Monday, September 11, 1995

The Complexity of the China Market

Those formulating a strategy for entering the China market need to take various complicating factors into consideration, some of which are rather uniquely native to China. I have summarized some of these factors below to serve as check list for the international business development executive.

Geographical diversity.

Assuming that China is one homogenous market would be disastrous. It is not. As can be seen from the chart, most of the foreign investment has been going into the southern provinces, specifically Guangdong and Fujian. The greatest industrial output is coming from the middle coastal provinces around Shanghai while the coastal provinces north of Shanghai and around Beijing is second. Purchasing power, cost of labor, availability of skilled labor, cost and availability of land, energy and raw materials among other things can vary by huge increments across the vast country.

Unlike a developed country such as the United States, the infrastructure in China is still in the frantically building and modernization stage. A modern infrastructure smooths out the bumps and any uneven distribution of resources. A backward infrastructure is a major cause for regional disparaties.

Uncertainties asssociated with transition.

In its drive to becoming a market driven economy, the country's economic performance tends to be 3 steps forward and 1to 2 steps back. State planning has not been dispensed with, just not as obvious. As the late Chen Yun, China's former erstwhile economic planner, was known to have said: "A free economy can fly away like a bird." Part of the planning function is to put a cage around the economy. Sometimes the cage is loose and other times tight. So far no one has found a reliable way to forecast financial performance for a business in a pulsating birdcage economy.

Marketing & distribution related headaches.

In the old days of planned economy, the factory manager only worried about meeting and exceeding production quota. The manager didn't have to sell. The State allocated the disposition of goods. The customer came to the supplier once or twice each year to place orders. Since the economy was not booming, the channels were not overloaded and the State can handle the logistics of getting the goods from supplier to customer. Material for marketing communication? Didn't know what that was and didn't need them. Advertising? Decadent bourgeois practice.

Now, a foreign company entering China will have to deal with finding the customer, how to reach the customer, how to get the goods to the customer, how to provide service, what kind of message to send, etc. As one experienced China trader lamented over his brew at one of many karaoke bars in Beijing, "Life was so simple then. All you have to do was to visit Erligou (where most of the foreign trade corporations held court) and try to get your orders. You didn't have to worry about any of this stuff!" Yes, but, you didn't have any karaoke bars to go to then.

Opportunities for alliances.

Western companies, in particular, have found that forming alliances with local entities is one way to cut through the complexities, especially since much of the complexities are due to bureaucracy. (Whatever we may think about Washington or Sacramento, they are novices compared to the Chinese who invented bureacracy.) China Hewlett-Packard is a successful joint venture since 1985. Even 3M which in 1984 had one of the first wholly owned foreign ventures in China decided that less equity was more market share and took in a local partner about ten years later.

This is a good time for the western company to find and pick a local partner in China. One of the consequences of the transformation to a market economy is that the State is removing the safety net from the state owned enterprises. The enterprises now have to justify their existence based on laws of economics--that means they have to make money. This is a revolutionary concept that most Chinese were quick to grasp. They are now eager to make deals.

It is not just the western technology, know-how, management practice, capital and access to international market that appeal to the Chinese enterprises. Those are nice, but in addition any enterprise with 25% or more foreign ownership can shuck off the heavy social burden (such as onerous pension obligations, free health care and heavily subsdized housing) and reorganize into leaner and meaner companies. A new company can replace the iron rice bowl with incentives based on merit and the threat of dismissal for the slackers. (This is the real revolution that western media rarely talked about.)

The dilemma of western company going to China will not be not finding potential local partners. Just the opposite, the company will be challenged to find the winner among a haystack of propositions and alternatives.

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