If This is Chinese Corruption, Give Me More!

All governments favor local businesses. Some do it better than others. China is among the best. The system of government support in China is more extensive, more fair and less prone to corruption than elsewhere. Surprised? Many will be, since they operate on the false, though comforting,  assumption that everything Chinese officials do is the result of bribe-taking.

The thing about corruption is, most of it, everywhere, is hidden from view. There is no real empirical basis to assess which countries have the highest corruption. Instead, everyone tends to fall back on the “Corruption Perceptions Index”  reports generated by a group called Transparency International. It does what it can to measure the unmeasursable. Its results get skewed by relying rather heavily on Western businessmen’s own perceptions about where bribery is most rampant. For many of these people, China fits the Western stereotype of a country whose officialdom seems rotten from top to bottom.

The reality is rather different. Look, I’m not saying China doesn’t have a corruption problem. It manifestly does. The country’s own leadership is frequently heard denouncing the problem of corrupt officialdom. Indeed, China’s outgoing Communist Party boss, Hu Jintao, warned this week that if not tackled, official corruption would  “cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”

My point here is to discuss the productive, above-board and even-handed ways government in China, at every level, provides useful and valuable support to companies. Here, the comparison with the US is very stark indeed. Government favors in the US are mainly, and explicitly, sold to the highest bidder. It’s what drives much of the billions of dollars “invested” every year by companies, unions, lobbyists and individuals in political campaigns. You help a politician win, and he helps you then get a tax-break, a loophole, a sweetheart government contract, a loan guarantee, a no-bid contract, a regulatory exemption, an R&D grant, a zoning change.

In the US, the system of favors-for-money is so widespread, so deeply woven in the grain of the political system, that Americans don’t even bother to talk about it much. It’s as American as apple pie.

Let’s look at China. Buying off politicians is less visible, and outcomes are different, than in the US. China’s tax code is not the unwieldy monster it is in the US. It isn’t the product, as America’s is, of an anybody-want-to-buy-a-taxbreak system. In the US, General Electric can get away with paying no income tax despite billions in profits because it’s very good at working the system and buying the favors required to create tailor-made tax loopholes. In China, I know of no instance where a big and profitable company, including some very powerful SOEs,  pays no tax.

Big companies, especially SOEs, do get many special favors. One example:  the government tends to be very relaxed in its role as controlling shareholder. It seldom demands an SOE turn over a large percentage of its after-profits in the form of dividends. The Chinese system generally dings companies once, through profit tax, rather than twice.

Where China’s system of political favors works better than elsewhere is in spreading the perks far more widely and equitably. So, both state-owned giants and small entrepreneurial companies can both partake.  In the US, Europe or Japan, the system of political favors is “pay to play”. In China, it’s more a matter of maintaining a modest level of employment (probably above about 50 workers) and paying at least some of the taxes you nominally owe. Do that and the government will make available a wide assortment of grants and benefits, from land at low concessionary prices,  to investment credits and tax holidays to free infrastructure upgrades.

Again, what is most notable, and commendable, about the system of political favors in China is how much more inclusive it is. You don’t need to pay off a local official, or put his kid through college in the US. That sort of stuff may happen, and may for all I know bring even larger benefits. But, a payoff is not a prerequisite for a government favor or handout. In fact, the most valuable forms of government support I’ve heard of go to companies that successfully IPO. Nothing else. They don’t need to take government contracts or employ the mayor’s nephew. Companies are rewarded by the government for going public — which, by the way, given high IPO multiples in China,  is enough of a reward in itself. One reason companies get rewarded for going public is because it also is a big boost to local officials’ careers. In today’s China, a key metric used to evaluate local government officials’ job performance is how many local companies have IPO’d.

These newly-public companies are often, if not always, sold a piece of land to build a new headquarters on. The price of that land will almost certainly be sold to the newly cash-rich IPO company for a fraction of its market value.  I’ve also seen cases where a local government gives a plot of land, at a very low price, to a local company that successfully raises PE.

A case of rich getting richer? Perhaps. But, note, this valuable land is not sold to the guy offering the valise filled with untraceable $100 bills. It is a reward for achievement, not a backhander. I prefer this kind of businessman-to-politician transaction to what routinely goes in the US, or UK, where political parties, in return for donations,  sold knighthoods and other titles.

But, the land-for-IPO deals are a very small part of a very large whole, making up the totality of government favors and support available to businesses in China. The government in China has far more power and far more wealth at its disposal than anywhere else I’ve lived. In other words, it has complete discretion, as well as more prizes to dole out. The remarkable thing is how evenly they do try to spread their help around.

In the US, a small businessman is told by the newly-reelected President he is a “millionaire and billionaire”, and should cough up half his income in taxes, with little special in return. The same scale businessman in China pays less punitive rates and is rewarded by government with favors that help his business grow, and his profit margins increase. If this is corruption, give me more!