China’s private sector economy continues to perform miracles. According to figures just released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, private companies in China now employ 70 million people, or 80 percent of China’s total industrial workforce. These same private companies account for 70% of all profits earned by Chinese industry. Profits at private companies rose 31.4% in 2008 over a year earlier, while those of China’s state-owned enterprises (so-called SOEs) fell by 16%.
The rise of China’s private sector is, in my view, the most remarkable aspect of China’s economic development. When I first came to China in 1981, there were no private companies at all. SOEs continued to be favored sons, until recently. Only in 2005 did the Chinese government introduce a policy that gave private companies the same market access, same treatment in project approval, taxation, land use and foreign trade as SOEs. During that time, over 150,000 new private companies have gotten started and by 2008 had annual sales of over Rmb 5 million.
These statistics only look at industrial companies, where SOEs long predominated. By last year, fully 95% of all industrial businesses in China were privately-owned. In the service sector, the dominance of private companies is even more comprehensive, as far as I can tell. While banks and insurance companies are all still largely state-owned, most of the rest of the service economy is in private hands – shops of all kinds, restaurants, barbers, hotels, dry cleaners, real estate agents, ad agencies, you name it.
Other than the times I fly around China (airlines are still mainly state-owned) and when I pay my electric bill, I can’t think of any time my money goes directly to an SOE. This is not something, of course, I could have envisioned back in 1981. The transformation has both been so fast and so thoroughgoing. And yet, it still has a long way to go, as these latest figures suggest. Almost certainly, private company business formation and profit-generation will continue to grow strongly in 2009 and beyond. SOE contribution to the Chinese economy, while still significant, grows proportionately less by the day.
There once were vast regional disparities in the role of the private sector. Certain areas of China, for example the Northeast and West of the country, were until recently still dominated by SOEs. But, the changeover is occurring in these areas as well, and every year more private companies will reach the size threshold (revenues of over Rmb 5mn) where they will be captured by the statisticians.
Equally, every year more of these private companies will reach the sort of scale where they become attractive to private equity investors. That happens when sales get above Rmb 100mn.
Never in human history has so much private wealth been created so fast, by so many, as it has in China over the last 20 years. And yet, all this growth happened despite an almost complete lack of outside investment capital, from private equity and other institutional sources. This shows the resourcefulness of China’s entrepreneurs, to be able to build thriving businesses with little or no outside capital. Imagine how much faster this transformation would have happened if investment capital, and the expertise of PE firms, was more widely available. It is becoming more available by the day.
China is primed, as it’s never been, for spectacular growth in PE investment over the coming 20 years.