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Friday, October 10, 2003

The China Trap?

Those of you who are still labouring under the weight of my latest bout of blathering about fertility, fear not. Worse is to come. I am now trying to get into doing some sort of halfway-serious assessment of the China debate. In preparation I am looking round the arguments. One pole can be found in Joe Studwell's The China Dream . In fact I find one of the Amazon reviewers sum this line of argument up pretty well:

There's an incredible amount of hype about China's economic market. Its huge population, high-skilled low-wage work force, and relative political stability for a developing country all act as a powerful lure to multinationals eager to set up shop and begin selling to one-quarter of the world's population. Under tough negotiations from Chinese officials, these companies tend to give away the kitchen sink to ensure they get access to the huge market. But what do they get in return?

Joe Studwell does a service to the informed public by clearly demonstrating that almost all the businesses who have gone to China have gotten next to nothing for their technology transfers, special fees, and tremendous time and effort they've dedicated to the market. Almost uniformly, they have high-balled their expected sales and profits from the Middle Kingdom and found immense barriers such as unseen regulations and fees, corrupt officials, unenforced laws, local spin-offs to their products, etc., that should have sent them packing. Yet almost all of them push on, undeterred.

As Studwell explains, the reason for this is an old phenomenon among Western businessmen he calls "The China Dream." Despite continual setbacks, these hard-headed businessmen are too attracted to the possibility that they have something to sell that even a small percentage of Chinese may want to buy. Those huge potential numbers are too much of an enticement to businesses to easily let go of their foothold in China.

But Studwell's book is more than just about the experience of foreign businessmen in China. It also shows that the China market is becoming a trap for the Chinese people themselves. They work hard and save, and the government confiscates and then destroys their money by trapping it in state-owned banks that are insolvent because they lend to state-owned enterprises that are unproductive.

"The China Dream" is well-written and informative. Its thesis is provocative, but well supported. Studwell argues there is no rational basis for much of China's economic success and that most of its market is as closed and overregulated as the Soviet Union's. This book should be required reading for every CEO of a multinational who dreams of selling in China.
Reviewer: Jeffrey Steele

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