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Yiwu: China’s Little Known Capital of Commerce

April 26th, 2010 2 comments

Lacquer box, from China First Capital blog post

 

What is the most international city in China? Shanghai? Beijing? Surely, it must be Hong Kong? No, the most international city in China is one most people outside China have never heard of: Yiwu, in Zhejiang Province

Yiwu is about three hours southwest of Shanghai, with no sites of any importance, and a somewhat rundown city center. Few international tourists will ever set foot there. And yet, at this very moment, there are more foreigners thronging there than anywhere else in China. 

Yiwu, you see, is where the Third World comes to shop. In the last ten years, it’s become the nexus of a large, complicated global trade route, the main supply depot for tens of thousands of shops all across the world. Yiwu’s streets and hotels are filled everyday with thousands of traders from Africa, Russia and the Middle East. They come there to make money, which they do by buying goods by the container load in Yiwu to ship back and sell in their home countries.  

This is petty capitalism on a grand scale: thousands of foreign small businessmen buying from thousands of Yiwu merchants, who rent stalls in the huge market centers spread across the center of Yiwu. At a guess, there must be over 15,000 stalls in these market centers, each staffed by a local, each catering mainly to the foreigners who spend most of their days bargain hunting. 

Mainly, the stuff for sale caters to the taste of this foreign market. Little if any of it would find buyers in US, Western Europe or, increasingly, China itself. Indeed, from what I could tell, more of the world’s hideous clothing ends up for sale in Yiwu than anywhere else. There is enough polyester and other petrochemical-derived materials on display to power the world’s ocean shipping fleet for generations.

Besides clothing, there are a large number of stalls selling other basics of poorer economies, like printed plastic bags, cheap carpets, plastic jewelry, lighting and other house wares. If you wanted to know how people dress and furnish their homes in Isfahan, Aleppo, Izmir, Rostock or Accra, you could get a decent impression by walking through the market centers of Yiwu. 

How and why Yiwu became the center of this multi-billion dollar trade remains a mystery to me. Yiwu has no natural advantages of any kind: it’s far from main transports hubs, hemmed in by mountains, and never developed much of an industrial base. The main export ports of Ningbo and Shanghai are both over three hours away by truck.

Clearly, there was no central government diktat saying Yiwu would be China’s “window on the Third World”. It seems to have happened spontaneously. To accommodate all the foreign traders, basic English is much more widely spoken than anywhere else in China. Even the lady at the ticket booth in the Yiwu bus station can use English to sell a one-way bus ticket to Guangzhou to an African on his way home. 

The English is not always correct. Outside one of the many shops selling sex toys, I saw a sign reading  “Aduit uppiies”. I assume, from the customer base inside, they got the Arabic version correct on the sign. 

By the standards of other successful Chinese cities, Yiwu is more down-and-dirty. There are none of the showpiece infrastructure projects like new expressways and elaborate modern skyscrapers that proliferate in other Chinese cities. While clearly all this trade has made many in Yiwu very rich, the city looks like the China of twenty years ago. Its market stalls are not the kind of place where most Chinese care to shop these days. Chinese, especially urban-dwellers, like well-designed brand-name chain stores with higher-quality merchandise and slick packaging. 

Walking around Yiwu, you get the sense that at least 10% of the population is foreign. Nowhere else in China even comes close. The foreigners are mainly Arabs and Persians, but there are also many Africans and Russians crowding the streets, markets, restaurants and hotels. 

Yiwu has more “foreign food” restaurants than anywhere else in China. Most offer Arab and Turkish food. Indeed, much of downtown Yiwu has the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar, with clutches of men sitting around smoking hookahs and fingering prayer beads.

You are as likely to hear “Salaam Alekum” as “ni hao” walking the streets of Yiwu. All kinds of services have sprung up in Yiwu to cater to the Middle Easterners. There are halal butchers, coffee shops selling Turkish coffee, manufacturers of the long Arab thawb worn by men. Less delightfully, a Chinese street portrait artist displays drawings of Barack Obama, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Osama Bin-Laden. 

I like Arab food, and have eaten a lot of it, both in the Middle East in London. Yiwu’s version was actually quite authentic and tasty. Inside the restaurant I went to, the loudspeakers were playing a recitation of the Koran. Arab and African men sat eating their lunch. There are few Arab women to be seen. 

African women, on the other hand, are thick on the ground, fulfilling their reputation as some of the most talented of all the world’s market traders. I spoke to one lady from Ghana, who comes to Yiwu three times a year, and buys enough each time to fill up a 40-foot container – kids and adult clothes, shoes, carpets, blankets. The profit margins are good. After deducting the $2,000 airfare, the $300 for a Chinese visa, food and lodging in China, plus the shipping costs back to Ghana (and the bribes needed to get the goods out of Ghanaian Customs) she still earns a tidy profit on each trip.

Her capitalist Odyssey, repeated thousands of times a week, with containers bound for the world’s most glamourless spots,  is what keeps Yiwu booming. There is nothing petty about the petty traders of Yiwu. 

It’s fair to say that Yiwu has built its wealth, to some extent, on the misfortune of others. The traders who make the long trip to Yiwu do so, mainly because their countries are criminally mismanaged. In these countries of the Middle East and Africa, there are no local manufacturers making goods at a price and quality that can match that of China, even when you factor in the high transport costs to get people and merchandise to and from Yiwu and the bribes and other levies that must be paid to make sure the items reach local store shelves. Prices in Yiwu are not particularly low, more “retail” than “wholesale”. The traders buy in relatively small quantities, meaning Yiwu merchants can charge higher prices and earn fatter margins for themselves.

 This sad and persistent reality of corruption, economic mismanagement and political tyranny in countries of the Middle East and Africa guarantees that Yiwu will continue to thrive for many years. Yiwu’s market economy was built by catering to places with no real market economy of their own.


 

Shanghai’s New Hongqiao Terminal: What’s Lost is As Important as What’s Gained

April 13th, 2010 2 comments

Tang horses from China First Capital blog post

Whenever possible on visits to Shanghai, I’ve always chosen to fly into Hongqiao Airport, rather than the larger, newer Pudong Airport. Shanghai is the only major city in China with two major commercial airports, and Hongqiao and Pudong couldn’t be more unalike. Or at least that was the case until a few weeks ago, when the new Hongqiao terminal and runway opened. I just flew in and out of this new building, and while it’s an impressively gleaming facility, I find myself mourning the loss of the old Hongqiao. 

Hongqiao was always a dowdy remnant of a bygone era in China, built over 20 years ago when the western part of Shanghai was still largely farmland. The first time I went to Hongqiao was 1982, to see my friend Fritz off. He was flying on PanAm Airlines to the US, back when there were very few international flights into and out of China. As I remember it, the PanAm 747 came gliding in like a metallic chimera, over the heads of peasants transplanting rice. 

Gradually, the city enveloped the airport and Hongqiao is now one of the few downtown airports in China, a short cab ride to the main business areas in Shanghai about 8 miles away. Its 1980s vintage terminal was also one of my favorite sites in China – a reflection, perhaps, of the fact I rarely get to travel to anywhere very scenic in China, but hop around from booming metropolis to booming metropolis.

The old terminal has a brute, utilitarian ugliness about it, fishhook-shaped, small, cramped and comfortingly ramshackle. It’s so past-its-prime, in fact, it would not be out of place at all in the US, with its outdated urban airports like LAX, Kennedy, LaGuardia, Midway

The comparison with Pudong, opened ten years ago 25 miles outside the center of Shanghai, was stark. At Pudong, you whizz along long corridors on motorized walkways, and travel downtown on the world’s only commercial Mag-Lev train. If Pudong is glass and steel, Hongqiao was cement and plastic. 

But, again, all this now belongs to the past tense. The new Hongqiao Terminal is, if anything, more loudly and verbosely modern than Pudong when it opened. I had no idea it was even being built, it’s so far away from the old facility, on what was the back fringe of old Hongqiao. It’s a 20-minute shuttle ride between the two. All domestic flights now operate from the new terminal, and my hunch is that the old terminal will not be standing for very much longer. Civic leaders clearly came to see it as an eyesore, an embarrassingly “Third World” entry-point for a city busily striving to become the world’s next great commercial and financial capital. 

There was a rush to open the new Hongqiao, since next month, the Shanghai Expo opens. The roads leading to the new terminal are still under construction, as is the subway line. Vast expanses of ground in the front and to the sides of the new building are now just barren plots, waiting for parking lots, airport hotels and rental car facilities to populate them. Our cab driver had not been yet to the new terminal and couldn’t find the departures area. 

On entering, the first impression is of a very un-Shanghai-like emptiness. The new terminal must be at least ten times larger and three times taller than the old one. The line of check-in counters stretches for half-a-mile. You get a sense of what Jonah must have felt like entering the whale. Everywhere else in Shanghai is so jam-packed that you are part of a perpetual mob scene, breathing in someone else’s exhaust. Not here. It hints at a Shanghai of the future, a city not defined mainly by its enormous and densely-packed population, but by its modernity, efficiency and polish. 

That’s just it. What’s most special, and worth preserving, about old Hongqiao is that it belongs to the Shanghai that “was”, rather than the China that “will be”.  Even the name itself is a delightful throwback. Hongqiao means “Red Flag”, a name straight out of the Maoist lexicon. 

The old axiom is very apt: “you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you come from”. When Hongqiao’s old terminal goes, so too will the last conspicuous reminder of the Shanghai of thirty years ago, a city,  ever so tentatively, starting down the road of economic reform. 

A tangible part of my own history in China will also disappear. Flying into Shanghai will never be the same.  


The Worst of the Worst: How One Financial Advisor Mugged Its Chinese Client

April 8th, 2010 1 comment

stamp from China First Capital blog post

One of my hobbies at work is collecting outrageous stories about the greed, crookedness and sleaze of some financial advisors working in China. Sadly, there are too many bad stories – and bad advisors – to keep an accurate, up-to-date accounting. 

Over 600 Chinese companies, of all different stripes,  are listed on the unregulated American OTCBB. The one linking factor here is that most were both badly served and robbed blind by advisors.

Many other Chinese companies pursued reverse mergers in the US and Hong Kong.Some of these deals succeeded, in the sense of a Chinese company gaining a backdoor listing this way. But, all such deals, those both consummated or contemplated, are pursued by advisors to put significant sums of cash into their own pockets. 

Talking to a friend recently in Shanghai, I heard about one such advisor that has set a new standard for unrestrained greed. This friend works at a very good PE firm, and was referred a deal by this particular advisor. I’ve grown pretty familiar with some of the usual ploys used to fleece Chinese entrepreneurs during the process of “fund-raising”. Usual methods include billing tens of thousands of dollars for all kinds of “due diligence fees”, phony “regulatory approvals” and unneeded legal work carried out by firms affiliated with the advisor.  

But, in this one deal my Shanghai friend saw, the advisor not only gorged on all these more commonplace squeezes, as well as taking a 7% fee of all cash raised, but added one that may be rather unique in both its brazenness and financial lunacy. The advisor had negotiated with the client as part of its payment that it would receive 10% of the company’s equity, after completing capital-raising. 

Let’s just contemplate the financial illiteracy at work here.  No PE investor would ever accept this, that for example, their 20% ownership immediately becomes 18% because of a highly dilutive grant to the advisor. It’s such a large disincentive to invest that the advisor might as well ask the PE firm to surrender half its future profits on the deal to put the advisor’s kids through college.

The advisor clearly was a lot more skillful at scamming the entrepreneur than in understanding how actually to raise PE money. The advisor’s total take on this deal would be at least 17% of the investor’s money, factoring in fees and value of dilutive share grant. 

By getting the entrepreneur to agree to pay him 10% of the company’s equity, along with everything else, the advisor raises the company’s pre-money valuation by an amount large enough to frighten off any decent PE investor. Result: the advisor will not succeed raising money, the entrepreneur wastes time and money, along with losing any real hope of every raising capital in the future. What PE firm would ever want to invest with an entrepreneur who was foolish enough to sign this sort of agreement with an advisor? 

This is perhaps the most malignant effect of the “work” done by these kinds of financial advisors. They create deal structures primarily to enrich themselves, at the expense of their client. By doing so, they make it difficult even for good Chinese companies to raise equity capital, now and in the future.  

I’m sure, based on experience, that some people reading this will place blame more on the entrepreneur, for freely signing contracts that pick their own pockets. No surprise, this view is held particularly strongly by people who make a living as financial advisors doing OTCBB and reverse merger deals in China.  This view is wrong, professionally and morally. 

In most aspects of business life, I put great stock in the notion of “caveat emptor”. But, this is an exception. The advisors exploit the credulity and financial naivete of Chinese entrepreneurs, using deception and half-truths to promote transactions that they know will almost certainly harm the entrepreneur’s company, but deliver a fat ill-gotten windfall to themselves. 

Entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of every economy, creating jobs, wealth and enhancing choice and economic freedom. This is nowhere more true than in China. Defraud an entrepreneur and, in many cases,  you defraud society as a whole. 


 

The Harshest Phrase in Chinese Business

April 1st, 2010 No comments

Shou screen from China First Capital blog post

What are the most reckless and self-destructive words to use while doing business in China? “Let’s skip lunch and continue our meeting.”  Of course, I’m kidding, at least partly. But, there’s nothing frivolous about the fact food is a vital ingredient of business life in China. This is, after all, the country where people for hundreds of years have greeted each other with not with “Hello” but with the question “Have you eaten?”. 

China is no longer a country where food is in any way scarce. But, perhaps because of memories of years of scarcity or just because Chinese food is so damn delicious, the daily rhythms of life still revolves around mealtimes in a way no other country can quite match. This is as true in professional as personal life. 

It’s a certainty that any business appointment scheduled within 1-2 hours of mealtime inevitably will end up pausing for food. In practical terms, that means the only times during working hours that a meeting can be scheduled without a high probability of a meal being included is 9-10am, and 1:30-2:30pm.

At any other time, it’s understood that the meeting will either be shortened or lengthened so everyone participating can go share a meal together.  Any other outcome is just about inconceivable. Whatever else gets said in a meeting, however contentious it might be, one can always be sure that the words “我们吃饭吧” , or “let’s go eat”, will achieve a perfect level of agreement.  

Everyone happily trudges off to a nearby restaurant, and talk switches to everyone’s favorite topic: “what should we order?” Soon, the food begins to pile up on the table. Laughter and toasts to friendship and shared success are the most common sounds. The host gets the additional satisfaction and “face” of providing abundant hospitality to his guests.  

And yet, there are some modern business people in China that can and do conceive of meetings taking precedence over mealtime. Thankfully, they are quite few in number, probably no more than a handful among the 1.4 billion of us in China. I just happen to know more of them than most people. 

In my experience, those with this heterodox view that meals can be delayed or even skipped are mainly Chinese who’ve spent time at top universities in the US. There, they learn that in the US it’s a sign of serious intent to work through mealtimes. It’s a particularly American form of business machismo, and one I never much liked in my years in businesses there. Americans will readily keep talking, rather than break for food. Or, as common, someone will order takeout food, and the meeting will continue, unbroken, as pizza or sandwiches are spread out on the conference room table. 

Heaven help the fool who tries to change the subject, as the takeout food is passed around, to something not strictly related to the business matters under discussion. If as Americans will often remind you, “time is money”, the time spent eating is often regarded as uncompensated, devoid of value and anything but the most utilitarian of purposes. 

Is it any wonder I’m so happy working in China? I love food generally, and Chinese food above all else. It’s been that way since I was a kid. These days, I often tell Chinese that adjusting to life in China has had its challenges for me, but I know that every day I will have at least two opportunities for transcendent happiness: lunch and dinner. 

So, not only do I accept that business meetings will usually include a break for a nice meal, I consider it one of the primary perks of my job. But, I do meet occasionally these US-educated Chinese who don’t share my view. They will ask if meetings can be scheduled so there won’t be the need to break for a meal, or if not, to make the mealtime as short and functional as possible, so “work can resume quickly”. 

This is misguided on so many levels that I worry how these folks, who I otherwise usually like and admire, will ever achieve real career success in China. The meals are often the most valuable and important part of a business meeting – precisely because they are unrushed, convivial and free of any intense discussion of business. 

Trust is a particularly vital component of business in China. Without it, most business transactions will never succeed, be it a private equity investment, a joint venture, a vendor-supplier relationship. Contracts are generally unenforceable. The most certain way to build that trust is to share a meal together — or, preferably, many meals together. 

To propose skipping a meal is a little like proposing to use sign language as the primary form of negotiation for a complex business deal: it’s possible, but likely to lead to first to misunderstanding, frustration and then, inevitably, to failure.