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China’s Technology Future and What It Means for Silicon Valley — Bay Area Council Research Report

November 29th, 2017 No comments

 

The Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the leading think tank and public policy organization in the Silicon Valley, has just published a comprehensive and timely research report on Chinese innovation, titled “China’s Technology Future and What It Means for Silicon Valley“. The author is Sean Randolph, Senior Director at the Institute.

You can download a copy of the complete report by clicking here.

Sean was kind enough to seek out my views on this topic and we shared a lively dialogue, both in person here in China, and by email once he returned to San Francisco.

The report does an excellent job contrasting China’s overarching future goals in technology and innovation with the current state of affairs. It takes a balanced view: “While recognizing China’s advances, it would be a mistake to think of China as a remorseless juggernaut sweeping everything in its path. Having a plan doesn’t guarantee success, and not everything works.”

The report looks deeply both at some of China’s leading technology companies — including the “BAT” along with Huawei and car-maker Geely — and more broadly at how Chinese companies, both state-owned and private, regions and universities all align themselves with broader national goals to upgrade the level of China’s indigenous innovation.

What does all this mean for Silicon Valley, the world’s most important and successful breeding ground for high-value innovation? It’s here, in offering answers and perspective, that the report achieves its greatest value.

Here are some particularly insightful passages:

“China’s relationship with the Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay Area is unique, in part due to the deep historical and demographic ties between the Bay Area and China, but also because the region’s technology sector—the world’s largest—most highly concentrates the assets of technology, investment and expertise that relate to China’s goals to accelerate its own technological development.

Bay Area technology companies, such as Intel, Apple, and Cisco, and venture firms, such as Sequoia Capital, DFJ (Draper Fisher Jurvetson), and Kleiner Perkins, have been active investors in China for decades. Now, reversing the historic trend in which virtually all investment flowed from the Bay Area to China, Chinese companies have started sending investment capital and other resources to the Bay Area through mergers and acquisitions, equity investments, and the establishment of research and innovation centers and accelerator programs.”

The attraction of China’s market can be compelling, but [Silicon Valley] companies also must consider whether their core technology can be protected, and whether their position in the Chinese market can be sustained if that technology is compromised by competitors.While few US companies are leaving China, government policies and weak IP protection have caused many to keep their best technology at home and others to stay away.”

The report appears at an especially critical time in the development of US-China technology policy and investment. Congress is moving to tighten the CFIUS controls on Chinese technology investment in the US. China, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with new and more restrictive policies at home, leading to companies like Amazon selling off assets in China.

Let’s hope the tide reverses. A more open and reciprocal trade and investment relationship between China and the US would benefit both, benefit the world.

 

 

 

In Today’s China, Paradoxes Still Abound. But So Do Opportunities — Site Selection Magazine

November 21st, 2017 No comments

 

In September, China First Capital Chairman and CEO Peter Fuhrman, familiar to attendees at the World Forum for FDI in Shanghai last year, delivered a talk from China to Harvard Business School alumni. Here, with Mr. Fuhrman’s permission, we present excerpts from his remarks.

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GDP growth has never and will never absolutely correlate with investment returns.

Any questions? No? Great. Thanks for your time.

Of course I’m joking. But that key reality of successful investing is all too often overlooked, and China has provided all of us over these last 30-some-odd years with a vivid reminder that IRR and GDP are by no means the same animal.

China is, was and will likely long remain a phenomenal economy. The growth that’s taken place here since I first set foot in China in 1981 has been something almost beyond human reckoning. Since I first came to China as a postgrad in 1981, per-capita GDP (PPP) has risen 43X, from $352 to $15,417. China achieved so much more than anyone dare hope, a billion people lifted out of poverty, freed to pursue their dreams, to make and spend a bundle.

China this year will add about $1 trillion of new GDP. Just to put that in context, $1 trillion is not a lot less than the entire GDP of Russia. So who is making all this newly minted money? And how can any of us hope to get a piece of it? Another question: Why, if China is such a great economy, has it proved such a disaster area for so many of the world’s largest, most sophisticated global institutional investors, private equity firms and Fortune 500s?

Turning Inward

Let’s start with the fact that China is a part of the World Trade Organization, but not entirely of it — not fully subscribed in any way to the notion that reciprocity, openness, free trade, level playing fields and equal treatment are positive ends unto themselves. As China has gotten richer it has seen even less and less need to attract foreign capital and foreign investment. That’s a tendency we see in other countries, including obviously some of the rhetoric we now hear in the U.S. — that more of the gains of the national economy should belong to its citizens. But China’s way is different.

The renminbi is a closed non-tradable currency, so getting US dollars into and out of China has always been difficult. China now has the world’s second-largest stock and bond markets, but those markets are largely closed to any investors other than Chinese domestic ones. But China also continues to provide companies going public with by far the highest multiples anywhere in the world.

When I first came to China 36 years ago China was a 100-percent state-owned economy. Twenty years ago the first rules were put in place to allow a private sector to function. Today, according to anyone’s best estimate, it’s about 70 percent private and 30 percent state, and most of the value creation is being provided by that private-sector economy. So in theory there should be very interesting M&A opportunities. But it’s been exceedingly difficult to get successful transactions done. One of the core reasons is that by and large all private-sector companies in China, large and small, are family-owned.

The other thing important to consider is a Mandarin term: guifan. It’s the Chinese way of explaining the extent to which a company in China is abiding by all the rules of the road — the taxes you should pay, the environmental and labor laws you should follow. It’s not at all uncommon that successful private-sector companies in China are successful by virtue of having negotiated to pay little or no corporate tax on profits.

For foreign-owned companies in China it’s an entirely different story. They are by and large 100-percent compliant with the written rules. This has an enormous impact on the operating performance of any company, so you can imagine how potentially skewed the competitive environment becomes. And keep in mind that corporate taxation in China in the aggregate is, if not the highest in the developed world, then among the highest, and the environmental and labor laws are every bit as difficult, rigorous, tough and expensive to implement as they are in the U.S.

China is a country where local government officials are scored on the measurable success of their time in office, and success is overwhelmingly attributed to GDP growth. So it should be no surprise if what they’re trying to do is optimize GDP growth, the percentage of a company’s income that goes back to the government in taxation can have an adverse effect on that. Instead the government will continue to urge its local companies to take the money and, rather than pay tax, continue to invest, expand and therefore build local GDP.

The Hum of Consumerism

The reasons to stay engaged and find a viable investment angle include GDP growth. China’s GDP is likely to continue to grow by at least 6 percent a year. Second, across my 25 years of involvement in China, every one of the predictions of imminent collapse — financial catastrophe, local government debt, bad bank loans, real estate bubbles — have proved to be false. It appears China has some resiliency, and it’s certainly the case that the government has the tools and financial resources to ride out most challenges.

Third has been how effortlessly it’s made the transition that still bedevils lots of Europe, from a smokestack economy to a consumer-spending paradise. At this moment every major consumer market in China is booming both online and offline. Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are now operating as three of the most profitable companies in the world.

How does China have a robust, booming consumer economy and an enormous appetite for luxury brands, yet on average salary levels that are still one-fifth or one-sixth the levels in the US? The simple answer is that almost all the Chinese now living in urban China — about half the population, compared to about 15 percent when I first got here — owns at least a single apartment if not multiple, which is more and more common. The single best-performing asset in history has probably been Chinese urban real estate over the last 30 years. It’s fair to say the average appreciation over the last 10 years is at least 300 percent.

Though China has a population whose incomes on paper look like those of people flipping burgers at McDonald’s, they seem to have the spending power and love of luxury goods like the people summering in East Hampton. Even Apple itself has no idea how big its market is here in China. It’s likely that at least 100 million iPhone 8s will be sold to Chinese over the next year. The retail price here in China is at least 30 to 40 percent higher than in the US, with most phones bought for cash, without a carrier subsidy.

‘You’ll Be Older Too’

So where is it possible to make money in China? One message above all: Active investing beats passive investing every time. What you need to do is either be the owner-operator or be a close strategic partner with one, and stay actively engaged.

There are four major areas of opportunity: Tech, health-care services, leisure and education (see graphic below). The potential for building out a chronic care business in China is enormous. Looking ahead 25 to 30 years, sadly China will likely suffer a demographic disaster. This country will become a very old society very quickly. That’s the inevitable product of 30 years of a one-child-per-family policy. By 2040 or 2050, 25 percent of China will be over the age of 65.

The overall rate of GDP growth is unlikely to ever rival that of a few years ago at 10 to 12 percent a year, but overall what we have is higher-quality growth. People in China are living well. Things should continue to motor along very smoothly at least for one more generation — a generation whose members are better educated, more skilled, ambitious and globalized than their parents.

There’s no denying the reality of what a better, happier, freer, richer country China has become since I first set foot here. I marvel every day at the China that I now live in, even while I occasionally curse some of the unwanted byproducts like heavy pollution in most parts of the country, overcrowding at tourist attractions, bad traffic, and a pushy culture that’s lost touch with some of China’s ancient glories.

China will continue to amaze, inspire and stupefy the world. The Chinese have done very well and will do better. At the same time, those of us investing in China may do a little better in years to come than we have up to now. More of the newly minted trillions in China just may end up sticking to our palms.

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China’s Soccer Push Puts a Storied Team Under Murky Ownership — The New York Times

November 17th, 2017 No comments

 

 

 

 

 

 

By SUI-LEE WEE, RYAN McMORROW and TARIQ PANJA

NOV. 16,    2017

Li Yonghong in April with David Han Li, left, of Rossoneri Sport Investment, part of A.C. Milan’s new ownership group, and Marco Fassone, the club’s chief executive.

BEIJING — When the Chinese businessman Li Yonghong bought A.C. Milan, the world-famous Italian soccer club, virtually nobody in Italy had heard of him.

Virtually nobody in China had, either.

Mr. Li had never been named to one of China’s lists of the country’s richest people. The mining empire he described to Italian soccer officials was hardly known even in mining circles.

Nevertheless, Mr. Li seemed to have what mattered most: money. He bought the club in April for $860 million from Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, to clinch China’s biggest-ever soccer deal.

Today, Mr. Li’s acquisition of A.C. Milan appears to be emblematic of a string of troubled Chinese deals.

The soccer club, bleeding money after a spending spree on star players, is seeking new investors or a refinancing of the high-interest loan that Mr. Li took to buy the club. That loan comes due in a year.

Chinese corporate records show that — on paper, at least — someone else owns his mining empire. That company’s offices were empty on a recent visit, and a sign on the door from the landlord cited unpaid rent. A spokesman for A.C. Milan said Mr. Li’s control of the mining business had been verified by lawyers and banks involved in the transaction.

Chinese records also show a series of business disputes and run-ins between Mr. Li and Chinese regulators.

China’s emergence as a world economic power came with a ready checkbook for major brand names. Chinese owners now control the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, AMC theaters, the Hollywood production company Legendary Entertainment and A.C. Milan.

Then Chinese officials began to worry that the spending was simply part of an exodus of money from China so vast that it once threatened to destabilize the country’s economy, the world’s second largest. This summer, the government ordered its banks to scrutinize lending to some of the country’s biggest deal makers.

Outside China, some of the deals led regulators to ask questions about the tycoons behind them. Some wealthy people in China list their holdings under the names of relatives or associates to avoid scrutiny, a practice that has attracted criticism inside and outside the country.

In the case of Mr. Li, the mines that he told A.C. Milan he controlled have been owned by four different people since last year, according to Chinese corporate records. The business changed hands twice for no money, the documents show.

Mr. Li declined an interview request through A.C. Milan. The club spokesman defended Mr. Li on his business disputes, saying that sometimes he was a victim and that sometimes he was not aware of complicated rules. The spokesman also said the club was evaluating several refinancing proposals and was confident it could cover the loan.

Chinese spending on soccer totaled $1.8 billion over the past five years, according to Dealogic, a data provider, but Chinese officials are putting a stop to the spree amid concerns about the flight of money abroad.

“There’s a lot of ways to invest in football and the sports industry for much less money,” said Mark Dreyer, who tracks Chinese soccer investments on his website, China Sports Insider. “People were basically using the government’s previous push for sports as a way to diversify into different industries and get their money out of China.”

Mr. Li had plenty of reasons to buy A.C. Milan. President Xi Jinping had professed his love for soccer and wanted China to be a superpower in the sport by 2050. The Chinese government had laid out a plan for increasing sports investment.

An acquisition of A.C. Milan would be a marquee deal. A decade ago, the club was home to some of soccer’s biggest talents, including Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, who is known as Kaká, and Andrea Pirlo. It was a seven-time European champion.

But it has not won an Italian championship for six years or a European title for 10. Fans welcomed Mr. Li’s arrival as a potential catalyst. This summer, A.C. Milan began to spend on new players in a way that seemed to signal a desire to compete again.

Still, Mr. Li and Mr. Berlusconi struck the deal at a difficult time. Beijing, spooked by the unprecedented capital outflows and a weakening currency, had imposed restrictions on overseas investment at the end of last year.

Mr. Li set up companies in the British Virgin Islands and Luxembourg that would put the club’s legal ownership outside China, according to Marco Fassone, A.C. Milan’s chief executive officer. Mr. Li also borrowed about $354 million from the hedge fund firm Elliott Management, a loan he must pay back by October 2018. A spokeswoman for Elliott declined to comment.

A.C. Milan remains debt laden and unprofitable, and could have trouble repaying what it owes on its own. It spent about $274 million to sign 11 players this summer, according to the club spokesman, making it among the biggest spenders in European soccer.

In August, A.C. Milan had to wait for the transfer of two players it had signed from other teams because it had not deposited the required bank bonds. The club blamed a timing issue for the delay, and the transfers were eventually completed. The team is in seventh place but, with more than two-thirds of the season left to play, must finish among the top four to earn a spot in European soccer’s elite Champions League next season. The team could lose valuable television revenue if it fails to reach that level.

It is unclear how much Mr. Li’s wealth might help the club address its troubles.

He was initially unknown to the deal makers trying to sell the club, the people involved in the transaction said. He was originally part of a group that included Sonny Wu, a well-known investor who is chairman of the private equity firm GSR Capital, these people said. But Mr. Wu pulled out of the deal.

In an email, Mr. Wu said he had not talked to bankers about Mr. Li or his consortium. Rothschild & Company, the investment bank that advised Mr. Li, declined to comment.

Mr. Li told A.C. Milan that his holdings included phosphate mining operations in the city of Fuquan in Guizhou Province.

But Chinese corporate filings show that the mines are owned by another party: Guangdong Lion Asset Management, an investment company. And Guangdong Lion has had a complicated ownership record over the past two years, involving a number of people with similar family names. (One court proceeding suggests Mr. Li has a relationship with Guangdong Lion, although it is not clear what kind.)

Originally, Guangdong Lion was ultimately owned by two investors, Li Shangbing and Li Shangsong, according to filings. Like Li Yonghong, the two men come from the same area of Maoming, a city on China’s southern coast, according to the documents. But in a phone interview, Li Shangbing said he did not know Li Yonghong.

Li Shangsong, who declined to comment, sold his interest in Guangdong Lion in 2015 to a person named Li Qianru, according to the documents. The documents did not include personal information about Li Qianru, who could not be reached for comment.

In May 2016, according to the filings, Li Shangbing and Li Qianru, sold Guangdong Lion to yet another Li: Li Yalu. The sale price: $0. The filings do not provide personal information about Li Yalu.

Three weeks later, Li Yalu sold a half stake in Guangdong Lion to a similarly obscure investor, Zhang Zhiling. The price: $0. Neither could be reached for comment.

Li is a common surname in China, and the relationships among the various Lis are unclear. The A.C. Milan spokesman declined to comment.

Li Yonghong, the A.C. Milan owner, and Li Shangbing have two things in common.

The first is a relationship with Guangdong Lion. A Chinese court cited Li Yonghong and Guangdong Lion in April for failing to resolve a loan dispute with another Chinese company, saying both parties had disappeared. The court did not specify the relationship. The A.C. Milan spokesman said that Li Yonghong had merely guaranteed the loan and that “he is a victim in this case.”

The second is an interest in investing in European sports.

In May 2016, a day before Li Shangbing sold Guangdong Lion for no money, he started a company called Sino-Europe Sports Asset Management Changxing Company, according to China’s corporate database.

Two days after he registered the Sino-Europe firm, another person registered a new company with a strikingly similar name: Sino-Europe Sports Investment Management Changxing Company. The two companies’ headquarters were in the same building in the city of Huzhou.

Sino-Europe Sports Investment owns a stake in A.C. Milan as a result of its role as a shareholder in Rossoneri Sport Investment, a Chinese company that is part of the group led by Li Yonghong that owns the soccer club.

In the phone interview, Li Shangbing denied setting up either Sino-Europe company and said he did not own any part of A.C. Milan. He declined to answer further questions. A.C. Milan declined to comment on Li Shangbing. The listed owner of the Sino-Europe Sports Investment Management Changxing Company, Chen Huashan, could not be reached for comment.

Guangdong Lion’s listed headquarters are in a fancy skyscraper in Guangzhou. In August, the offices were closed, with an eviction notice on the door. Inside, desks and chairs were in disarray, computers were missing hard drives, and maggots festered in a trash can.

The phone number listed for Guangdong Lion connects to a woman who said she helped companies register with Chinese regulators.

Li Yonghong has an extensive business history, but Chinese records show it includes disputes with regulators and others.

In 2013, China’s securities watchdog fined Mr. Li $90,250 for failing to report the sale of $51.1 million in shares of a real estate company. A.C. Milan said Mr. Li had simply been unfamiliar with listing rules.

In 2011, that same real estate company said in a stock filing that Mr. Li was the chairman of Grand Dragon International Holding Company, a Chinese aviation company. Grand Dragon said in June that he had no present or past association with the company. The A.C. Milan spokesman said he had no knowledge of this.

In 2004, Mr. Li’s family business, the Guangdong Green River Company, teamed up with two other companies to bilk more than 5,000 investors out of as much as $68.3 million, according to The Shanghai Securities News, the official newspaper of China’s financial watchdogs. They had sold contracts for lychee and longan orchards and promised investors hefty returns, according to the report.

Mr. Li’s father and brother were sentenced to jail. Mr. Li was investigated but not accused of wrongdoing, the report said.

A.C. Milan said the episode had nothing to do with Mr. Li, adding that “he was not aware of the situation until the investigation.”

Amid Chinese concerns about deals abroad, China’s purchases of soccer teams with prestige names is likely to slow considerably for some time to come.

“If outbound investment should have the purpose of ‘strengthening the nation,’ even within the broadest of definitions,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman of the investment bank China First Capital, said in an email, “buying a soccer team in the U.K. or Italy would hardly seem to qualify.”

 

As published in The New York Times

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Amazon Sells Hardware to Cloud Partner in China — The Wall Street Journal

November 15th, 2017 No comments

Amazon Web Services is selling computing equipment used for its cloud services in China for as much as $300.8 million.
Amazon Web Services is selling computing equipment used for its cloud services in China for as much as $300.8 million.

Amazon.com Inc. AMZN 0.68% on Tuesday said it has sold computing equipment used for its cloud services in China to its local partner, Beijing Sinnet Technology Co., in a move analysts said underscores the increasingly chilly atmosphere for foreign companies in the country.

Amazon Web Services said it took the step to meet new Chinese regulations.

”Chinese law forbids non-Chinese companies from owning or operating certain technology for the provision of cloud services,” AWS said. “As a result, in order to comply with Chinese law, AWS sold certain physical infrastructure assets to Sinnet, its longtime Chinese partner.”

The company said it remains committed to China and that customers would continue to receive AWS cloud services. It also said the deal didn’t involve any transfer of intellectual property.

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of technology investment bank China First Capital, said Amazon’s decision illustrates China’s tightened grip on companies providing internet services.

”The key policy brickwork is now done,” Mr. Fuhrman said. “The Chinese internet, in its broad entirety, will become even more comprehensively managed by the Chinese state.”

Mr. Fuhrman added that such protectionist moves will ultimately limit China’s access to the latest technology and could hurt its competitiveness over the long term.

Jim McGregor, chairman of the Greater China region for public-affairs consultancy APCO Worldwide, said the move should be viewed in light of China’s Made in China 2025 plan to promote domestic enterprises and technologies. ”China has a different plan and it has the power,” he said.

U.S. tech companies in China are dealing with a different world “and it would be corporate suicide not to acknowledge it,” he added.

Beijing Sinnet, in a regulatory filing late Monday, said it was paying up to 2 billion yuan ($300.8 million) for the assets to “comply with our country’s laws and rules and further improve the security and the service quality of the AWS cloud-computing service operated by the company.”

Early this year, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology informed foreign companies with cloud ventures that new operating licenses would be applied by year-end. Amazon’s deal with Sinnet could clear the final obstacles for AWS to get such licenses, analysts from Citic Securities said in a note Tuesday.

Late last year, China’s MIIT also issued draft measures calling for tighter technical cooperation between foreign cloud operators and their local partners. The proposed rule change triggered complaints from more than 50 U.S. lawmakers, who in March protested in a letter to China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, that the change would force U.S. companies to essentially transfer ownership and operations of their cloud systems to Chinese partners.

Officials with the MIIT had no immediate comment.

Amazon and other U.S. companies, including Apple Inc., have faced increased pressure in the country in recent months in the face of the Chinese government’s desire to control cyberspace.

In July, Apple said it would begin storing cloud data for its Chinese customers on a server run by a government-owned company, to comply with Chinese law. The data include photos, documents, messages and videos uploaded by mainland China users of Apple’s iCloud service.

Since a new cybersecurity law came into effect in June, U.S. tech companies have been constrained in their efforts to operate as they normally would globally, and this has led to inefficiency and a higher risk of cyberthreats, said the U.S.-China Business Council in a statement Tuesday.

In August, AWS was caught up in a Chinese government clampdown on tools that allow internet users to circumvent the country’s vast system of internet filters. In that instance, AWS customers were sent emails by Beijing Sinnet asking them to delete tools enabling them to bypass the filters. Some of the tools that clients use include virtual private networks, or VPNs.

Cloud platforms provide their users with data storage, computing and networking resources over the internet, reducing the need for on-site servers. China’s $2 billion public cloud market is set to grow to a $16 billion by 2020, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley analysts. A government policy push for enterprises to migrate to the cloud, better vendor offerings and falling costs will boost demand for such services, Morgan Stanley said.

In China, AWS faces strong local competition in the form of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and China Telecom Corp. Alibaba’s cloud unit held 40% of the country’s cloud infrastructure-as-a-service market, according to International Data Corp. research. Microsoft Corp. , the largest foreign provider in China, had 5%, while AWS has 3.8%.

Still, China’s market is in its nascent stage, and it is too early to crown industry champions, said Kevin Ji, a research director at Gartner, an industry research firm. With their strong product offerings, AWS and Microsoft are likely to prove formidable competitors to Alibaba in the longer run, he said.

 

As published in The Wall Street Journal.

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