China Regions

Good News About China’s Food Price Inflation: Chinese Peasants’ Time of Unprecedented Plenty

Bamboo painting from China First Capital blog post

Food prices in China, as everyone inside and outside the country now knows, are rising fast, in some cases by over 30% during 2010. The Chinese government puts some of the blame on speculators who are said to be buying large quantities of fresh food, holding it off the market and then profiting from price increases. There seems to be some evidence of this.

There’s no short-term fix for these price increases. The Chinese government has released for sale some of its food stocks. It is also urging peasants, and local cadres who govern rural China, to make sure more food is grown next year to increase supplies. The peasants probably won’t need any such encouragement.

The increases this year in food prices have done more, in a shorter time, to lift income levels for many of China’s 600 million peasants than any other single measure taken over the last 30 years.

There has never been a  better time, in China’s long agrarian history, to be a peasant. Fundamentally, food price inflation in China represents a colossal transfer of wealth from China’s more affluent urban areas to the rural hinterland where half of China’s population still lives.

If this lasts, it will narrow the gap in living standards and income levels between China’s cities and countryside. This is one of the overarching goals of the Chinese government. And yet, no one is applauding.

Instead, the Chinese central government has reacted with some alarm to the recent price increases. It knows that higher food prices are putting the squeeze on city-dwellers, including, of course, those in the capital Beijing and other major cities. In China, communist power originally took hold in the countryside, and a lot of party doctrine still speaks about its roots among the peasantry. But, political power today is firmly rooted in urban areas.  China’s political, economic and cultural elite all live in major cities, as do most of their friends and family. So, price rises effect this group directly.

When apples, the staple autumn fruit in most of China,  almost double in price, as they have this year, political leaders will soon hear about it. The fact that China’s apple farmers now have a lot more money in their pockets is not necessarily part of the political calculus.

Yet, it is undeniable that the fastest and most effective way to raise peasant living standards and real incomes is higher farm prices that don’t fuel overall inflation. There are signs that’s now the case, that the only area of significant double-digit inflation is in food prices. If so, this is unquestionably the best time in Chinese history to be tilling the land.

How long will this last? Of course, commonly, a spike in food prices leads to overall price levels rising as well. This can erode, or even wipe out,  the rise in income for farmers from higher food prices. Also, today’s high prices will certainly lead to more land being cultivated next year, as farmers chase the fat profits from today’s prices.

I was just in Jiangsu Province, in central China, and it seemed like most of the farmland is under plastic cover this winter, allowing peasants to keep growing and selling vegetables. Supply goes up, price comes down. Eventually.

How high are food prices at present? Looking around my local covered market, prices in the stalls for many fruits and vegetables are now as higher or higher than prices commonly seen in the US. Looking just at autumn fruit, apples are about $1 a pound; navel oranges around 60 cents; clementines about $1 a pound; bananas are 50 cents a pound. Meat prices have risen sharply.

Pork remains comparatively cheap at about $2 a pound, but chicken is quite a bit higher here. Garlic and ginger, the two fundamental staples of all Chinese cooking, are both at all-time highs of around $1 a pound.

So far, in my experience, higher food prices haven’t yet fed through to higher prices at restaurants, noodle shops or even the outdoor steamer wagon where I buy corn-on-the-cob and potatoes as snacks. This means restaurant margins must be hurting. One notable exception, McDonalds in China. They recently announced price increases to counter effect of rising raw material costs.  With about 900 restaurants in China, all in larger cities, McDonalds feeds a lot of people.

Wages are also rising very steeply in urban China, as is household wealth for anyone who owns property. This seems to be allowing most urban Chinese to absorb higher food costs without much of a fuss.

In other words, just about everyone across this country of 1.4 billion is doing much better, year by year. For now, the 600 million peasants are doing best of all. Viewed across the breadth of China’s long history, no less than across the last 30 years of unparalleled economic progress, this is a singularly welcome development.

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Qinghai Province – The Biggest Small Place in China

Taersi

In most things to do with China, the “law of big numbers” applies. A population of 1.4 billion mandates that. So, whether it’s the fact there are over 50 cities larger than Rome, provinces with populations larger than any European country, or that more of just about everything is sold every year in China than anywhere else, the reality of China’s huge population is always a hulking presence.

Except for Qinghai Province. Here, the numbers are so small Qinghai can seem like one of the Baltic States. The province is a little larger than France, yet has a population of only 5.2 million, or 0.3% of China’s total. The capital city, Xining, where I’m now writing this, has about one million residents. Tibet to the south and Xinjiang to the north are both autonomous regions, rather than provinces. Both are far more well-known and talked-about, both inside China and out, and benefit from much more investment from the central government.

Qinghai is unlike anywhere I’ve been in China. It is so empty as to be almost desolate. Xining is in the midst of a very rapid transformation from a dusty low-rise backwater to a more obviously modern Chinese city, with high rises, two new expressways, broad boulevards and shiny new shops selling brands familiar in other parts of the country. It sits alongside a tributary of the Yellow River, wedged like a sliver between low barren brown mountains.

Xining is also the most conspicuously multi-cultural city I’ve been to in China, with a Han majority sharing the city with a large contingent of Tibetans, and a very significant population of Hui Moslems. The Dongguan mosque, on the city’s main street, is one of the largest in China. As many as 30,000 people can worship there. Every twenty paces or so you’ll pass a small brazier with a Hui cook barbecuing lamb kebabs.  Most also sell yak milk yogurt. It’s delicious, in case you’re wondering.

The Tibetans are more concentrated outside Xining. Qinghai makes up most of the Tibetan region of Amdo, and much of the province’s landmass is inhabited by Tibetan herdsmen. The current Dalai Lama was born not far from Xining, and had some of his first schooling at Kumbum Monastery, a 450 year-old establishment that has long been among the most important sites of religious worship and study for Tibetan Buddhists.

Kumbum is a half-hour drive from Xining.  I’ve wanted to go there for about 30 years, and finally got the chance on this trip. I always felt a pull towards Kumbum because it was established to venerate Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve lived for the last 15 years with a beautiful thangka of Tsongkhapa, and hang it near where I sleep. Here it is:


Tsongkhapa

If I had a patron saint, it would be him. Tsongkhapa was born where the Monastery now sits, in a small mountain village. The Monastery spreads lengthwise about one mile up a hillside. At its height, it was home to 3,600 monks. Now there are said to be about 500. A lot of the more ancient buildings were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and have since been rebuilt. There are also some newer structures in traditional Tibetan monastic style, including one built with a donation from Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing.

Tibetan pilgrims circumambulate the important buildings, do their prostrations, and leave offerings of money and butter. They share Kumbum with Chinese tour groups, who are for the most part respectful, attentive.

After visiting the Monastery in a steady drizzle, I went to see a doctor at the nearby hospital. I was feeling just fine, but for a little sleepiness from the high altitude.  I’ve had a long, intense interest in Tibetan medicine, and the hospital here is staffed by lamas educated at Kumbum and graduated with the equivalent of a PhD in Tibetan medicine.

I saw a physician named Lopsang Chunpai, dressed in maroon and yellow monastic robes. He took my pulse, pronounced me healthy, and prescribed a Tibetan herbal medicine called Ratna Sampil, a combination of 70 herbs that is compounded at the hospital. According to the package, it’s used “clearing and activating the channels and collaterals”.

Though I saw only a very small part of it, Qinghai struck me as an especially lovely place:  a wide, open and arid plateau not unlike parts of the American West. Even accepting the cold winter (with temperatures of 20 to 30 degrees below zero centigrade), it’s hard to understand the high vacancy rate here. It’s population density, at 7 people per square kilometer, is 0.3% of Shanghai’s.

It’s empty, of course, because comparatively few Chinese have emigrated here. That seems likely to change. The air is clean, the economy is booming and the infrastructure improvements of recent years are integrating the province much more closely with the highly-populated parts of China to the east.

Neighboring Tibet and Xinjiang have experienced large Han Chinese migration over the last 60 years. Not so Qinghai. Geography is destiny.  Qinghai, unlike Xinjiang and Tibet, does not border any other country. It has far less military and strategic importance. Xinjiang borders Russia and Tibet borders India. China has fought border wars with both.

Xinjiang and Tibet have also both recently had some serious ethnic conflicts, including anti-Chinese riots in both places in the last two years.  Although its population is about 20% Moslem and 20% Tibetan, Qinghai has stayed peaceful. It is China’s melting pot.

Qinghai is rich in mineral resources, including large seams of high-grade coal. As the transport system improves, more Chinese will migrate there to work in mines. Xining, as small as it is, is the only proper city in all of Qinghai.

The ostensible reason for my visit was to speak at a conference on private equity. The provincial government has a target to increase the number of Qinghai companies going public. The mayor of Xining, who I met briefly, was until recently a successful businessman, running one of the province’s largest state-run companies.

I met a few local entrepreneurs and visited one factory making wine from buckthorn berries, using technology developed by Tsinghua University. It’s a healthier, lower-proof alternative to China’s lethal “baijiu”, the highly alcoholic spirit, mainly distilled from sorghum,  that is widely consumed across China.

Up to now, as far as I can tell,  there’s been no private equity investment in Qinghai. I’d like to change that. It’s a special part of China. Though it’s statistically one of the poorest provinces, Qinghai will continue every year to close the gap. More capital, more opportunity, more prosperity — and more inhabitants. This is Qinghai’s certain future.


Local Governments Are Key to Growth Across China

fahua censer from China First Capital blog post

Two factors are paramount in explaining the phenomenal economic success of China over the last thirty years: smart government policies and the abundant ingenuity, hard work, talent and entrepreneurial drive of the Chinese people.

A day doesn’t go by without me seeing at first hand that entrepreneurial genius at work in China. The inner workings of government, however, are generally invisible to me as an outsider.

During a recent trip to Shandong, however, I had the privilege of seeing part of China’s government up close, doing what it often does best – constructing and carrying out policies that allow businesses to thrive in China.

In all countries, governments makes the rules and sets the conditions under which business succeed and fail. China is no different. One obvious difference: China’s government clearly must be doing a lot right for the country to deliver the greatest sustained period of economic growth ever recorded.  How was this achieved? The simple answer is that China’s government began 30 years ago to scrap a rigid socialist system for a free market economy.

“Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is the official phrase. It’s no set doctrine, but mainly a pragmatic pursuit of policies to foster global competitiveness, employment and rising living standards in China. China government invites its citizens to evaluate it on this basis, using statistics, to judge how well it manages the economy.

Most would agree, including me,  the government is doing an outstanding job. How it does so,  however, is very much of a mystery.

Over the course of four days, I met with the mayors and Communist Party Secretaries of three of Shandong’s larger and more prosperous cities: Weifang, Laiwu and Linyi. These were working meetings, not diplomatic meet-and-greets. I was the only non-Chinese in these meetings. I was traveling at the invitation of the chairman of one of our clients. This client already has extensive and highly-successful operations in Shandong, with revenues there in the last two years of over Rmb 1 billion.

“We are here to serve you”. This is the statement I heard repeated in each city by the Party Secretary and the Mayor.  This is neither an idle boast nor an empty promise. In every instance where I’ve been in meetings with senior figures in the Chinese government, I’ve been deeply impressed by their competence, directness and sense of purpose in offering to do whatever it takes to help improve the conditions for investment and so raise local living standards.

The meetings with Shandong political leadership had an overlapping two-way purpose: to facilitate my client’s expansion plans in Shandong, and to allow the Party Secretary and Mayor of each city to lay out in plain language the economic development agenda for the next few years. They did this confidently, effectively, forcefully.

I’ve never before heard political leaders speak with such a single-minded focus, as well as evident sincerity,  on their priorities to improve the life, work and leisure of their citizens. There was no self-aggrandizement, no insincere black-slapping, no empty platitudes, indeed nothing that could be construed as expressions of naked self-interest, or the exclusive interest of the party they represent.

There is a good reason for this: political careers in China are made and lost in part on how well the local economy performs, as measured by objective statistics. The metrics include not just local gdp growth, but also the growth in living and recreation space per person, the completion of large local infrastructure projects on time and on budget, urban beautification programs like planting trees and cleaning up local waterways.

Political success in China must be tangible, measureable. And the improvements must come quickly enough – generally within 2-3 years – to boost an official’s chance to continue to climb the rungs.

Arguably, most political careers, including in the US, are determined by how well political leaders deliver for their citizens.  The clear difference in China, from what I can see,  is that it’s a much more data-driven process, more like how management are rewarded or penalized inside a big company. As Peter Drucker, perhaps the wisest thinker about management famously said, “You can only manage what you can measure.”

China is often run by the Communist Party  like one large centralized corporation. The command-and-control methods of management appear similar. While a vastly oversimplifies things, the meetings I attended with political leaders in Shandong were very familiar in many respects to business meetings I’ve attended. The local leaders articulated the goal, which in each case is to keep local gdp growing at well above China’s national average. All three cities are now doing so.

The infrastructure would need to be continuously upgraded to achieve this. As each city gets richer, of course, it gets correspondingly harder to generate such large annual leaps in output. So, projects grow in scale to the truly monumental. In Weifang, for example, the Party Secretary outlines plans to build a new greenfield port and industrial center outside the city that would one day house over one million people in spacious new apartment buildings.

In each city, the planning goals were uniformly ambitious. The political leaders left no doubt that private business should and must play a big part in the process.  They pledged not just help removing any administrative obstacles, but also to make land available at concessionary prices for private sector projects that would create large number of jobs.

The three cities I visited – Weifang, Laiwu and Linyi – are all thriving, not just economically, but also in these more human terms. The cities are for the most part clean, pretty, with newly-built urban infrastructure of roads, housing, parks.

Many outside China have likely never heard of these places. But, Linyi and Weifang, with populations of 11 million and 8 million respectively,  are both larger than any city in the US and Europe.

Laiwu, is smaller, with a population of just over 1 million. However, it does like to do things in a big way. At lunch with the Party Secretary and Mayor, I sat at the largest round dining table I’ve ever seen. Sixteen of us ate at a table that was over four meters in diameter – so large that each person was served lunch individually, one small helping at a time, by a large team of waiters. 

Corruption and political chicanery exist in China, of course, as they do in US, Europe, Japan and everywhere else political officials with control over valuable resources interact with businessmen. But, in my experience during my three days meeting officials in Shandong, the local government is far more intent on lending a helping hand, rather than looking for back-handers.

China’s one-party political system is not to the taste of many Americans or Europeans.  But, if judged by standards of effectiveness, rather than electoral accountability, local governments in China routinely outperform their counterparts in the US.  For all the pretentions to public service, accountability and incorruptibility, US politics, especially at the local level, is infested by influence-peddling and political bribery in form of campaign contributions.

As I saw living for many years in Los Angeles, the second biggest city in the US, local officials act mainly in ways that favor a select few, and deliver only scant benefits to the society as a whole. LA is now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with degraded infrastructure, failing schools, punishingly high taxes. LA, like China, is also run as a one-party system, with a Democratic machine that pushed through election rules that make it all but impossible for the opposition Republic Party to gain control, no matter how badly the Democratic Party politicians mess up.

Given a choice, I’d take Shandong’s local bosses anytime. They are held to a higher, more transparent standard. Over the course of a four-to-five year term in office, they will often preside over real material improvements in citizens’ lives that few American politicians will deliver over the course of a career.


China’s Booming Hami Economy

dude with Hami

Xinjiang is a big place, with a land mass the size of Western Europe. It occupies 1/6th of China’s territory, yet contributes only 1.5% of its population. I think I now know why it’s so empty. All that space must be devoted to growing Hami Melons.

This fruit is Xinjiang’s most popular export to the rest of China. It’s high season now. Even here in Shenzhen, as far as one can travel from the melon-growing precints near the Gobi Desert in Xinjiang, the large Hami melons are pervasive – in fruit stores, supermarkets, pushcarts. You can also find them piled high on many streets all over the city, with each Hami hoard minded by a guy from Xinjiang with a long sharp knife and a small scale.

guy

The melons are generally oval-shaped and weigh about 10 pounds each. I’ve bought segments of ones weighing twice that. The most popular way to eat the melon is as a snack on the street. A tall thin slice on a wooden skewer sells for Rmb 1.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, a Hami tastes a lot like cantaloupe, but the flesh is much crunchier, almost like an apple’s.

This time of year, across China, Hami crowds every other fruit out of the marketplace. I can’t find any statistics on Xinjiang’s total production, but my guess would be it runs to the millions of tons. Imagine the logistics: a market of 1.4 billion all simultaneously ravenous for your perishable product, grown on the fringe of a desert in one of the most distant, infrastructure-starved corners of the country.

Just to supply the Chinese market must occupy the full-time summertime efforts of tens of thousands of farmers, packers, and shippers. The melons are grown, boxed and then shipped by road and rail to every corner of China. It seems like for every 100 melons exported from Xinjiang, one local Uighur must accompany the shipment, to run the impromptu sidewalk stalls selling the fruit.

If other parts of China also grow the melon, I’m not aware of it. To find buyers, they would probably have to falsely label their melons as coming from Xinjiang. In China, Hami belongs to Xinjiang the way champagne belongs to the Champagne region of northern France.

Shenzhen probably has a larger market for Hami, on average, than many other parts of China. It’s a rich city, and Hami melon is not cheap. Bought by the kilo, the price runs to around Rmb8 to Rmb 12, or about 70-90 cents a pound. I’m buying around 10 kilos a week.

You can also find Hami this time of year in Los Angeles, usually at Persian grocery stores. Parts of Southern California’s desert are similar to Xinjiang’s Hami growing region. But, the fruit is very much a minority taste in the US. It’s likely to remain that way. As big as it is, Xinjiang will never be able produce enough Hami to satisfy fully Chinese tastes, let alone an export market.



Train Travel in China Retains Its Special Magic

for train

Finally, I’ve found an aspect of modern-day China that has changed little, if at all, from my first time in China almost 30 years ago as a graduate student. Long-distance train travel.

As I write this, I’m occupying a hard-to-come by seat in the dining car of a Beijing-Shenzhen train that left the capital about 30 hours ago. I boarded the train in Ganzhou, a lovely small city in southern Jiangxi, a six hour train trip to Shenzhen.

It was not my plan to take the train. I got to Ganzhou on the plane, and expected to return to Shenzhen the same way. But, the tickets on today’s one daily flight were all sold out, so I rushed with little time to spare to the Ganzhou train station.  A helpful policeman let me slip through a locked door. I joined a mobile throng of other passengers boarding in Ganzhou, during the train’s ten minute stopover.

It was a stroke of good luck. This is the first time I’ve been on a long-distance train in China in a decade. The few times I get to take the train these days it’s always on the new high-speed rail lines that connect more and more of the big cities in China. For example, the new high-speed trains connecting Guangzhou and Shenzhen, as well as Shanghai and Hangzhou,  have airline type seats, no proper dining car, and large antiseptic toilets. These trains travel at around 200mph on specially-designed and newly-laid tracks.

The traditional long-distance trains, by contrast, rumble along at about one-quarter that speed, on rail lines that often were first carved through China by the British, in the 19th century. The toilets are cramped and consist of a perch above a four-inch diameter hole in the floor.

Then and now, most of the cars of the train are what are called “yingwo”, (硬卧)meaning “hard berth”. Each “yingwo” car has 45 narrow bunks, stacked three-high. At the end of each car is a furnace with boiling water for tea.

It was mid-afternoon.  Passengers in the “yingwo” cars were mainly lounging around, or snoozing in their bunks. The sound inside was as I remembered it: of quiet conversation punctuated by the occasional “snap” of a watermelon seed being cracked open.

There was one first class “ruanwo” (软卧) or “soft sleeper” car, as there was when I was took a train from Guangzhou to Beijing in 1981. It was fully occupied by passengers who had boarded the day  before in Beijing. I walked by slowly, remembering that first trip – the snuggly warmth of the cotton duvet, and the anti-macassars on the back of the seats.

The soft sleeper car has lost none of its special allure for me. In the years since that first train trip in China, I’ve traveled on Mediterranean yachts, private jets and first-class trains across Europe. But, they just don’t compare to the “soft sleeper” car in China, There is no other transport quite as cozy and rejuvenating.

The dining car has twelve tables a meter long, each of which sits 4 people, shoulder-to-shoulder. Food prices, at around Rmb35 per serving,  are certainly a lot higher than when I first started riding the rail in China in 1981. Back then, you could eat a whole meal and get change back from a one yuan note.

The food isn’t quite as good as I remember it. It was all pre-cooked and served lukewarm. But, it still remains one of the world’s singular travel experiences, dining on proper cuisine at a proper table, as a train trundles gently through China.

Ticket prices remain a bargain. The fare for the six-hour trip from Ganzhou to Shenzhen: Rmb75 ($11). That is about one-tenth the price of the one-way air ticket. The plane is obviously much faster. But, the total time, door-to-door, is not all that different, once you factor in the trip to and from the airport, the 90 minutes spent checking in and waiting for flight departure, and the hour flying time.

Today’s train is right on schedule.  That too, hasn’t changed much. For generations, trains were the primary form of long-distance travel in China, and the trains tracks were the principal meridians along which the country’s population flowed.

These days, long-distance trains are losing out to planes and private cars. But, for me, the chance today to ride the train is a precious and vivid reminder of my own first days in China, and the awesome changes China has undergone during that time.

The most noticeable change on the train, compared to 30 years ago, are staff uniforms. Conductors wear snappy form-fitting dark blue uniforms. In 1981,  train staff and passengers of both sexes mainly wore green and blue Mao jackets.

Back then, railroad workers had a reputation for being rather curt and uninterested in passengers’ comfort. On that front too, not all that much has changed, judging from this one trip. Passengers, for the most part, are treated with a mix of lethargy, disdain and mild despotism.  Trains are perhaps the last place in China where the proletariat still does any dictating.


http://wikitravel.org/en/Ganzhou

The Sweet Smell of Success — One Chinese County’s Dominant Role in Global Garlic Industry

Ming dynasty bowl from China First Capital blog post

Anyone who has enjoyed Chinese food in China will discover, by aroma as well as by taste, that garlic is the most widely-used flavoring agent of all, after salt. It’s detectable – in fact visible – in just about every stir-fried or stewed dish, in such large quantities to leave most outsiders breathless. Which, of course, is just as well. 

A simple stir-fried dish will often have 3-4 whole cloves of chopped or sliced garlic. Many dishes have far more. One of my favorites, Lazi Jiding, is a Sichuan dish of small chunks of chicken, chili peppers, and often several heads’ worth of garlic cloves all deep-fried together.

Garlic turns up everywhere, at all times of the day. This morning at the breakfast buffet of the hotel where I was staying in Fujian, there was a dish of simple stir-fried cabbage that had at least 25 cloves of garlic in it. I stopped counting long enough to spoon some onto my plate, and move onto the next garlic-laced Chinese breakfast treat.  

I lived a lot in Italy,  the other country famed for its use of garlic. There, adding more than one clove to a dish is usually considered excessive, even uncouth. You will likely eat more garlic in a day in China than a month spent eating in Italy. 

In the US, garlic has become a far more common part of the diet than when I was a child.  I began noticing several years ago that all the garlic I bought in LA was imported from China. That always struck me as odd, since very little fresh food is imported from China, and California has a town, Gilroy, that’s famed as one of the world’s largest producers of garlic. 

The Made-in-China garlic I’ve bought is always fresh, crisp and cheap – usually no more than a dollar a pound. I never figured out how anyone could make any money shipping it from so far and selling it for so cheap. 

I assumed that the US’s ever-increasing appetite for garlic was emptying China of its favorite flavoring. Since moving to China, however, I’ve seen that wasn’t the case, that there was more than enough to satisfy China’s far larger appetite. So, then my question became: where is all this garlic being produced? From all the garlic in circulation, you’d think half of China’s arable land must be used to cultivate it. Yet, I’ve never seen any in the ground. I’ve asked friends, farmers, chefs, but never got a clear answer to where all this garlic was coming from. 

Now I know at least one place. Jinxiang County in Shandong Province is the largest garlic-producing area in China. This little-known area in Shandong’s southwest corner is not far from Qufu, Confucius’s birthplace. Jinxiang  is also now one of the centers of worldwide commodity speculation. The price of Jinxiang-grown garlic has spiked recently, rising more than fifty-fold from its low a year ago. As the China Daily reports, “Garlic trading has created a handful of new millionaires overnight in Jinxiang county.” 

I couldn’t find a figure for Jinxiang’s total garlic output. But, last year Jinxiang produced 70% of China’s garlic for export, over one million tons last year. That means that Jinxiang produced half all the garlic eaten outside China. At current pace and current export price of around $1,000 a ton, Shandong will export over $1 billion of garlic in next 12 months. 

China has no strong natural advantage in garlic-production. It’s not particularly labor-intensive, nor does it grow best in climate like China’s. Garlic, after all, is a member of the onion family, and so grows pretty well all over the world. Jinxiang must be the world’s leading garlic producer for other reasons that highlight a part of China’s economic strength that is often not emphasized: regions with intensive focus on particular industries (in this case, growing garlic for home and export market)  and a developed infrastructure to move goods quickly and efficiently to market. 

China has one other advantage that helps explain its dominance in global garlic-production. The whole plant can be sold for good money, not just the bulb. Chinese also eat prodigious quantities of the green garlic shoots that grow above ground. This vegetable, called jiu cai (韭菜)in Chinese, is served on its own, as a stir-fried dish, or added to many other staples, including dumplings. Like a skilful butcher carving a hog,  garlic farmers in Jinxiang know how to extract every morsel of profit, and leave nothing to waste. 

I’m determined now to go to Jinxiang. Partly, it’s because I love garlic. But, I also want to see (and smell) this region for myself, how farms are organized, what else is grown or manufactured there. I want to find out more how one place became so big and so successful selling one agricultural product that (unlike, say, tobacco or ginseng) grows just about anywhere. 

My company is lucky enough to have two clients in Shandong. I’ve already worked out how far these companies are from Jinxiang, and will go there at first opportunity.  I’m pretty certain over the last 20 years, to satiate my love of garlic, more of my money has ended up in Jinxiang than just about anywhere else in China.  


Shanghai’s New Hongqiao Terminal: What’s Lost is As Important as What’s Gained

Tang horses from China First Capital blog post

Whenever possible on visits to Shanghai, I’ve always chosen to fly into Hongqiao Airport, rather than the larger, newer Pudong Airport. Shanghai is the only major city in China with two major commercial airports, and Hongqiao and Pudong couldn’t be more unalike. Or at least that was the case until a few weeks ago, when the new Hongqiao terminal and runway opened. I just flew in and out of this new building, and while it’s an impressively gleaming facility, I find myself mourning the loss of the old Hongqiao. 

Hongqiao was always a dowdy remnant of a bygone era in China, built over 20 years ago when the western part of Shanghai was still largely farmland. The first time I went to Hongqiao was 1982, to see my friend Fritz off. He was flying on PanAm Airlines to the US, back when there were very few international flights into and out of China. As I remember it, the PanAm 747 came gliding in like a metallic chimera, over the heads of peasants transplanting rice. 

Gradually, the city enveloped the airport and Hongqiao is now one of the few downtown airports in China, a short cab ride to the main business areas in Shanghai about 8 miles away. Its 1980s vintage terminal was also one of my favorite sites in China – a reflection, perhaps, of the fact I rarely get to travel to anywhere very scenic in China, but hop around from booming metropolis to booming metropolis.

The old terminal has a brute, utilitarian ugliness about it, fishhook-shaped, small, cramped and comfortingly ramshackle. It’s so past-its-prime, in fact, it would not be out of place at all in the US, with its outdated urban airports like LAX, Kennedy, LaGuardia, Midway. 

The comparison with Pudong, opened ten years ago 25 miles outside the center of Shanghai, was stark. At Pudong, you whizz along long corridors on motorized walkways, and travel downtown on the world’s only commercial Mag-Lev train. If Pudong is glass and steel, Hongqiao was cement and plastic. 

But, again, all this now belongs to the past tense. The new Hongqiao Terminal is, if anything, more loudly and verbosely modern than Pudong when it opened. I had no idea it was even being built, it’s so far away from the old facility, on what was the back fringe of old Hongqiao. It’s a 20-minute shuttle ride between the two. All domestic flights now operate from the new terminal, and my hunch is that the old terminal will not be standing for very much longer. Civic leaders clearly came to see it as an eyesore, an embarrassingly “Third World” entry-point for a city busily striving to become the world’s next great commercial and financial capital. 

There was a rush to open the new Hongqiao, since next month, the Shanghai Expo opens. The roads leading to the new terminal are still under construction, as is the subway line. Vast expanses of ground in the front and to the sides of the new building are now just barren plots, waiting for parking lots, airport hotels and rental car facilities to populate them. Our cab driver had not been yet to the new terminal and couldn’t find the departures area. 

On entering, the first impression is of a very un-Shanghai-like emptiness. The new terminal must be at least ten times larger and three times taller than the old one. The line of check-in counters stretches for half-a-mile. You get a sense of what Jonah must have felt like entering the whale. Everywhere else in Shanghai is so jam-packed that you are part of a perpetual mob scene, breathing in someone else’s exhaust. Not here. It hints at a Shanghai of the future, a city not defined mainly by its enormous and densely-packed population, but by its modernity, efficiency and polish. 

That’s just it. What’s most special, and worth preserving, about old Hongqiao is that it belongs to the Shanghai that “was”, rather than the China that “will be”.  Even the name itself is a delightful throwback. Hongqiao means “Red Flag”, a name straight out of the Maoist lexicon. 

The old axiom is very apt: “you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you come from”. When Hongqiao’s old terminal goes, so too will the last conspicuous reminder of the Shanghai of thirty years ago, a city,  ever so tentatively, starting down the road of economic reform. 

A tangible part of my own history in China will also disappear. Flying into Shanghai will never be the same.  


Zhejiang Province: Why It’s China’s Richest and Will Be Richer Very Soon

QIng Dynasty vase, from China First Capital blog post

Geography is destiny. Nowhere is this more true, of course, than in China. The country is the world’s fourth-largest, in terms of territory. But, much of the country is inhospitable: with deserts, mountains,  loess and other areas less fit for human habitation. In a population of 1.4 billion, over 550 million are peasants and farmers. Yet, only 14.86% of the land in China is well-suited for cultivation. Too many hands with too little land to hoe. That basically sums up China’s vast agricultural economy.    

The most fertile agricultural areas are also the ones that have had the highest rate of industrial and overall economic development in the last 30 years. The three richest provinces in China also have the highest concentrations of fertile land: Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Together, these three coastal provinces have a population of about 230 million, or 17.5% of China’s total. But, their combined share of China’s gdp is almost twice that. 

When economic reform got underway, these provinces were already relatively well-off, because of the high quality and productivity of its farm output. They were not as heavily industrialized as more northern parts of China, which got the major share of government investment and attention during the first 30 years after the 1949 revolution. 

This lack of industrial infrastructure turned out to be a decisive advantage for the three provinces, especially Guangdong and Zhejiang.  As reform took hold, they weren’t weighed down by the bloat of forced industrialization. The rich farmland and relatively high living standards helped create a greater sense of economic security and this, in turn, bred more of an entrepreneurial mindset.

As the Chinese government relaxed controls on private business, Guangdong and Zhejiang were the first to seize the opportunities. Capital from private sources was more readily available because of the profitability of farming in the region. Entrepreneurship flourished. To this day, one can travel around Zhejiang and Guangdong and rarely, if ever, come across a state-owned business. Their economies are almost entirely in the hands of private business, with larger, private SME in the lead. 

Travel north or west and the situation is markedly different. Here, subsistence farming was often the norm. There were no large agricultural surpluses to finance the growth of private business. State-owned companies, often of the “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” variety,  have predominated. The private sector still fights for its share of resources in these other regions of China. Those with entrepreneurial flair often emigrate. Shenzhen is particularly full of such transplants, drawn from every corner of China. I’ve met many successful entrepreneurs here from inland provinces, especially Jiangxi, Hunan, Sichuan and Hubei.  

I’m in Zhejiang as I write this, and am stuck struck by the beauty of its scenery as well as the industriousness and wealth of its people. It reminds me most of Northern Italy, where I’ve spent a lot of time, earlier in my life. Northern Italy is one of the world’s most prosperous places, as well as among its most visually stunning.

In both places, mountains are close by nearly everywhere, and over recent decades, much of the rich farmland has been plowed under to build factories. Northern Italy includes most of that country’s (and the world’s) most successful private-sector companies and brands, including Benetton, Luxottica, Armani. The food is also particularly excellent, another trait it shares in common with Zhejiang. 

Northern Italy, statistically, is the richest area, per capita, in Europe – richer even than next-door Switzerland. Zhejiang, similarly, is the richest place in China, per capita. While Zhejiang can’t yet claim its home to any internationally-renowned brands, it does have China’s strongest nucleus of SME businesses. Many of these, in coming decades, will likely grow into large businesses that dominate their markets. One Chinese auto brand, Geely, which is about to complete its purchase of Volvo from Ford, is based in Zhejiang.                                               

Zhejiang is unique among provinces in China. It has three cities that vie for commercial and entrepreneurial supremacy. Wenzhou, Ningpo and Hangzhou act like separate pumps, channeling energy and wealth into the province’s circulatory system. I spent time recently in Fuyang, the area about 30 miles to the south of Hangzhou. We’re now lucky to have an outstanding client SME in that city. Fuyang is mainly mountainous. Thin strips of flat richly-fertile land hold much of the population, transport infrastructure and industry. 

It’s hard to imagine there could be a more productive slice of our planet than this flat land in Fuyang, including in Northern Italy. In a hectic 36 hours, I visited six different companies in Fuyang, each from a different industry, and each already of a scale that puts it in the top flight of all China’s SME. They are a very small sample of the great entrepreneurial output of this area of Zhejiang.  I was very impressed with each company, and with each “laoban” (老板), Chinese for “boss”. 

These companies, and Zhejiang itself, embody the two most powerful forces that are now reshaping the Chinese economy: the twin reliance on private sector SME, and on producing for China’s domestic market rather than manufacturing OEM products for export.   

Zhejiang started out with a lot of natural advantages that other regions in China could only envy: the fertile land, an abundance of fresh water, inland waterways (including the Grand Canal) and plentiful rainfall, proximity to the coast and the major ports in Ningpo and nearby Shanghai. But, it’s richest blessing is a population of talented, instinctive entrepreneurs. They’ve taken what nature provided and augmented it, building a thriving, vibrant industrial economy in an area that 20 years ago was still mainly farmland and rice paddies. 

Other people’s idea of a perfect holiday is a week on some beach, or a visit to a tourist city like Rome or Paris. Mine is to spend time in a place with great food and great entrepreneurs, visiting their factories, hearing their strategies to conquer new markets and seize new opportunities to make money. 

Zhejiang really is my kind of place.

  

Life in the Fast Lane – Driving China’s Expressway Network

Bamboo painting

 

“Do Not Drive Tiredly”  That’s the message, in English, on large highway signs spanning the roadway in Jiangxi. I was charmed by the idiosyncratic English, and even more by the fact that almost all highway signs in China, including mundane ones announcing upcoming exits or defining the hard shoulder, are all bilingual, Chinese and English.

Based on my recent highway travels through part of Jiangxi Province, I was probably the only one who could get much value from the English. That’s because almost all the other traffic on the highway consisted of very large and heavily-loaded long-distance Chinese trucks. Passenger cars are few and far between. 

Highways are a recent phenomenon in China, of course. I’ve never seen anything quite like them, in my +30 years of driving around the US and lot of the rest of the developed world. The Chinese highways are mainly well-built and usually in pristine condition. Besides the English-language signs, another source of frequent delight are the life-size plastic policemen, pointing plastic radar guns at oncoming traffic. They’re planted in the highway’s central meridian as not-so-subtle reminders to avoid speeding– or as the sign calls it, again in English, “Overspeeding”.

It’s those large trucks, though, that really define for me the current experience of highway driving in China. Despite their huge size – the trailers often have 20-wheels, and seem to stretch the length of seven or eight passenger cars – the trucks are often buckling under the weight of their loads. Most of the time, the cargo hold is open at the top, and covered with a very large tarpaulin, in various colors, intricately tried to the bottom of the flatbed. The trucks have a tendency to wobble and weave as they move along the road – the result of either unbalanced loads or, more likely, less-skilled drivers.

Long-distance trucking may be among the fastest-growing new professions in China. It’s a safe bet few of today’s drivers have been behind the wheel for more than two or three years. Many have their own particular style of driving. Heavy, slow-moving trucks often canter along, 30mph below the speed limit,  in the left-hand passing lane. Their side-view mirrors – the only way the drivers can see traffic behind or alongside them – are often tilted at angles that seem to defeat the purpose.  

Few of the trucks have any kind of marking on them. The concept of a truck as a moving billboard is still an alien one in China. Not so the ordinary highway billboard, which is very common, as are advertisements posted on overpasses. 

China produces so much, including a huge percentage of the world’s manufactured goods, that it’s hard to imagine how all this stuff moved around before the expressway network was built. The traffic on many expressways, including the ones I was on in Jiangxi, must be over 90% trucks. That’s only going to increase, as more production in China is moved to cheaper, inland areas.

The expressways are already quite crowded. Often, they are only two lanes wide in each direction – which may have seemed more-than-adequate 10 years ago when first designed, but now seem to belong in the Pleistocene Age. Within ten years, these roads will almost certainly all need to be widened. That can cost almost as much, per kilometer, as building new expressways. 

China’s toll fees are among the highest ones I’ve seen. In Jiangxi, it’s 0.4 Renminbi ( or around five US cents) per kilometer for passenger cars, and more for trucks. So, financing all this construction won’t necessarily put a big dent in state revenues.  

Even with all the slow-moving truck traffic, the expressway network in China is a godsend. It makes distances much less foreboding than they used to be in China. It’s possible to average over 100 kilometers-an-hour. On the older, ordinary road network, you’d be lucky to average half that speed. Where the trucks thin out, you can “overspeed” at around 160kph, and rustle the plastic policemen in your backdraft.

Field Report from Guizhou – Where Cement Turns Into Gold

Blue vase in China First Capital blog post

 

While writing this, I was more than a little the worse for drink. Over dinner, I drained the better part of a bottle-and-a-half of Maotai, China’s most celebrated rock-gut spirit, which sells for a price in China that French brandy would envy, upwards of $80 a bottle. It’s one of the more pleasant occupational hazards of life in China for a company boss. As far as I can tell, some Chinese seems to view it as a matter both of national pride and infernal curiosity to get a Western visitor plastered. By now, I know well the routine. I sit at a table surrounded by people generally drawn together with a common purpose – to treat me solicitously while proposing enough toasts to render me wobbly and insensate.  

As far as career liabilities go, this is one I can happily live with. I always try to eat my way to relative sobriety.  I’m in Guizhou Province. (I’ll wait five minutes while most readers consult an online atlas.) The food here is especially yummy – intense, concentrated flavors, whether it’s a chicken broth (I’m informed it’s so good because local chickens have harder bones than elsewhere in China), pig ear soup, a simple stir-fried cabbage, or a dizzily delicious dish of corn kernels from cobs gathered nearby. So, with each glass of Maotai (which started as thimble-sized and then were upgraded to proper shot-glasses) I tried as best as I could to wolf down enough solid material to hold at bay the nastier demons of drunkenness. 

Did I succeed? I believe so. At least in part. My Chinese didn’t sputter and seize up like a spent diesel engine, and my brain could just about keep up with the typhoon of sounds, smells and data points of the humongous cement factory I toured after dinner. 

If you can find a way to get to Eastern Guizhou, or Western Hunan, do. You’ll likely travel, as I did, along an otherwise empty but fantastically beautiful motorway, past the squat two-stored dwellings of the local Miao people, and the inspiringly eroded prongs that make up the local mountain-scape. If you are even luckier, and share my peculiar taste of what constitutes an ideal weekend, you might just end up, as I did, at the largest private cement company in Guizhou. It’s called Ketelin, and it’s to capitalism what a Titian portrait is to fine arts: drop-dead gorgeous. 

With Maotai bottles drained, and dinner inhaled, I went on a walking tour of the Ketelin factory, on a warm, breezy and clear summer night unlike any I’ve ever witnessed lately in smoldering Shenzhen and Shanghai. My host here is the company’s founder and owner, 宁总, aka Ning Zong. If I had to specify a single rule to determine how to discern a great entrepreneur, it might be “his favorite form of exercise is to walk 20 laps around his humming factory every night after dinner.” Such is the case with Ning Zong. Another great indicator, of course, is to have a business where customers are lined up outside your door, 24 hours a day, waiting to buy your product. That’s also true here. There is a queue of large trucks outside the front gate at all hours, waiting to be filled with Ketelin cement.  

Ning Zong is out here, in what is considered the Chinese “back-of-the-beyond”, and has built the largest private company in the province. And that’s just for starters. His only goal at this point is to build his company to a scale where it can serve all its potential customers, with the highest-quality cement in this part of China. This being China, that’s a very substantial, though achievable vision. He’s already built a state-of-the-art factory, on a scale that few can match anywhere else. And yet, there’s still so much unmet demand, not just in Guizhou, but in nearby provinces of Sichuan, Hunan and Hubei that Ning Zong’s burning desire, at this phase, is to expand his business by several-fold. 

That’s why I’m here, to work with him to find the best way to do so, by bringing in around $15 million in private equity. I have no doubt whatsoever that his plans and track record will prove a perfect match for one of the better PE firms investing in China. Whichever one of them gets to invest in Ketelin will be very fortunate. This facility, and this owner, are both pitchforks perfectly tuned to the key of making good money from the boom in China’s infrastructure development. Among other customers, Ketelin supplies cement to the big highway-construction projects underway in this area of China. 

 Is Ketelin an exception, here in Guizhou?  I don’t really have the capacity to answer that. Guizhou is generally considered by Chinese to be the also-ran in China’s economic derby, poorer, more hidebound and more geographically-disadvantaged than elsewhere in southern China. Water buffalo amble along the middle of local thoroughfares, and field work is still done largely without machines, backs stooping under the weight of newly-gathered kindling. While Guizhou is poor compared to neighboring Hunan and Sichuan, poor regions often produce some of the world’s best companies:  think of Wal-Mart and Tyson’s, both of which got started and are based in Arkansas, which is as close as the US has to a province like Guizhou.  

Guizhou, from what I’ve seen of it, is breath-takingly beautiful, with clean air and little of the ceaseless hubbub that marks the cadence in big cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai. This is China’s true hinterland, the part of this vast country that eminent outsiders have long said was impossibly backward and so beyond the reach of modern development.  

They are wrong, because what’s right here is the same thing that has already generated such stupendous growth in coastal China. It’s the nexus of vision and opportunity, of seeing how much money there is to be made and then doing something about it, to claim some of that opportunity and money as your own. Ning Zong has done so, on a scale that inspires awe in my otherwise Maotai-mangled mind. 

Come see for yourself.