Amid flow of money, hopeful entrepreneurs warned that innovation is crucial to success
For those of us living in prosperous first- and second-tier cities in China, the land beneath our feet is exploding in value. Every week seems to set a new price record, as real estate developers buy up land to build on in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing and elsewhere.
This has two ill effects. First, it adds more upward pressure on already high housing prices. Second, since the land buyers have mainly been large State-owned enterprises, they will need to sell the apartments they plan to build at one of highest prices per square meter in the world to make profits. It’s another matter that the SOEs are meant to help solve, rather than exacerbate, the serious lack of affordable housing for China’s ordinary urban population.
But there is one hidden and perhaps surprising benefit. The high and rising land prices are confirmation that land sales are becoming more transparent, less prone to potential favoritism and insider dealing. That is ultimately good for just about everyone in China. In the recent record-high land sales, the seller is the local government. In some cases, the price paid was more than double of what the government itself estimated the land would fetch. So it is up to the government now to spend the windfall wisely, in ways that will improve living standards for everyone in the city.
Too often in the past, urban land for residential development was sold for less than its true market price. The unfortunate result was that a comparatively few lucky real estate developers were able to buy land at artificially low prices and then make unconscionably high profits. Not for nothing was it said over the past 20 years that the easiest way in the world to make big money was to become a realty developer in one of China’s major cities.
When a local government sells land at artificially low prices to developers, it can amount to a transfer of wealth from China’s ordinary folks, the laobaixing, to those favored real estate companies. That’s because the developers take the cheap land and then build and sell expensive apartments on it. And the government itself gets less revenue than it should have. This means less money to spend on services that benefit everyone: urban transport, affordable housing, schools, parks, hospitals and the like.
Few Chinese developers have mastered the art and business of building and marketing high-quality apartments on time and within a set budget. Apartment prices have almost always risen during the three years it takes to go from an undeveloped plot to a finished building. If a developer got a good deal on land, he/she was able to sell the new apartments during construction, use the cash to pay off the bank loans and lock in a very high profit.
Going forward all this will become far more challenging. When a developer goes bankrupt, the real victims are usually the ordinary folks who have bought apartments during the construction phase. Time and again, it has proven difficult, nerve-wracking and time-consuming for these buyers to get their money back or make sure the apartments they bought are completed.
As the risk of bankruptcies rise with land prices, I’d like to see rules requiring residential developers to buy insurance to automatically reimburse buyers in case they go bust. The insurance will also put additional and useful pressure on developers to complete work on time and maintain an acceptable quality. If the developer isn’t making progress, or there are other signs of trouble, the insurance company would either withdraw coverage and reimburse buyers or require a new and more reliable developer to take over. Either way, the goal must be to protect, in a transparent and predictable way, the investment of ordinary homebuyers.
Up to now, too much pressure and risk has landed on the shoulders of buyers rather than builders, with cities also short-changing themselves. A fairer and better balance may now be emerging.
The author is chairman and CEO, China First Capital.
China’s lack of robust intellectual property protection makes winners and losers of all of us living here. We can choose to save big money by buying cheap pirated products or downloading without charge just about any song or copyrighted material. But, China also pays a price by making it so hard to protect patents, trademarks and copyright. Chinese companies are mainly stuck in a low-margin and low-growth trap, without unique, IP-defended products or technologies. Come up with a novel idea and it’s almost certain to be stolen or copied without real compensation.
The victims of IP theft in China are many, from Hollywood studios to Microsoft to manufacturers of most high-tech machinery, as well as thousands of Chinese tech startups. I joined their ranks last month. I can’t say I suffered any real material loss, but the bitter taste lingers.
On a late May weekday morning, my email and Wechat began to blink with activity. Friends and acquaintances wrote telling me they’d just finished a Chinese-language article with my byline published that day on the website of China’s most authoritative daily source about the private equity industry, called “PE Daily” in English and “投资界” in Chinese.
It’s a nice way to start the day, with friendly messages, some offering a pat on the back. But, in this case, I knew something was off. I hadn’t written anything for this company, in fact have never had any contact with them. A couple of clicks got me to the article with my name on it. It came with a rather long and sensational Chinese headline, “中国PE“悲情”十年：LP只拿回30%本金，美国同期高达200%！”, the first part of which you could translate as “China PE’s Dismal Decade”.
The headline and accompanying illustration were new but the rest was familiar. The text had been lifted verbatim from an article I wrote 16 months ago and published in print in January 2015 by one of China’s most respected and well-read business magazines, Caijing.
The PE Daily version doesn’t credit Caijing, the copyright holder, nor include the date of original publication. The data I cite on a performance gap between Chinese and US private equity firms in cash payouts to investors, current at the time I wrote it, is now stale. A predictable result, within a few hours of the PE Daily article appearing, I began getting attacked in online forums for disingenuously ignoring more recent numbers that would perhaps show China’s PE industry in a better light.
Had PE Daily bothered to ask, I probably would have provided updated numbers. I know it has an influential readership. The article got over 15,000 views within the first 24 hours. From there, the stolen article began to spread like a pandemic. It’s now been republished on a dozen other Chinese financial industry websites, including some of the mainstream ones. These other sites ran the article exactly as published by PE Daily, with one small difference. They mainly all deleted my name. At a guess, I’d say the article been seen by 100,000 people by now.
On every site I’ve looked at, the article is surrounded by online ads. This proves what everyone would intuitively guess: IP theft, when it goes unpunished, is as good a way to make money as there is. Your input costs can be zero.
I got hold of the editor at Caijing and confirmed they hadn’t given their permission to PE Daily to republish, nor would they or I be receiving any kind of syndication fee. “Sure, we could go to court,” he concluded, “but we’d spend money on lawyers and probably get nothing in return.” In other words, no recourse.
I twice emailed the owner of PE Daily enquiring if they were authorized to republish the Caijing article. There’s been no reply so far. But, the article was taken down from the PE Daily website. The other Chinese websites still have the article up, and still include the fact they syndicated it from PE Daily.
China has made a few notable efforts to discourage IP infringement. But overall it’s still common and, as in my small case, often quite brazen. This must inevitably put a damper on China’s efforts, as President Xi Jinping recently put it, to “make innovation the pivot of development”. The government money and urgency are there. What’s still missing, a system that protects innovators, patent and copyright holders. The rewards still flow too easily to thieves and copycats.
Every country is touchy about some topics, especially when raised by foreigner. Living in China for almost seven years now, and having been a student of the place for the last forty, I thought I knew the hot buttons not to press. Apparently not.
The topic at hand: high-tech innovation in the PRC and why it seems to lag so far behind that of neighboring Taiwan. A recent issue of one of China’s leading business publications, Caijing Magazine, published a Chinese-language article I wrote together with China First Capital’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang, about Taiwan’s high-flying optical lens company Largan Precision.
Soon after the magazine was published, it began circulating rather widely. Howls of national outrage began to reach me almost immediately. Mainly we were accused of not understanding the topic and having ignored China’s many tech companies that are at least the equal, if not superior, to Largan.
I didn’t think the article would be all that contentious, at least not the facts. Largan last year had revenues in excess of $1 billion and net profit margins above 40%, more than double those of its main customer, Apple, no slouch at making money. China has many companies which supply components to Apple, either directly or as a subcontractor. None of these PRC companies can approach the scale and profitability of Largan. In fact, there are few whose net margins are higher than 10%, or one-quarter Largan’s. Case in point: Huawei, widely praised within China as the country’s most successful technology company, has net margins of 9.5%.
Taiwan inaugurated its new president last month, Tsai Ing-wen, who represents the pro-Taiwan independence party. Few in the PRC seem to be in a mood to hear anything good about Taiwan. In one Wechat forum for senior executives, the language turned sharp. “China has many such companies, you as a foreigner just don’t know about them.” Or, “Largan is only successful because like Taiwan itself, it is protected by the American government” and “Apple buys from Largan because it wants to hold back China’s development”.
Not a single comment I’ve seen focused on perhaps more obvious reasons China’s tech ambitions are proving so hard to realize: a weak system of patent protection, widespread online censoring and restrictions on free flow of information, a venture capital industry which, though now large, has an aversion to backing new directions in R&D. In Taiwan, none of this is true.
Largan is doing so well because the optical-quality plastic lenses it makes for mobile phone cameras are unrivalled in their price and performance. Any higher-end mobile phone, be it an iPhone or an Android phone selling for above $400, relies on Largan lenses.
Many companies in the PRC have tried to get into this business. So far none have succeeded. Largan, of course, wants to keep it that way. It has factories in China, but key parts of Largan’s valuable, confidential manufacturing processes take place in Taiwan. High precision, high megapixel plastic camera lenses are basically impossible to reverse-engineer. You can’t simply buy a machine, feed in some plastic pellets and out comes a perfect, spherical, lightweight 16-megapixel lens. Largan has been in the plastic lens business for almost twenty years. Today’s success is the product of many long years of fruitless experimentation and struggle. Largan had to wait a long time for the market demand to arrive. Great companies, ones with high margins and unique products, generally emerge in this way.
We wrote the article in part because Largan is not widely-known in China. It should be. The PRC is, as most people know, engaged in a massive, well-publicized multi-pronged effort to stimulate high-tech innovation and upgrade the country’s manufacturing base. A huge rhetorical push from China’s central government leadership is backed up with tens of billions of dollars in annual state subsidies. Largan is a good example close to home of what China stands to gain if it is able to succeed in this effort. It’s not only about fat profits and high-paying jobs. Largan is also helping to create a lager network of suppliers, customers and business opportunities outside mobile phones. High precision low-cost and lightweight lenses are also finding their way into more and more IOT devices. There are also, of course, potential military applications.
So why is it, the article asks but doesn’t answer, the PRC does not have companies like Largan? Is it perhaps too early? From the comments I’ve seen, that is one main explanation. Give China another few years, some argued, and it will certainly have dozens of companies every bit as dominant globally and profitable as Largan. After all, both are populated by Chinese, but the PRC has 1.35 billion of them compared to 23 million on Taiwan.
A related strand, linked even more directly to notions of national destiny and pride: China has 5,000 years of glorious history during which it created such technology breakthroughs as paper, gunpowder, porcelain and the pump. New products now being developed in China that will achieve breakthroughs of similar world-altering amplitude.
Absent from all the comments is any mention of fundamental factors that almost certainly inhibit innovation in China. Start with the most basic of all: intellectual property protection, and the serious lack thereof in China. While things have improved a bit of late, it is still far too easy to copycat ideas and products and get away with it. There are specialist patent courts now to enforce China’s domestic patent regime. But, the whole system is still weakly administered. Chinese courts are not fully independent of political influence. And anyway, even if one does win a patent case and get a judgment against a Chinese infringer, it’s usually all but impossible to collect on any monetary compensation or prevent the loser from starting up again under another name in a different province.
Another troubling component of China’s patent system: it awards so-called “use patents” along with “invention patents”. This allows for a high degree of mischief. A company can seek patent protection for putting someone else’s technology to a different use, or making it in a different way.
It’s axiomatic that countries without a reliable way to protect valuable inventions and proprietary technology will always end up with less of both. Compounding the problem in China, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements are usually unenforceable. Employees and subcontractors pilfer confidential information and start up in business with impunity.
Why else is China, at least for now, starved of domestic companies with globally-important technology? Information of all kinds does not flow freely, thanks to state control over the internet. A lot of the coolest new ideas in business these days are first showcased on Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. All of these, of course, are blocked by the Great Firewall of China, along with all kinds of traditional business media. Closed societies have never been good at developing cutting edge technologies.
There’s certainly a lot of brilliant software and data-packaging engineering involved in maintaining the Great Firewall. Problem is, there’s no real paying market for online state surveillance tools outside China. All this indigenous R&D and manpower, if viewed purely on commercial terms, is wasted.
The venture capital industry in China, though statistically the second-largest in the world, has shunned investments in early-stage and experimental R&D. Instead, VCs pour money into so-called “C2C” businesses. These “Copied To China” companies look for an established or emerging business model elsewhere, usually in the US, then create a local Chinese version, safe in the knowledge the foreign innovator will probably never be able to shut-down this “China only” version. It’s how China’s three most successful tech companies – Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu – got their start. They’ve moved on since then, but “C2C” remains the most common strategy for getting into business and getting funded as a tech company in China.
Another factor unbroached in any of the comments and criticisms I read about the Largan article: universities in China, especially the best ones, are extremely difficult to get into. But, their professors do little important breakthrough research. Professorial rank is determined by seniority and connections, less so by academic caliber. Also, Chinese universities don’t offer, as American ones do, an attractive fee-sharing system for professors who do come up with something new that could be licensed.
Tech companies outside China finance innovation and growth by going public. Largan did so in Taiwan, very early on in 2002, when the company was a fraction of its current size. Tech IPOs of this kind are all but impossible in China. IPOs are tightly managed by government regulators. Companies without three years of past profits will never even be admitted to the now years-long queue of companies waiting to go public.
Taiwan is, at its closest point, only a little more than a mile from the Chinese mainland. But, the two are planets apart in nurturing and rewarding high-margin innovation. Taiwan is strong in the fundamental areas where the PRC is weak. While Largan may now be the best performing Taiwanese high-tech company, there are many others that similarly can run circles around PRC competitors. For all the recent non-stop talk in the PRC about building an innovation-led economy, one hears infrequently about Taiwan’s technological successes, and even less about ways the PRC might learn from Taiwan.
That said, I did get a lot of queries about how PRC nationals could buy Largan shares. Since the article appeared, Largan’s shares shot up 10%, while the overall Taiwan market barely budged.
Our Largan article clearly touched a raw nerve, at least for some. If it is to succeed in transforming itself into a technology powerhouse, one innovation required in China may be a willingness to look more closely and assess more honestly why high-tech does so much better in Taiwan.
(An English-language version of the Largan article can be read by clicking here. )
(财经杂志 Caijing Magazine’s Chinese-language article can be read by clicking here.)