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China’s SOE Reform: Privatization or Taking over the Private Sector?

By He Qinglian, published: September 30, 2015

 

A flood of commentary has come out since the release of the long-anticipated Guiding Opinions on Strengthening and Reform of State-Owned Enterprises (《中共中央、国务院关于深化国有企业改革的指导意见》; “SOE Reform Program” or “Program” hereafter), jointly issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council. Some say that the Program is aimed at expanding and strengthening SOEs, while others say that the government is using market forces to promote privatization. That the same plan can yield two radically different suppositions is due to the Program’s strong “Xi Jinping quality”: It tries to combine the governance characteristics of both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and gain some advantage from both sides, thereby introducing a whole bunch of mutually contradictory formulations.

Key Points of the Program

The SOE Reform Program is 10,141 characters long and comprises 30 opinions in eight sections. It makes its purpose clear from the very outset: “SOEs are owned by the people as a whole . . . and are an important material base and political foundation for the development of our party and state.” This message infuses the Program throughout. Below are a few of its key points that must not be overlooked:

I. A highlight of the Program is the mixed-ownership system. Pundits have different opinions about this system based on their different understandings of the word “mixed.” Some (including foreign experts) see the word “mixed” and believe that the plan encourages privatization. But the original language in the Program says: “Actively encourage ownership diversification through introduction of other state-owned capital or various types of non-state-owned capital. State-owned capital may retain absolute or relative majority share positions, or it may be a [non-controlling] equity participant. Encourage the integrated companies to go public.”

The drafters of the Program seemed to worry that people would not fully understand their meaning, so they made a special point of noting in Opinion 2 (under the “General Principles” section): “Public ownership occupies the dominant position. It remains the basic economic system, the key point for consolidation and development. The non-public sector occupies a subordinate position.” “Upholding and improving the basic economic system are the fundamental requirements for deepening SOE reform that must be grasped.”

So, “mixed ownership” means that private companies can make cash purchases of shares in SOEs and become shareholders. But since the equity allocation ratio is based on the state-owned capital being the controlling party, private companies can only remain in a subordinate role, without any decision-making power or right to a say in matters. To prevent the public from getting the wrong idea, after releasing the program the Xinhua News Agency promptly issued a piece entitled “We Must Unequivocally Oppose Privatization” (《须旗帜鲜明反对私有化》).

II. The Program calls for fostering “market-oriented management mechanisms” while strengthening the Party’s leadership. Marketization is mentioned a total of 14 times, as if it were a theme of the Program. But in Opinion 24 it says: “Give full play to the key political role played by the Party organization within SOEs. Unite the goals of strengthening party leadership and improving corporate governance. Put a general requirement for Party-building work into the corporate charters of SOEs and clarify the statutory role of the SOE Party organization in the corporate governance structure.”

“Party leads everything” was the lifeblood of political and economic life during the Mao era. “Marketization” has been the theme of SOE reform ever since Deng Xiaoping took over. When Zhao Ziyang was General Secretary, he worked very hard to separate government from enterprise in the hopes that it would bring an end to the misadministration that came when the party managed companies. Originally, he even planned to build on his successes in this area and promote separation between the party and the government, but all of those efforts went down the drain after the events of June 4, 1989.

More than 60 years of Communist rule has shown that, under Party control, SOEs can use the Party’s support to grow large but not strong. This is because, growing strong means that a company increases its operational capabilities and management capacity, achieves a reasonable input-output balance, and gains market share through competition, rather than monopoly. These are precisely the things that it is impossible for Chinese SOEs to achieve.

III. Private companies with “great development and growth potentials” will become the primary target of SOE enterprise reform. Opinion 18 of the Program states: “Encourage state-owned capital to pursue various ways of investing in non-state-owned companies. Fully realize the capital operation role of state-owned investment and operations companies and use market forces to make quality investments in non-state-owned companies with great development potential and strong growth in the key sectors of public services, high-tech, environmental protection, and strategic industries.”

In other words, private companies with weak prospects can rest easy that SOEs won’t come knocking at their door. But if you’re a private company with high efficiency and good market prospects, the SOEs won’t even knock—they’ll come right in and purchase some of your shares or shell resources. There will be nowhere to hide.

 Why Do the Chinese Authorities Insist on Making SOEs Big and Strong?

You can tell what a government considers its key interests to be by looking at the companies it chooses to support. Take, for example, the acquisition of the largest American pork processor, Smithfield Foods, by China’s Shineway Group. With a total of 48,000 jobs at stake, including around 1,300 newly added jobs, local residents and governments all welcomed the deal and didn’t care that the new owners were Chinese.

In China, the private sector has long provided more employment opportunities for Chinese people than SOEs. According to official statistics for 2007, SOEs accounted for only 9.2 percent of industrial jobs, compared to 44.4 percent for the private sector. In January 2011, the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce published a report indicating that small and medium enterprises accounted for more than 99 percent of all Chinese companies and accounted for more than 70 percent of urban employment and 90 percent of newly added jobs. In 2014, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce announced that sole proprietorships and private companies accounted for approximately 90 percent of all new urban jobs nationwide.

As foreign investors have begun to leave China, rural-based laborers are returning to the countryside in great numbers and more than half of all university graduates are forced to return home and live off their parents. In principle, the government ought to encourage development of the private sector and make raising the employment rate its primary consideration. So why do the authorities instead want to make SOEs, which account for comparatively fewer jobs, “big and strong” and adopt a “reform” strategy of “advance the public sector and diminish the private sector”? It is based on the following two considerations:

  1. As the economy has begun to slide, the Chinese government is facing an enormous financial dilemma. Private companies already represent the largest share among all Chinese companies when it comes to number of enterprises, assets, or main revenues, whereas SOEs are at a disadvantage on all accounts. But when it comes to the share of taxes paid to the state, private companies paid only 13.0 percent in 2012, according to official figures, compared to 70.3 percent paid by SOEs. As original sources of tax revenue increasingly dry up, the fact that SOEs are the main pillar of public finances is a sufficient reason for the government to make such efforts to support them. Whether or not SOEs can increase the employment rate is not among the government’s primary concerns. Premier Li Keqiang has already told the hundreds of millions of unemployed to follow a path of starting their own businesses.
  1. Restructuring and listing is the Program’s ultimate goal. Currently, there is a very high rate of debt among SOEs. At the end of July 2015, the average asset-liability ratio among Chinese SOEs was 65.12 percent, with the overwhelming majority of those debts owed to state-owned banks. This kind of relationship between banks and companies ensures that if SOEs cannot perform better, the state-owned banks will also collapse.

Over more than two decades, the main way that SOEs have gotten out of their difficulties has been to follow the brilliant idea of former Premier Zhu Rongji, who first allowed SOEs to raise money by going public. But today this idea seems to have lost its magic, and the national team appears stuck after being forced by the government to take part in efforts to save the stock market. So, the SOE Reform Plan is only an attempt to come up with a new tactic: have SOEs reform and, after mixing ownership with private companies, “encourage restructuring for going public.” After the assets have been restructured, the companies can go to the markets to float IPOs under a new name.

Does the Private Sector Want to “Mix” with SOEs?

This talk of a mixed-ownership system is something the public is familiar with, having first appeared in the 2014 Guiding Opinions on Deepening State-Owned Enterprise Reform (《深化国有企业改革的指导意见》) and the public consultation draft of the Guiding Opinions on Improving the Forms of Realization of Public Ownership (《关于完善公有制实现形式的指导意见》). But private companies are not in the least bit enthusiastic. In my earlier article, “SOE Reform: Government and the Private Sector Each See Things Differently,” I explained how private companies commonly perceive “mixed ownership” as a trap. They believe that if they take part in a mixed-ownership company, the private company can’t get a controlling stake so it’s very likely to be neutralized and, in the worst case, caught with no means to defend itself.

Wanda Group Chairman Wang Jianlin (王健林) told the Sina website: “If I’m going to ‘mix,’ the private company definitely needs to have a controlling share, or at least I want relative control . . . If the SOE has the controlling share, isn’t that the same as me helping out the SOE by giving it money? Wouldn’t that be crazy of me to do? I can’t do that kind of thing.”

In the article Mixed-Ownership: Six Big Risks for Private Companies Investing in SOEs (《混合所有制:民企参股国企的六大风险》), the author got several private entrepreneurs to share their opinions about the mixed-ownership system. The main risks they raised were: (1) the people with responsibility over state assets were not actually required to take responsibility; (2) concern about loss of state-owned assets will become a high-tension line used to keep private-sector shareholders under control; (3) state-owned shareholders are much more powerful than private-sector shareholders, making it difficult to cooperate; and so on. The point is that private companies cannot cooperate with SOEs, because for them “cooperation” means getting caught in a trap.

It’s clear that even if private companies don’t want to “mix,” the government is determined to “mix” them. Chinese private entrepreneurs have weathered many storms over the years, and as soon as they saw the government getting ready to position itself for mixed ownership, they started “investing overseas” in great numbers. As the saying goes: “Of the 36 stratagems, fleeing is best.” Since August of this year, Beijing has imposed stricter foreign exchange controls. Rather than targeting those small holders of foreign exchange, the controls are aimed at those rich businessmen who are trying to transfer their assets overseas. “Shorting China” is becoming an up-and-coming crime.

To put the private sector at ease and keep them from seeing the government as the wolf dressed up in Grandma’s clothes, Opinion 16 of the Program states: “Uphold the principle of implementing policy according to location, according to industry, according to company. Decide whether to remain independent, take a controlling share, or make an equity investment based on what is appropriate. Don’t make arbitrary matches between companies or try to apply mixed ownership across the board. Don’t set timetables; move forward when the time is ripe. Reform must be carried out in accordance with law and regulation, in strict accordance with procedure, and in a transparent and fair manner. Ensure protection of the rights and interests of the various investors in mixed-ownership enterprises and root out state-owned asset loss.”

The real problem is that the Chinese government has always treated law as something used to constrain the people. Private entrepreneurs know what’s really behind this kind of reform intended to “preserve the leading position of the state-owned sector” and “root out state-owned asset loss.” Under this kind of “reform,” just watch and see whether the private companies that SOEs have taken a fancy to can avoid becoming “Little Red Riding-Hoods.”

 

何清涟He Qinglian (何清涟) is a Chinese economist who lived in China before 2001. In her bestseller The Pitfalls of Modernization (《现代化的陷阱》), she argues presciently that, as the power of local governments grows, officials who have favored reform would come to oppose further reform because it would limit their ability to trade power for money and money for power. The book was banned in China, Ms. He was forced into exile. In 2006, she published China Shrouded in Fog (《雾锁中国》) which studies how the Chinese government manipulates and, to some degree, controls overseas Chinese-language media. Ms. He lives in New Jersey with her family.

 

Related:

What’s the Murderous Intention Behind “Don’t Let Li Ka-shing Run Away”?, Xiao Zhonghua, China Change, September 19, 2015.

 

中文原文《何清涟:国企改革方案的风,姓私还是姓公?》, translated by China Change.

 

 


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