Clissold tells the story of a private equity fund that invested in 20 Chinese companies. He was president of the fund between 1994 and 2002, and describes candidly how more than $400 million was lost.

The book provides a compelling view of China since Deng set its present course in 1992.

Clissold's 'wilful infatuation' with China starts in 1988 and by 1992 he is finding projects for investors at a time when the West is in recession and the World Bank is over-hyping China.

He meets a Wall Street banker who determines to become the Mr China of the title by bringing underperforming businesses to market. They start well: 'By mid 1995, we were the largest direct investor in China and bursting with optimism ... We visited more than 200 factories ... We knew we had invested in the best.'

They soon find that factories are less workplaces than communities, with concomitant obligations. Clissold discovers what the phrase 'China is different' means as he strives for change, living at loggerheads with factory managers pursuing their own agendas, including fraud and competitive start-ups.

Among the factors that defeat their endeavours are gross underestimation of costs and timescales; partners, authorities and suppliers pursuing strictly local priorities; corruption, lack of transparency and endless obfuscation, and lack of local (and Western) skills and incentive to change.

Ultimately, Clissold gets 'squeezed between Americans chafing for profits ... and Chinese, utterly undisturbed by any sense of urgency'. He concludes: 'We were anything but an isolated case ... The landscape was littered with the wrecks of failed joint ventures. (By the end) hardly anyone did them any more.'

China: The race to market is awful. Buy it only if you enjoy gibberish such as: 'Perhaps one of Wu Jiaxing's errors was to have underestimated the importance of values as shaping policy practice, or - in more academic circles - substantive goal rationality.'

The author, a business school academic, stretches repeatedly for the wrong words. Solvent becomes 'dissolvent', groups become 'collectivities'; the last chapter is a 'conclusion scenario'.

Jonathan Story's point is that China's barriers to change are more political and cultural than economic - the geopolitical equivalent of being told the world is round and two-thirds covered in water. According to him, China's transition to market economics requires liberalisation, stabilisation, privatisation and democratisation. But China is making slow progress on liberalisation, little on privatisation and none on democratisation, stability being paramount.

In The China Dream, Joe Studwell reviews the West's longstanding ambitions in China, and Chinese responses to them, before questioning China's ability to maintain its fascination without changing to a degree and at a pace that many consider impossible. His starting point is: 'The economic foundations of contemporary China have been laid on sand.'

He admits that many have prospered, particularly the Chinese diaspora that set off China's export explosion, but also others granted permission to trade - though none, he claims, have thrived as much as the 'princelings' - children of Chinese leaders - and former politicians selling influence over access.

Studwell's case turns on differences between perceptions of change in China and a slower-paced reality. He demonstrates his point by reviewing the experience of companies from a range of industries bruised after failing to achieve profitability.

He examines two by-products of the licensing system that controls market access. The first is the corruption created by placing officials where consumers ought to be; the second coerces foreigners into agreements they would not otherwise contemplate.

Studwell's China is full of perverse incentives: banks preferring to lend to basketcases that Beijing will bail out rather than to well-run businesses that it may not; officials and managers elevated for overstating achievement while limiting progress; and foreign investors suspending disciplines applied routinely elsewhere.

Studwell is most convincing when he describes China's prospects, believing that its leaders must now make hard choices. He says that the country 'is kept moving by infusions of deficit financing and bank lending that runs at twice the pace of growth, (such that) at some point in the next five years the country will face a financial crisis. The state's indebtedness will reach a point where people are unwilling to buy its bonds or put their money in its banks.'

Even Clissold describes the banking system as 'a cock-up of astronomical proportions'.

Their shared verdict? China is fragile; handle with care.

MR CHINA; Tim Clissold Robinson, £8.99 MT price £7.99

CHINA: THE RACE TO MARKET; Jonathan Story; Prentice Hall, £24.99

THE CHINA DREAM; Joe Studwell; Profile, £9.99, MT price


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