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China still lacking in innovation — Nikkei Asian Review

January 23rd, 2015 1 comment

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China still lacking in innovation

January 23, 2015 1:00 pm JST

By Peter Fuhrman

China’s economy suffers from an acute case of “not invented here” syndrome. Everything can be, and increasingly is, manufactured in China, but almost nothing of value is invented here.

The result is an economy still centered on low-pay, low-margin drudge work manufacturing products designed, patented and marketed by others. This is as true for advanced medical diagnostic equipment from General Electric as it is for Apple’s iPhones and tablets.

While manufacturing accounts for almost 50% of China’s gross domestic product and keeps 100 million people employed, China has few if any domestic companies selling sophisticated, premium-priced manufactured products to the world. As long as this remains the case and China remains a huge economy with only the tiniest sliver of consequential and profitable innovation, it will grow harder each year for the country to sustain high economic growth rates and big increases in living standards.

The government is increasingly anxious. “China is now standing at a critical stage in that its economic growth must be driven by innovation,” warned the State Council, China’s cabinet, in May.

With the talk comes money. Lots of it. Billions of dollars are being allocated to government-backed research projects and venture capital. But for all the rhetoric, government policies and cash, China remains a high-tech disappointment, more dud than ascending rocket. As an investment banker living and running a business in China, I very much wish it were otherwise. But I still see no concrete evidence of a major change underway.

On others’ shoulders

Indeed, the flagship products of China’s advanced manufacturing sector are still built largely on foreign components, technologies and systems, with Chinese factories serving as the assembly point.

Consider Xiaomi, which achieved great success in China’s mobile phone market last year and began getting some traction overseas. The company now has a market valuation of $45 billion, far higher than Sony, Toshiba, Philips, Ericsson and many more of the world’s most famous innovators.

Xiaomi’s handsets rely on components and software from a group of mainly U.S. companies, including Broadcom, Qualcomm and Google. They, along with U.K. chipmaker ARM Holdings and foreign screen manufacturers, are the ones making the real money on Android phones like Xiaomi’s.

Many of Xiaomi’s phones, like those of Apple and other leading brands, are assembled in China by Hon Hai Precision Industry, a Taiwanese company better known as Foxconn. As of now, Foxconn has no Chinese competitor that can match its production quality at a comparable low cost. Its superior management systems for high-volume production underscore another critical area where China’s domestic technology industry is weak.

The picture is similar with products such as computers, cars and aircraft. China’s military and commercial jet development programs have relied on foreign engines because of the country’s continuing failure to design and produce its own. Compare this with the Soviet Union, which, though an economic also-ran all the way up to its extinction in 1991, was producing jet engines as early as the 1950s; Russia still supplies advanced military engines for Chinese military jets. The picture is little better with jet brakes and advanced radar systems.

Stumbling blocks in China’s jet engine development continue at the manufacturing level with difficulties in serial production of minute-tolerance machinery, at the materials level with a lack of special alloys, and at the industrial level where a state-owned monopoly producer faces no local competitor to drive innovation as has been seen in the dynamic in the U.S. between GE and Pratt & Whitney.

China’s inability to make its own advanced jet engines casts light on problems China has, and likely will continue to have, developing a globally competitive indigenous technology base. This challenge, to bring all the parts together in a high-tech manufacturing project, is also evident in China’s failure, up to now, to develop and sell domestically developed advanced integrated circuits, pharmaceuticals and new materials globally.

China has, by some estimates, spent more than $10 billion on pharmaceutical research, but it has had only one domestically developed drug accepted in the global market, the modestly successful anti-malarial treatment artemisinin, or qinghaosu. Interestingly, it is derived from an herbal medicine used for 2,000 years in China to treat malaria; the drug was first synthesized by Chinese researchers in 1972.

Missing pieces

It’s simply not enough to count Chinese engineers and patents, or to rely on the content of the government’s technology-promoting policies. China still lacks so many of the basic building blocks of high-tech development, such as a mature, experienced venture capital industry staffed by professional entrepreneurs and technologists. A transparent judicial system is also essential, not only for protecting patents and other intellectual property, but for managing the contractual process that allows companies to put money at risk over long periods to achieve a return. Nondisclosure and noncompete agreements, a backbone of the technology industry in the U.S. and elsewhere, are basically unenforceable in China.

Tencent Holdings’ WeChat mobile messaging service is an example frequently cited by those who claim to see a dawning of innovation in China. An impressive 400 million phone users have signed up for the service. The basic application, though, is similar to that of Facebook’s WhatsApp, Japan’s Line and others.

WeChat’s real technological strength is in its back end, in building and managing the servers to store all the content that is sent across the network, including a huge amount of video and audio files. Tencent does this because it’s required to do so by Chinese internet rules and government policies on monitoring Internet content. Tencent might be able to commercialize and sell its backend storage architecture globally, but it’s not clear anyone would be interested in buying it. It’s a technology that evolved from specific Chinese requirements, not market demand.

China’s record of invention is the stuff of history: gunpowder, the compass, paper, oil wells, porcelain, even alcoholic beverages, kites and the fishing reel. All that occurred over 1,000 years ago. China’s greatest modern invention has been its singular pathway out of poverty as the economy expanded 200-fold over the last 35 years. But growth is now slowing, costs are rising sharply and profit margins are shrinking. To go on prospering, China needs to invent a new path and discover a new wellspring of breakthrough innovation, and it needs to do so in a hurry.

Peter Fuhrman is the founder, chairman and chief executive of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen, China.

 

http://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Perspectives/China-still-lacking-in-innovation

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China’s Caijing Magazine on America’s All-Conquering Dumpling Maker

January 16th, 2015 1 comment

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Caijing Magazine

 

The secret is out. Chinese now know, in far greater numbers than before, that the favorite brand of the favorite staple food of hundreds of millions of them is made by a huge American company, General Mills, best known for sugar-coated cereals served to American children. (See my earlier article here.) In the current issue of China’s weekly business magazine Caijing is my Chinese-language article blowing the cover off the well-hidden fact that China’s tastiest and most popular brand of frozen dumplings, known in Chinese as 湾仔码头, “Wanzai Matou”, is made by the same guys who make Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms in the US.

You can read a copy of my Caijing article by clicking here.

Getting these facts in print was not simple. I’ve been an online columnist for Caijing for years. When I sent the manuscript the magazine’s editor, he did the journalistic version of a double take, refusing to believe at first that this dumpling brand he knows well is actually owned and run by a non-Chinese company, and a huge American conglomerate to boot. He asked many questions and apparently did his own digging around to confirm the truth of what I was claiming.

He asked me to reveal to him and Caijing’s readers the secret techniques General Mills has used to conquer the Chinese market. That further complicated things. It wasn’t, I explained,  by selling stuff cheap, since Wanzai Matou sells in supermarkets for about double the price of pure domestic brands. Nor was it because they used the same kind of saturation television advertising P&G has pioneered in China to promote sales of its market-leading products Head & Shoulders and Tide. General Mills spends little on media advertising in China, relying instead on word of mouth and an efficient supply chain.

My explanation, such as it is, was that the Americans were either brave or crazy enough, beginning fifteen years ago, to believe Chinese would (a) start buying frozen food in supermarkets, and (b) when they did, they’d be willing to pay more for it than fresh-made stuff. Wanzai Matou costs more per dumpling than buying the hand-made ones available at the small dumpling restaurants that are so numerous in China just about everyone living in a city or reasonably-sized town is within a ten-minute walk of several.

In my case, I’ve got at least twenty places within that radius. I flat-out love Chinese dumplings. With only a small degree of exaggeration I tell people here that the chance to eat dumplings every day, three times a day, was a prime reason behind my move to China. For my money, and more important for that of many tens of millions of Chinese, the Wanzai Matou ones just taste better.

The article, though, does explain the complexities of building and managing a frozen “cold chain” in China. General Mills had more reason to master this than any company, domestic or foreign. That’s because along with Wanzai Matou they have a second frozen blockbuster in China: Häagen-Dazs ice cream, sold both in supermarkets and stand-alone Häagen-Dazs ice cream shops. Either way, it’s out of my price range, at something like $5 for a few thimblefuls, but lots of Chinese seem to love it. Both Wanzai Matou and Häagen-Dazs China are big enough and fast-growing enough to begin to have an impact on General Mills’ overall performance, $18 billion in revenues and $1.8bn in profits in 2014.

For whatever reason, General Mills doesn’t like to draw attention to its two stellar businesses in China. The annual report barely mentions China. This is in contrast to their Minnesota neighbor 3M which will tell anyone who’s listening including on Wall Street that it’s future is all about further expanding in China. But, the fundamentals of General Mills’ business in China look as strong, or stronger, than any other large American company operating here.

The title of my Caijing article is “外来的厨子会做饺子” which translates as “Foreign cooks can make dumplings”. It expresses the surprise I’ve encountered at every turn here whenever I mention to people here that China’s most popular dumpling company is from my homeland not theirs.

 

Watching NFL Football in China — Brought to You By the US Treasury

January 13th, 2015 1 comment

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Watching the NFL playoffs this weekend on Chinese internet TV channel PP Live, I saw something I never imagined. No, not a live broadcast in China of American football. The NFL has a great thing going here in China. While not a big-time success yet like the NBA in China, the NFL is quietly making fans out of a meaningful slice of the country’s most gold-plated demographic: males with advanced degrees and senior management positions.

No, what surprised me while watching the game was the frequent commercials paid for in part by money from the US Department of Treasury. Yes, Uncle Sam is now involved in buying advertising time during NFL games on Chinese tv. Never quite thought I’d live to see the day.

The ads are to promote tourism to the US. There are snapshots of American scenery, a catchy little song playing in the background, and then this splash screen comes up at the end:

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Follow that www.gousa.cn link and one eventually learns the group behind the ads is something called “Brand USA”, a body describing itself as a “public private partnership”. That’s generally code for some kind of organization where the US Treasury picks up some or all of the tab, but whose purpose is to help private companies make money. Sure enough. Last month, President Obama signed legislation that keeps the government money flowing to Brand USA at least through 2020, long after he’s out of office. The budget for fiscal year 2014 was $125 million.

The board of Brand USA includes top executives from hotel group Marriott International, Disney’s travel arm, the air reservation system Sabre Corporation as well as the top bureacrats in the tourist promotion office in the states of California and Minnesota. Brand USA’s chairman is president of a company I never heard of called Jackmont Hospitality, whose website says it is “a minority-owned, comprehensive foodservice management company and one of the fastest growing TGI FRIDAYS® franchisees.”

The intent of the commercial is, of course, to get more Chinese to travel to the US as tourists. A laudable goal, and one that became much easier at the end of last year when Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed a new bilateral visa regime which gives citizens of each country ten-year multi-entry visas. Chinese tourism in the US is growing, with 1.8 million visiting last year, fifth most among all countries sending tourists to the US, but still about half the number of British tourists each year.

What they lack in numbers Chinese tourists make up for in extravagance. They spend $7,200 per visit compared to $4,500 by the average foreign tourist, according to the US Travel Association.

Like a lot my government does, the commercials running during football timeouts don’t display a particularly keen knowledge of consumer marketing.  The jingle is sung in English, so not likely to be understood by a lot of Chinese viewers. The places featured don’t seem likely destinations for Chinese tourists. No Times Square or Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan. No Disneyland, no Harvard Yard and no Las Vegas.

So where is the US government pushing Chinese to visit?  Price Lake. I never heard of it either, but according to Wikipedia it’s in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, about 200 miles from the nearest major airport, Raleigh-Durham. It’s said to host the largest annual gathering of lumberjacks each year. If China has a large contingent of passport-holding lumberjacks it’s news to me.

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While Brand USA hasn’t been around long, it’s already attracted a fair bit of criticism, led by Republican members of Congress, who launched a formal investigation into what is called a “history of questionable expenditures and lavish spending” at the organization. The report they issued says all Board members, though officially appointed by the US Secretary of Commerce, were in fact chosen by an Obama aide from among those who “have donated to Democrats and Democratic organizations almost exclusively.”

The private sector is supposed to donate funds which the US government matches by dipping into a pool of money raised through a $10 fee charged to all tourists arriving in the US under what’s called the Visa Waiver Program. Brand USA board members have claimed the amount they spend on travel should be considered by Uncle Sam as a “donation”, including first class air fares and hotel rooms paid for by their companies. Among the claims was one for $94.87 for a two mile taxi ride in Washington DC that the report points out should cost no more than about $15 including tip. The report’s conclusion is that the Brand USA documents and expense accounts “paint a picture of mismanagement, waste, and cronyism.”

No word on what Brand USA are paying for the ads during the NFL games on PP Live. Let’s hope they drive a tough bargain. Other than the Brand USA spot, repeated over and over, I saw no other ads during the second half of the game. During many of the commercial breaks, the Chinese broadcast stays with a live feed from the stadium of the players waiting around for the timeouts to end, something one rarely gets to see while watching football in the US.

The NFL games are broadcast in China with Chinese commentary only, once an annoyance but now a source of almost infinite delight for me. In case you’re wondering, the name for football in Chinese translates as “olive ball”.

Chinese who like the sport and are persuaded by the ads to visit the US would do well to read up first on Brand USA and its public/private affairs. It’s an excellent primer on how politics and spending sometimes operate in my nation’s capitol — and so why the US has this chronic reliance on China to finance our deficits by buying US Treasuries.

 

Tencent Stalks Alibaba — China’s Number Two Internet Company Quietly Takes Lethal Aim at its Number One

January 7th, 2015 No comments
China's two most successful internet entrepreneurs share a last name but have very different strategies for mobile e-commerce. The future belongs to which?

China’s two most successful internet entrepreneurs share a last name but have very different strategies for mobile e-commerce. The future belongs to which Ma?

China’s second-largest private sector company Tencent is aiming a cannon at China’s largest private sector company and new darling of the US stock markets Alibaba. Will Tencent fire? There’s a vast amount of money at stake: these two companies, cumulatively, have market cap of $400 billion, Tencent’s $140bn and Alibaba’s $260bn.

Alibaba, as most now know,  currently has China’s e-commerce market in a stranglehold, processing orders worth over $300 billion a year, or about 80% of all Chinese online sales by China’s 300 million online shoppers. Meanwhile, Tencent is no less dominant in online chat and messaging, with over 400mn users for its mobile chat application WeChat, aka “Weixin” (微信).

The two businesses appear worlds apart. And yet, they are now on a collision course. The reason is social selling, that is, using a mobile phone chat app to sell stuff to one’s friends and contacts. It’s based on the simple, indisputable notion it’s more reliable and trustworthy to buy from people you know. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin are all quite keen on social selling in the US. But, nowhere is as fertile a market as China, because nowhere else is the trust level from buying through unknown online merchants as low.

Alibaba has accumulated most of its riches from this low-trust model at Taobao’s huge online bazaar. It is a collection of thirty million small-time individual peddlers that Alibaba can’t directly control. The result, especially in a country with no real enforceable consumer protection laws or litigation, Taobao can be a haven for people selling stuff of dubious quality and authenticity.

Chinese know this, and don’t much care for it. It’s one reason both US-listed JD.com and Amazon China both seem to be gaining some ground on Alibaba. Their strategies are similar:  to be the “anti-Taobao”, selling brand-name stuff directly, using their own buying power and inventory, their own delivery people, and a no-questions-asked return policy. Their range of merchandise, however, is far more limited than Taobao’s. Tencent in 2014 bought a significant minority stake in JD.com.

Thanks to Weixin, Tencent now has the capability directly to become Alibaba’s most potent competitor and steal away billions of dollars in transactions. Will it?

As of now, Tencent seems oddly reluctant. Even as millions of Weixin users have started using the app to buy and sell goods directly with their friends, Tencent has countered by making it more difficult. Tencent introduced limits on the number of contacts each Weixin user can add, has made sending money tricky, and has more or less banned users to include price quotes in their mobile messages. For now, Weixin users appear undaunted, and are using various ruses to get around Tencent’s unexplained efforts to limit their profit-making activities. One common one: using the character for “rice” (米) instead of the symbol for the Chinese Renminbi (元).

This social selling through Weixin is called “Weishang” (微商) in Chinese, literally “commerce on Weixin”. It is without doubt the hottest thing in online selling now in China.

It’s hard to understand why Tencent wouldn’t passionately embrace social selling on Weixin. For now, Weixin looks to be an enormous money sink for Tencent. The Weixin app is free to download and use. What money it earns from it comes mainly from promoting pay-to-play online games. That’s small change compared to the tens of millions of dollars Tencent spends on maintaining the server infrastructure to facilitate and store the hundreds of millions of text, voice, photo and video messages sent daily on the network.

Chinese of all ages are glued to Weixin at all hours of the day. It can be hard for anyone outside China to quite fathom how deeply-woven into daily life Weixin has become in the four years since its launch. Peak Weixin usage can exceed 10mn messages per minute. With only slight exaggeration, Tencent’s founder and chairman Pony Ma explains Weixin has become like a  “vital organ” to Chinese.

It’s not just young kids. I took part in a meeting recently with a partner from KKR and the chairman of a large Chinese publicly-traded company At the end of the discussion, they eagerly swapped Weixin accounts to continue their confidential M&A dialogue.

My office is in the building next to Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen. I know quite a few of the senior executives. But, no one can or will articulate why Tencent, at least for now, is unwilling to use Weishang take on Alibaba. Some who claim to know say it’s because the Chinese government is holding them back, not wanting to have Tencent steal Alibaba’s spotlight so soon after its most-successful-in-history Chinese IPO in the US.

The two have sparred before. Tencent years ago launched its own copycat version of Taobao, now called Paipai. But it failed to put a dent in Alibaba’s franchise. Alibaba, in turn,  launched its own online message system to compete with Weixin. But, it’s sunk from sight as quickly as a heavy stone dropped in a deep pond.

Seen from a seller’s perspective, Weishang is fundamentally more attractive than selling on Taobao. Margins are higher, not only because Tencent charges no fees, but it’s getting much harder and more expensive to get noticed on Taobao. That’s good for Alibaba’s all-important ad revenues, but bad for merchants.

How does Weishang work? A woman, for example, buys twenty sweaters at a wholesale price, then takes a selfie wearing one. She sends this out to her 300 contacts on Weixin. Though the message includes neither the price nor much of a sales pitch, since both may be monitored by Tencent, she will often get back replies asking how to buy and how much. The sales are closed either by phone call, or through voice messaging over Weixin, with payment sent direct to the seller’s bank account.

Tencent knows Weixin is being used more and more like this, but because it’s driven the commerce somewhat underground, Tencent has no idea on the exact scale of Weishang. My guess is aggregate Weishang sales are already in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

Alibaba has clearly noticed. But, social selling isn’t something its Taobao e-commerce marketplace can do. Its mobile e-commerce strategy amounts to making it easy to scroll through Taobao items on a small screen. Social selling in China is and will remain Tencent’s natural monopoly.

For anyone wondering, Alibaba’s IPO prospectus from a few months ago did not mention Weishang and Weixin, and Tencent gets a single nod as one of many possible competitors. Weishang really began to gain traction only during the second half of 2014, after the main draft of the Alibaba prospectus was completed.

To those outside China especially on Wall Street, Alibaba seems to be on the top of the world, as well as the top of its game. In the last four months, it’s collected $25 billion from the IPO and another $8 billion in a bond offering. Its share price price is up 50% since the IPO. For a lot of us living here in China, the boundless enthusiasm in the US for “Ali” (as the company is universally known here) can sometimes seem a bit unhinged.

When will Tencent make its move? Why is it now so reticent to promote Weishang, or discuss its plans with the investment community? Is it busy next door to me readying a dedicated secure payment system and warranty program for Weishang purchases?

I don’t have the answer, but this being China, I do know where to look for guidance. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, written 2,500 years ago, remains the country’s main strategic handbook, used as often in business as in combat. The pertinent passage, in Chinese, goes “微乎微乎,至于无形;神乎神乎,至于无声;故能为敌之司命.” In English, you can translate it as “be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. “

In other words, don’t let your competitor see or hear you coming until its already too late.