India’s Slowdown May Be More Important than Europe’s Crisis

Posted in BRICS Activities, Doing Business in India, India, International Trade on 10/03/2012 by David Griffith

Never Mind Europe. Worry About India

NEW YORK TIMES  Tyler Cowen  May 6, 2012 

The economic slowdown in India is one of the world’s biggest economic stories, but it is commanding only a modicum of attention in the United States.

It may not even look like a slowdown because by developed standards, India’s growth — estimated by the International Monetary Fund at 6.9 percent for 2012 — is still strong. But a slowdown it is: the economy has decelerated from projected rates of more than 8 percent, and negative momentum may bring a further decline. The government reported year-over-year growth in the October-through-December quarter of only 6.1 percent.

What is disturbing is that much of the decline in the growth rate is distributed unevenly, with the greatest burden falling on the poor. If the slower rate continues or worsens, many millions of Indians, for another generation, will fail to rise above extreme penury and want. The problems of the euro zone are a pittance by comparison.

China commands more attention, but Scott B. Sumner, the Bentley College economist, has pointed out it is India that is likely to end up as the world’s largest economy by the next century. China’s population is likely to peak relatively soon while India’s will continue to grow, so under even modestly optimistic projections the Indian economy will be No. 1 in terms of total size.

India also is a potential force for energizing the economies of Bangladesh, Nepal and, perhaps someday, Pakistan and Myanmar. The losses from a poorer India go far beyond the country’s borders; furthermore, the wealthier India becomes, the stronger the allure of democracy in the region.

Why is India’s economic growth slowing? The causes are varied. They include a less than optimal attitude toward foreign business and investment: recall the Indian government’s reversal of its previous willingness to let Wal-Mart enter the retailing sector. The government also has been assessing retroactive taxation on foreign businesses years after incomes are earned and reported. Another problem is the country’s energy infrastructure, which has not geared up to meet industrial demand. Coal mining is dominated by an inefficient state-owned company and there are various price controls on both coal and natural gas. Over all, the country does not seem headed toward further liberalization and market-oriented reforms.

These problems can be solved. More troubling are the causes that have no easy fix.

Agriculture employs about half of India’s work force, for example, yet the agricultural revolution that flourished in the 1970s has slowed. Crop yields remain stubbornly low, transport and water infrastructure is poor, and the legal system is hostile to foreign investment in basic agriculture and to modern agribusiness. Note that the earlier general growth bursts of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were all preceded by significant gains in agricultural productivity.

For all of India’s economic progress, it is hard to find comparable stirrings in Indian agriculture today. It is estimated that half of all Indian children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition.

Another worry is that India’s services-based growth spurt may have run much of its course. Call centers, for example, have succeeded by building their own infrastructure and they often function as self-contained, walled minicities. It’s impressive that those achievements have been possible, but these economically segregated islands of higher productivity suggest that success is achieved by separating oneself from the broader Indian economy, not by integrating with it.

India also has one of the world’s most unwieldy legal systems, and one that seems particularly hard to reform. On the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, the country ranks 132 out of 183 listed countries and regions, behind Honduras and the West Bank and Gaza, and just ahead of Nigeria and Syria. One undercurrent of talk is that the days of “the license Raj” have returned, referring to the country’s earlier subpar economic performance under a regime of heavy government regulation.

On the positive side of the ledger, the country retains a population with remarkable talent, energy and entrepreneurship. It has worldwide networks of trade and migration, and world-class achievements in entertainment and design, among numerous other strengths. Nonetheless, the previous pace of progress no longer seems guaranteed.

India may not be alone in this slowdown. There is a more general worry that the grouping of disparate giants known as the BRIC nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China — has, for some reason, lost much of its previous momentum. Last year Brazil grew at only a 2.7 percent rate, down from 7.5 percent, and Chinese and Russian G.D.P. growth are slowing too, to an unknown extent and duration. In the past, many countries engaged in catch-up growth have suddenly slowed and hit plateaus, although economists do not have firmly established theories as to when and why this happened. In any case it remains a real danger.

In the short run, we often focus on headlines, elections and fights between personalities and political parties. But the world is shaped by deeper structural forces, such as resources, technologies, demographics and economic growth rates.

We ignore India’s troubling trends at our peril.

 

 

Vietnam’s Economic Miracle Hits a Snag….

Posted in Doing Business in Vietnam on 09/26/2012 by David Griffith

Seaport delay highlights shaky Vietnam economy

By MIKE IVES | Associated Press – Mon, Sep 24, 2012

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — All that remain of Vietnam’s plan to build a major deep-water port are 114 exposed pilings trailing into the South China Sea and a barge full of rusty machinery.

Foreign investors stayed away from the $3.6 billion project and the indebted state-owned company overseeing it bungled the job. The government accused the company of “financial incompetence” and suspended the project this month. The prospects for ever reviving it are dim.

The abandoned port in southern Vietnam stands as a symbol of the inefficiency of the country’s Communist rulers and the need to reform a massive web of state-owned enterprises weighing down a once-booming economy.

Critics say it also shows how provincial governments and state-owned companies are allowed to pursue expensive, misguided and often corruption-laced infrastructure projects that result in riches for the few, but not economic growth that would benefit the country of 87 million people.

The government is asking foreign and domestic investors to bankroll its flagship Van Phong port now that the Vietnam National Shipping Lines, or Vinalines, is out of the picture. But analysts say that’s unlikely because the project, which was slated to have 37 wharves, isn’t near any important manufacturing bases in the region and was impractical from the start.

A better option, they said, would be developing road and rail around ports in greater Ho Chi Minh City and also developing a deep-water port near the northern city of Hai Phong. A proposed large port near Hai Phong has spurred controversy lately over escalating costs and potential dredging problems.

Vu Tu Thanh, Vietnam representative for the Washington-based US-ASEAN Business Council, said Vietnam has lost the reputation it enjoyed a few years ago for being among the most attractive destinations for investment in Asia. Would-be investors, he said, want the government to push through large-scale economic reforms that will weed out the most inefficient state businesses.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong about having state-owned enterprises involved in big, capital-intensive projects like ports,” said Thanh, whose advocacy group represents American companies in Southeast Asia. “The problem is: Do you have the right SOE there?”

“The typical answer in Vietnam is: You don’t.”

Vietnam has a coastline of 3,200 kilometers (1,988 miles) — longer than American’s west coast — and a prime location on the South China Sea, which includes some of the world’s biggest shipping channels. But its lack of connected infrastructure puts its ports at a competitive disadvantage compared with long-established global trade hubs such as Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

As a result, manufacturers here are often forced to first send containers to those larger ports from where they are then shipped to Europe and North America.

Businessmen and observers say the port sector is a good example of how political patronage and entrenched corruption are undermining the country’s development.

Vietnam has about three dozen seaports and several high-quality terminals that welcome international shipping lines, but no major port with swift connections to efficient roads and rail.

“All the coastal provinces want a deep-sea port,” said Nguyen Xuan Thanh, director of public policy programs at the U.S.-funded Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City. “The central government needs political support from these provinces, so they don’t say no to these proposals.”

“Everybody wants a piece of the action,” he said.

In 2010, state-owned ship builder Vinashin came close to collapse with debts of $4.5 billion, leading to a sovereign credit rating downgrade and sounding the alarm on a major pressure point in Vietnam’s economy. Last month, police arrested two former senior executives at one of the country’s largest banks. The banking industry has run up massive bad debts in recent years, many of them made to state-owned companies.

Vinalines has also come under scrutiny. In March, police arrested several of its executives and accused them of mismanagement in the purchase of a floating dock that resulted in losses of about $5 million. In May, government inspectors issued a report saying the company had five defaulted loans worth $1.1 billion and had bought 73 foreign vessels, many of which had run up millions of dollars in losses. Earlier this month, Vinalines’ former head, Duong Chi Dung, was arrested in a neighboring country after an international manhunt.

The problems at the banks and the state-owned enterprises have played a major role in Vietnam’s economy slowing from 7 percent growth in 2010 to just over 4 percent in the first half of this year. Foreign investment is also down amid inflation and the inability of the country to build the roads, electrical grid and bridges businesses need to prosper.

“It’s very important that the government continues to put infrastructure very high on the agenda,” said Peter Smidt-Nielsen, general director for Vietnam and Cambodia at global shipping company Maersk Line.

“If you have growing trade and you don’t do anything about the infrastructure, you’ll have more and more delays and congestion, and that all leads to added costs for exporters and importers,” he said.

 

International Patent Litigation – Is There a Home Court Advantage?

Posted in China - US Relations, Chinese International Trade, Chinese Legal Issues, Intellectual Property in China on 09/10/2012 by David Griffith

Author’s Note: Did Samsung get a fair trial against Apple in Northern California? Can Apple get a fair trial in Korea or China?  All interesting questions with potential billion dollar outcomes depending on the answer.

Some in Asia See Bias in U.S. Apple Verdict

By Jessica Seah  The Asian Lawyer  September 3, 2012

On August 24 a California federal jury awarded Apple Inc. over $1 billion in its smartphone patent infringement suit against Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.—the largest patent verdict ever. The same day, a Korean court issued a split decision widely seen as more favorable to Samsung, and, last Friday, a Japanese court ruled against Apple outright, ordering the U.S. company to pay Seoul-based Samsung’s legal costs.

The contrast in outcomes has not been lost on intellectual property lawyers in Asia.

“I am surprised Samsung lost all counts in the case in the U.S.,” says one Beijing IP partner with an international firm. “I think there is a clear home court advantage there.”

Other IP lawyers in the region expressed similar sentiments, with some noting that perceptions of bias in the U.S. Apple ruling could provide cover to courts in the region, particularly those in China, that have been accused of favoritism themselves.

Matthew Laight, an IP lawyer and the Hong Kong–based China managing partner for U.K. firm Bird & Bird, says that inexperienced Chinese judges in patent cases could potentially draw the wrong lessons from the Apple case.

“Chinese judges are just getting their heads around whether or not to grant injunctions in patent disputes,” Laight says, “so the result of the Apple-Samsung case may influence how judges see things.”

Many lawyers in the region noted that the U.S. decision was made by a jury. The Korean and Japanese cases were both decided by judges.

The Beijing partner says he found the U.S. ruling less reasonable than the Korean one, in which the three-judge Seoul panel found that both Apple and Samsung infringed each other’s patents and ordered a halt to sales in the country of certain products from both companies. Some observers have said that ruling was more favorable to Samsung because it had already discontinued the affected products.

Apple’s hipper image helped with the California jury, the Beijing partner thinks. Despite being the world’s largest technology manufacturer by revenue, Samsung was the effective underdog in the U.S. case.

“Samsung was pitted against the most revered and successful company in the world,” he says. “So there is definitely a local bias there, especially when decided by jury. I have my doubts against the jury really understanding such a complex case.”

The seven men and two women of the jury found that Samsung infringed all but one of the seven patents at issue—a patent covering the exterior design of the iPad. They also decided that Apple didn’t violate any of the five patents Samsung asserted in the case.

In an interview with Bloomberg, jury foreman Velvin Hogan rejected accusations of local bias. He said the jurors were “inundated” by evidence, and the fact that Apple was headquartered in Cupertino, California—not far from the San Jose courtroom in which the case was heard—made no difference.

Morrison & Foerster and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr represented Apple, while Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan acted for Samsung.

In Japan, Apple had claimed that Samsung infringed its patent on synchronization and sought $1.3 million in damages. District Judge Tamotsu Shoji in Tokyo rejected Apple’s claim, though Apple has other infringement claims pending in Japan.

According to Yoshikazu Iwase, an IP partner at Tokyo-based Anderson Mori & Tomotsune, the Japanese court decision was not surprising because “traditionally Japanese judges are conservative in enforcing patents” and local judges are usually “not directly affected by the decisions of other jurisdictions.”

Still, large Asian corporations are generally accustomed to litigating in the United States and have faith in the fairness of the courts there. Though there may be a sense that Apple enjoyed a home-court advantage in San Jose, says Jones Day Tokyo partner Michiku Takahashi, that stops well short of the kind of bias they worry about in China, where courts are not independent and are generally seen as favoring well-connected parties.

“Experienced Japanese companies are not too bothered about court bias, but comparatively they are generally more concerned about decisions made by Chinese courts, than, say, in the U.S. or in Europe,” she says.

Many lawyers believe the Apple-Samsung fight will trigger a wave of new patent litigation targeting big Asian companies. Geoffrey Lin, a Shanghai-based IP partner at Ropes & Gray, says that lawyers will start to go back to look at their clients’ business models to make sure they are closely protected by their patents.

“International technology companies, especially those that manufacture smartphones, are going to start looking at jurisdictions where there is a lot of trolling,” says Lin.

Takahashi says smartphone-related patent litigation has already become common in recent years. “There has been an increasing number of patent troll cases here in Japan, where non [technology] practicing entities are registering smartphone patents,” she says. “So the Apple matter may give even the larger Japanese phone companies more confidence to litigate when they feel their patents have been infringed.”

But Laight says that while the Apple-Samsung case has gotten a lot of attention, the dispute might not be a sole driver for an increase in patent litigation in Asia.

Asian electronics companies from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan have long litigated against each other both in their home jurisdictions and around the world. Laight notes that now Chinese companies are getting in on the act. Last year Shenzhen-based telecommunications firm Huawei Technologies Co. filed patent infringement lawsuits against its smaller Chinese rival ZTE Corp. in courts in France, Germany, and Hungary. The patents relate to data card and 4G technologies, and ZTE has allegedly used Huawei’s trademark on some of its data cards. ZTE has countersued, alleging that Huawei infringed its 4G patents.

 

 

Chinese Companies Make Quick Exit from US Markets

Posted in China - US Relations, Chinese Markets, Chinese Stock Trading on US Markets on 08/14/2012 by David Griffith

Chinese firms leave US stock markets amid complaints about price, accounting scrutiny

By Joe Mcdonald, AP Business Writer | Associated Press 

BEIJING (AP) — Just a few years after Chinese companies lined up to sell shares on Wall Street, a growing number are reversing course and pulling out of U.S. exchanges.

This week, Focus Media Holding Ltd., announced its chairman and private equity firms want to buy back its U.S.-traded shares and take the Shanghai-based advertising company private. The deal would value Focus Media at $3.5 billion, according to financial information firm Dealogic.

Smaller companies also are withdrawing from U.S. exchanges. In a sign of official encouragement, a Chinese business magazine said a state bank has provided $1 billion in loans to help companies with listings abroad move them to domestic exchanges.

The withdrawals follow accusations of improper accounting by some companies and a deadlock between Beijing and Washington over whether U.S. regulators can oversee their China-based auditors.

Some Chinese companies say they are pulling out of U.S. markets because a low share price fails to reflect the strength of their business. Withdrawing also eliminates the cost of complying with American financial reporting rules.

Focus Media “has been seriously undervalued on U.S. stock markets” and being taken private will help to promote its “long-term strategic development,” said a company spokeswoman, Lu Jing.

The company, formed in 2003, operates electronic advertising displays in elevators, grocery stores and other locations.

“We haven’t considered whether to list the company on Chinese markets but that possibility has not been excluded,” Lu said.

U.S.-traded Chinese companies faced scrutiny after auditors for several quit and others were accused of accounting irregularities. Concerns about company finances have caused share prices to tumble, costing investors several billion dollars.

“Probably all these companies have some questionable accounting, so they may prefer to move out of the U.S., not to come under too much scrutiny,” said Marc Faber, managing director of Hong Kong fund management company Marc Faber Ltd.

A financial firm, Muddy Waters Research, accused Focus Media last year of overstating the number of its display panels and questioned acquisitions reported by the company. Focus Media denied the allegations and said independent auditors confirmed the size of its network.

This week, Muddy Waters founder Carson Block said in a statement: “The markets are far better off if a few deep pocketed investors own Focus Media instead of mutual funds and other public shareholders.”

The group proposing to take the company private includes its chairman, Jason Nanchun Jiang, and private equity firms Carlyle Group, CITIC Capital Partners, CDH Investments and China Everbright Ltd.

The status of Chinese companies in the United States could be complicated by a dispute between U.S. and Chinese regulators over whether American inspectors will be allowed to examine the work of their China-based audit firms.

Washington wants auditors to hand over documentation on companies that are under investigation but Chinese authorities have barred the release of some information. If a settlement is not reached, the SEC could reject audits by China-based firms, forcing companies to find new auditors.

In May, Beijing took steps to tighten control of local affiliates of major accounting firms by issuing a requirement for Chinese citizens to head those offices.

Dozens of Chinese companies issued shares on Wall Street over the past decade, raising billions of dollars from investors who wanted a stake in the country’s booming economy.

Many were private companies that could not raise money on Chinese exchanges that were created to finance state industry or wanted the higher public profile.

Chinese regulators encouraged the move as a way for entrepreneurs to raise money and speed the development of China’s economy. But in recent years Beijing has encouraged private companies to issue shares in China to help develop its markets and give Chinese households better investment options.

Regulators have made it easier for private companies to join China’s two exchanges in Shanghai and the southern city of Shenzhen, though most listings still are for state enterprises. The Shenzhen exchange created a second board for small companies, imitating the U.S.-based Nasdaq market.

Major state companies such as oil giant PetroChina Ltd. and China Mobile Ltd., the world’s biggest phone company by subscribers, also have issued shares abroad. None has indicated it plans to withdraw from foreign stock exchanges.

The economics also are shifting in China’s favor.

U.S.-traded companies saw share prices plunge following the 2008 global crisis, while economic growth at home, even after a recent decline, is still forecast at about 8 percent this year. Rising Chinese incomes are creating a bigger pool of money for investment.

“Generally speaking, a company’s shares are sold at a higher premium in initial public offerings on Chinese stock markets than on U.S. markets,” said Mao Sheng, a market strategist for Huaxi Securities in the western city of Chengdu.

Also, he said, “If the company’s business is mainly in China, it will be good for its brand promotion.”

Another U.S.-traded company, Fushi Copperweld Inc., announced plans in June by its chairman, Li Fu, and a Hong Kong firm, Abax Global Capital, to take the maker of metallic conductors private.

Muddy Waters cited Fushi Copperweld in April as one of several companies it said dealt with an investment bank that helped enterprises seeking U.S. stock market listings to conceal problems and misrepresent financial information.

Fushi Copperweld denied Muddy Waters’ “vague and nonspecific” claims.

The company said its privatization will be financed with loans from the China Development Bank.

Created to support construction of highways and other public works in China, CDB plays a growing role in its corporate expansion abroad. The bank provides credit to buyers of Chinese telecoms gear and other big-ticket goods and has financed building projects in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

CDB has lent $1 billion “to help Chinese public companies leave the U.S. stock market to return to domestic markets,” the business magazine Caixin said last month.

Employees who answered the phone at Fushi Copperweld said no one was available to comment.

Also in June, China TransInfo Technology Corp., a provider of traffic management technology, announced privatization plans to be financed by CDB’s Hong Kong branch. A company spokeswoman said she could not comment because the plan is not finalized.

In October, Harbin Pacific Electric Co. withdrew from Nasdaq in a share buyback financed by $400 million in loans from the CDB.

 

Federal Reserve Approves First US Bank Acquisition in the United States by a Chinese Bank

Posted in China - US Relations, Chinese International Trade, Chinese Purchase of US Assets with tags , , , , , , , on 05/10/2012 by David Griffith

On May 9, 2012, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the “FRB”) issued an order (the “Order”) approving the acquisition of 80% of the shares of common stock of The Bank of East Asia (U.S.A.) National Association (“BEAUSA”), by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited (“ICBC”). This Order marks the first occasion on which the FRB approved the acquisition of a U.S. bank by a Chinese bank since the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956 (the “BHC Act”) was amended by the Foreign Bank Supervision Enhancement Act of 1991 (“FBSEA”). The FBSEA, which increased federal supervision of foreign banks operating in the United States, requires the FRB to make a finding that a foreign bank seeking to acquire control of a U.S. bank is subject to comprehensive supervision on a consolidated basis (“CCS”) by its home country supervisor. The Order marks the first time that the FRB has made a full and unqualified CCS determination for a Chinese bank to acquire control of a U.S. bank, although it has previously made a so-called “limited” CCS determination in the context of Chinese banks establishing U.S. branches.

On November 8, 2007, the FRB approved an application by China Merchants Bank Co., Ltd. (“CMB”) to establish a branch in New York, New York, the first such approval for a Chinese bank since the FBSEA. The FRB made a “limited” CCS determination pursuant to a provision that allows the FRB to approve a branch application if the appropriate authorities in the home country of the foreign bank are actively working to establish arrangements for the consolidated supervision of the bank submitting the application, and all other factors are consistent with approval. The FRB’s approval of CMB’s branch application opened the door for other Chinese banks to apply for branches in the United States. Thereafter, branch approvals based on similarly limited findings of CCS were granted by the FRB to ICBC in November of 2008 and to China Construction Bank Corporation in March of 2009. The “limited” CCS determination available for a branch application is not available for an application to acquire a U.S. bank under Section 3 of the BHC Act, which requires the FRB to make a full and unqualified CCS determination.

The FRB’s evaluation of whether ICBC is subject to CCS was foreshadowed in the FRB’s August 31, 2010 determination that CIC, an investment vehicle organized by the Chinese government, qualified under the CCS standard in the context of a Section 3 application for CIC’s non-controlling, but greater than 5%, investment in the shares of common stock of Morgan Stanley. The FRB explicitly noted, however, that that finding was based on both the unique nature and structure of CIC and the noncontrolling nature of the investment under consideration in that application. In addition, the FRB noted that, in evaluating a proposal by a Chinese bank to acquire a U.S. bank, the FRB would evaluate whether that Chinese bank is subject to CCS.

In the Order, the FRB detailed its exhaustive analysis on the CCS of ICBC by the China Banking Regulatory Commission and other regulatory authorities including, among others, the People’s Bank of China, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, China Securities Regulatory Commission and China Insurance Regulatory Commission. The Order also noted the International Monetary Fund’s most recent determination that China’s overall regulatory and supervisory framework adheres to international standards. In addition, the FRB noted China’s efforts on combating money laundering and terrorism financing and found that the anti-money laundering efforts by ICBC and the Chinese regulators are consistent with approval.

The Order should create the opportunity for other leading Chinese banks to acquire U.S. banks of a relatively modest size. Although the CCS determination is nominally bank-specific, in practice a CCS determination for one bank in a country is typically precedential for all similarly situated banks in that country. In addition, because the FRB takes the position that a CCS determination is required before a foreign banking organization can obtain financial holding company (“FHC”) status, the Order should pave the way for Chinese banks and their holding companies that are subject to the BHC Act to become FHCs.

 

Port of Long Beach Global Biz Conference May 3

Posted in Uncategorized on 04/18/2012 by David Griffith

Want to learn more about import/export? Try the Port of Long Beach’s GLOBAL BIZ CONFERENCE May 3.

Meet Sr.Officials from Port of Long Beach, Homeland Security, Dept of Commerce and many other agencies along with numerous internatl trade attorneys.  $150 includes 3 separate panels, lunch and private tour of port facilities by boat.  Discounted tix available at www.OCTalkRadio.net.

Innovation in China

Posted in Chinese Economy on 04/07/2012 by David Griffith

Dynamic domestic players and focused multinationals are helping China churn out a growing number of innovative products and services. Intensifying competition lies ahead; here’s a road map for navigating it.

MCKINSEY QUARTERLY  FEBRUARY 2012 • Gordon Orr and Erik Roth

China is innovating. Some of its achievements are visible: a doubling of the global percentage of patents granted to Chinese inventors since 2005, for example, and the growing role of Chinese companies in the wind- and solar-power industries. Other developments—such as advances by local companies in domestically oriented consumer electronics, instant messaging, and online gaming—may well be escaping the notice of executives who aren’t on the ground in China.

As innovation gains steam there, the stakes are rising for domestic and multinational companies alike. Prowess in innovation will not only become an increasingly important differentiator inside China but should also yield ideas and products that become serious competitors on the international stage.

Chinese companies and multinationals bring different strengths and weaknesses to this competition. The Chinese have traditionally had a bias toward innovation through commercialization—they are more comfortable than many Western companies are with putting a new product or service into the market quickly and improving its performance through subsequent generations. It is common for products to launch in a fraction of the time that it would take in more developed markets. While the quality of these early versions may be variable, subsequent ones improve rapidly.1

Chinese companies also benefit from their government’s emphasis on indigenous innovation, underlined in the latest five-year plan. Chinese authorities view innovation as critical both to the domestic economy’s long-term health and to the global competitieness of Chinese companies. China has already created the seeds of 22 Silicon Valley–like innovation hubs within the life sciences and biotech industries. In semiconductors, the government has been consolidating innovation clusters to create centers of manufacturing excellence.

But progress isn’t uniform across industries, and innovation capabilities vary significantly: several basic skills are at best nascent within a typical Chinese enterprise. Pain points include an absence of advanced techniques for understanding—analytically, not just intuitively—what customers really want, corporate cultures that don’t support risk taking, and a scarcity of the sort of internal collaboration that’s essential for developing new ideas.

Multinationals are far stronger in these areas but face other challenges, such as high attrition among talented Chinese nationals that can slow efforts to create local innovation centers. Indeed, the contrasting capabilities of domestic and multinational players, along with the still-unsettled state of intellectual-property protection (see sidebar, “Improving the patent process”), create the potential for topsy-turvy competition, creative partnerships, and rapid change. This article seeks to lay out the current landscape for would-be innovators and to describe some of the priorities for domestic and multinational companies that hope to thrive it.

China’s innovation landscape

Considerable innovation is occurring in China in both the business- to-consumer and business-to-business sectors. Although breakthroughs in either space generally go unrecognized by the broader global public, many multinational B2B competitors are acutely aware of the innovative strides the Chinese are making in sectors such as communications equipment and alternative energy. Interestingly, even as multinationals struggle to cope with Chinese innovation in some areas, they seem to be holding their own in others.

The business-to-consumer visibility gap

When European and US consumers think about what China makes, they reflexively turn to basic items such as textiles and toys, not necessarily the most innovative products and rarely associated with brand names. In fact, though, much product innovation in China stays there. A visit to a shop of the Suning Appliance chain, the large Chinese consumer electronics retailer, is telling. There, you might find an Android-enabled television complete with an integrated Internet-browsing capability and preloaded apps that take users straight to some of the most popular Chinese Web sites and digital movie-streaming services. Even the picture quality and industrial design are comparable to those of high-end televisions from South Korean competitors.

We observe the same home-grown innovation in business models. Look, for example, at the online sector, especially Tencent’s QQ instant-messaging service and the Sina Corporation’s microblog, Weibo. These models, unique to China, are generating revenue and growing in ways that have not been duplicated anywhere in the world. QQ’s low, flat-rate pricing and active marketplace for online games generate tremendous value from hundreds of millions of Chinese users.

What’s keeping innovative products and business models confined to China? In general, its market is so large that domestic companies have little incentive to adapt successful products for sale abroad. In many cases, the skills and capabilities of these companies are oriented toward the domestic market, so even if they want to expand globally, they face high hurdles. Many senior executives, for example, are uncomfortable doing business outside their own geography and language. Furthermore, the success of many Chinese models depends on local resources—for example, lower-cost labor, inexpensive land, and access to capital or intellectual property—that are difficult to replicate elsewhere. Take the case of mobile handsets: most Chinese manufacturers would be subject to significant intellectual property–driven licensing fees if they sold their products outside China.

Successes in business to business

Several Chinese B2B sectors are establishing a track record of innovation domestically and globally. The Chinese communications equipment industry, for instance, is a peer of developed-world companies in quality. Market acceptance has expanded well beyond the historical presence in emerging markets to include Europe’s most demanding customers, such as France Télécom and Vodafone.

Pharmaceuticals are another area where China has made big strides. In the 1980s and 1990s, the country was a bit player in the discovery of new chemical entities. By the next decade, however, China’s sophistication had grown dramatically. More than 20 chemical compounds discovered and developed in China are currently undergoing clinical trials.

China’s solar- and wind-power industries are also taking center stage. The country will become the world’s largest market for renewable-energy technology, and it already has some of the sector’s biggest companies, providing critical components for the industry globally. Chinese companies not only enjoy scale advantages but also, in the case of solar, use new manufacturing techniques to improve the efficiency of solar panels.

Success in B2B innovation has benefited greatly from friendly government policies, such as establishing market access barriers; influencing the nature of cross-border collaborations by setting intellectual-property requirements in electric vehicles, high-speed trains, and other segments; and creating domestic-purchasing policies that favor Chinese-made goods and services. Many view these policies as loading the dice in favor of Chinese companies, but multinationals should be prepared for their continued enforcement.

Despite recent setbacks, an interesting example of how the Chinese government has moved to build an industry comes from high-speed rail. Before 2004, China’s efforts to develop it had limited success. Since then, a mix of two policies—encouraging technology transfer from multinationals (in return for market access) and a coordinated R&D-investment effort—has helped China Railways’ high-speed trains to dominate the local industry. The multinationals’ revenue in this sector has remained largely unchanged since the early 2000s.

But it is too simplistic to claim that government support is the only reason China has had some B2B success. The strength of the country’s scientific and technical talent is growing, and local companies increasingly bring real capabilities to the table. What’s more, a number of government-supported innovation efforts have not been successful. Some notable examples include attempts to develop an indigenous 3G telecommunications protocol called TDS-CDMA and to replace the global Wi-Fi standard with a China-only Internet security protocol, WAPI.

Advantage, multinationals?

Simultaneously, multinationals have been shaping China’s innovation landscape by leveraging global assets. Consider, for example, the joint venture between General Motors and the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, which adapted a US minivan (Buick’s GL8) for use in the Chinese market and more recently introduced a version developed in China, for China. The model has proved hugely popular among executives.

In fact, the market for vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines remains dominated by multinationals, despite significant incentives and encouragement from the Chinese government, which had hoped that some domestic automakers would emerge as leaders by now. The continued strength of multinationals indicates how hard it is to break through in industries with 40 or 50 years of intellectual capital. Transferring the skills needed to design and manufacture complex engineering systems has proved a significant challenge requiring mentorship, the right culture, and time.

We are seeing the emergence of similar challenges in electric vehicles, where early indications suggest that the balance is swinging toward the multinationals because of superior product quality. By relying less on purely indigenous innovation, China is trying to make sure the electric-vehicle story has an ending different from that of its telecommunications protocol efforts. The government’s stated aspiration of having more than five million plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles on the road by 2020 is heavily supported by a mix of extensive subsidies and tax incentives for local companies, combined with strict market access rules for foreign companies and the creation of new revenue pools through government and public fleet-purchase programs. But the subsidies and incentives may not be enough to overcome the technical challenges of learning to build these vehicles, particularly if multinationals decline to invest with local companies.

Four priorities for innovators in China

There’s no magic formula for innovation—and that goes doubly for China, where the challenges and opportunities facing domestic and multinational players are so different. Some of the priorities we describe here, such as instilling a culture of risk taking and learning, are more pressing for Chinese companies. Others, such as retaining local talent, may be harder for multinationals. Collectively, these priorities include some of the critical variables that will influence which companies lead China’s innovation revolution and how far it goes.

Deeply understanding Chinese customers

Alibaba’s Web-based trading platform, Taobao, is a great example of a product that emerged from deep insights into how customers were underserved and their inability to connect with suppliers, as well as a sophisticated understanding of the Chinese banking system. This dominant marketplace enables thousands of Chinese manufacturers to find and transact with potential customers directly. What looks like a straightforward eBay-like trading platform actually embeds numerous significant innovations to support these transactions, such as an ability to facilitate electronic fund transfers and to account for idiosyncrasies in the national banking system. Taobao wouldn’t have happened without Alibaba’s deep, analytically driven understanding of customers.

Few Chinese companies have the systematic ability to develop a deep understanding of customers’ problems. Domestic players have traditionally had a manufacturing-led focus on reapplying existing business models to deliver products for fast-growing markets. These “push” models will find it increasingly hard to unlock pockets of profitable growth. Shifting from delivery to creation requires more local research and development, as well as the nurturing of more market-driven organizations that can combine insights into detailed Chinese customer preferences with a clear sense of how the local business environment is evolving. Requirements include both research techniques relevant to China and people with the experience to draw out actionable customer insights.

Many multinationals have these capabilities, but unless they have been operating in China for some years, they may well lack the domestic-market knowledge or relationships needed to apply them effectively. The solution—building a true domestic Chinese presence rather than an outpost—sounds obvious, but it’s difficult to carry out without commitment from the top. Too many companies fail by using “fly over” management. But some multinationals appear to be investing the necessary resources; for example, we recently met (separately) with top executives of two big industrial companies who were being transferred from the West to run global R&D organizations from Shanghai. The idea is to be closer to Chinese customers and the network of institutions and universities from which multinationals source talent.

Retaining local talent

China’s universities graduate more than 10,000 science PhDs each year, and increasing numbers of Chinese scientists working overseas are returning home. Multinationals in particular are struggling to tap this inflow of researchers and managers. A recent survey by the executive-recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles found that 77 percent of the senior executives from multinational companies responding say they have difficulty attracting managers in China, while 91 percent regard employee turnover as their top talent challenge.

Retention is more of an issue for multinationals than for domestic companies, but as big foreign players raise their game, so must local ones. Chinese companies, for example, excel at creating a community-like environment to build loyalty to the institution. That helps keep some employees in place when competing offers arise, but it may not always be enough.

Talented Chinese employees increasingly recognize the benefits of being associated with a well-known foreign brand and like the mentorship and training that foreign companies can provide. So multinationals that commit themselves to developing meaningful career paths for Chinese employees should have a chance in the growing fight with their Chinese competitors for R&D talent. Initiatives might include in-house training courses or apprenticeship programs, perhaps with local universities. General Motors sponsors projects in which professors and engineering departments at leading universities research issues of interest to the automaker. That helps it to develop closer relations with the institutions from which it recruits and to train students before they graduate.

Some multinationals energize Chinese engineers by shifting their roles from serving as capacity in a support of existing global programs to contributing significantly to new innovation thrusts, often aimed at the local market. This approach, increasingly common in the pharma industry, may hold lessons for other kinds of multinationals that have established R&D or innovation centers in China in recent years. The keys to success include a clear objective— for instance, will activity support global programs or develop China-for-China innovations?—and a clear plan for attracting and retaining the talent needed to staff such centers. Too often, we visit impressive R&D facilities, stocked with the latest equipment, that are almost empty because staffing them has proved difficult.

Instilling a culture of risk taking

Failure is a required element of innovation, but it isn’t the norm in China, where a culture of obedience and adherence to rules prevails in most companies. Breaking or even bending them is not expected and rarely tolerated. To combat these attitudes, companies must find ways to make initiative taking more acceptable and better rewarded.

One approach we found, in a leading solar company, was to transfer risk from individual innovators to teams. Shared accountability and community support made increased risk taking and experimentation safer. The company has used these “innovation work groups” to develop everything from more efficient battery technology to new manufacturing processes. Team-based approaches also have proved effective for some multinationals trying to stimulate initiative taking .

How fast a culture of innovation takes off varies by industry. We see a much more rapid evolution toward the approach of Western companies in the way Chinese high-tech enterprises learn from their customers and how they apply that learning to create new products made for China. That approach is much less common at state-owned enterprises, since they are held back by hierarchical, benchmark-driven cultures.

Promoting collaboration

One area where multinationals currently have an edge is promoting collaboration and the internal collision of ideas, which can yield surprising new insights and business opportunities. In many Chinese companies, traditional organizational and cultural barriers inhibit such exchanges.

Although a lot of these companies have become more professional and adept at delivering products in large volumes, their ability to scale up an organization that can work collaboratively has not kept pace. Their rigorous, linear processes for bringing new products to market ensure rapid commercialization but create too many hand-offs where insights are lost and trade-offs for efficiency are promoted.

One Chinese consumer electronics company has repeatedly tried to improve the way it innovates. Senior management has called for new ideas and sponsored efforts to create new best-in-class processes, while junior engineers have designed high-quality prototypes. Yet the end result continues to be largely undifferentiated, incremental improvements. The biggest reason appears to be a lack of cross-company collaboration and a reliance on processes designed to build and reinforce scale in manufacturing. In effect, the technical and commercial sides of the business don’t cooperate in a way that would allow some potentially winning ideas to reach the market. As Chinese organizations mature, stories like this one may become rarer.

China hasn’t yet experienced a true innovation revolution. It will need time to evolve from a country of incremental innovation based on technology transfers to one where breakthrough innovation is common. The government will play a powerful role in that process, but ultimately it will be the actions of domestic companies and multinationals that dictate the pace of change—and determine who leads it.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.