Shandong

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.


Under New Management — Chinese Corporate Management Is Changing Fast

Gold splash censer from China First Capital blog post

“Five years ago, all I had to worry about was producing enough to earn a small profit. Now I spend time dealing with employment issues, environmental regulations, tax policies, trying to increase market share and staying ahead of competitors. The pressure is much worse. ”

Welcome to the suddenly changed and increasingly pressured world of Chinese corporate management. 

This comment comes from the boss of a large, integrated chemical factory in Shandong. He and I were talking recently. He is still a relatively young guy of around 40. But, in his 15 year career as first an engineer, then a manager and finally as factory boss, he has seen the purpose, methods, scope, goals and responsibilities of Chinese management change from top to bottom. 

Like much else in China, company management has undergone a lifetime’s worth of change in a matter of a few years. It’s a byproduct of larger forces at work in China’s economy – the withdrawal of direct state planning and control, the ascendancy of the private sector, China’s entry to the WTO and the opening of China’s markets to imports, the rise of a vibrant consumer market. All of these have made planning and decision-making far more intricate and the stakes far higher for Chinese corporate managers, both in state-owned and private companies. 

In the case of my friend in Shandong, he is working for a company majority owned by the state. In theory, that should make his management tasks far easier. In most cases, the Chinese government – whether at national, provincial or local level – is a very lenient shareholder. In fact, they would appear to the ideal owner for any manager who is looking for easy ride. 

In China as elsewhere, when the state is the owner, no one is really in charge. The Chinese government is not looking for dividends. Most profits stay inside the company.  

Here’s the paradox that Chinese managers all live with: as undemanding as the Chinese government is as a shareholder, they are increasingly demanding as a regulator and law-maker. That is a big reason why corporate management has gotten so much more complex in China. In a short space of time, China has gone from a more laissez-faire stance to one with strict environmental, tax and labor laws that rival those of the US and Western Europe. 

True, these tougher regulations are not yet universally applied or enforced. But, any Chinese manager who chooses to act in total disregard of these rules will eventually find himself in deep, deep trouble. Take labor laws. China continues to introduce new forms of workplace protection that give important new rights to hired staff and restrict the prerogatives of management. Any Chinese with a complaint over pay or conditions can complain directly to the Laodong Ju, or Labor Bureau, a quasi-state body that enforces labor laws. 

The process is not without its hiccups. Management can still intimidate and threaten workers who seek redress. But, the system does work. 

Example: a friend of mine worked for several years as a salesperson for an electronics company based in Shenzhen. She was paid part in commission. She did her job well. For months, then years, the boss held back the commission payments, claiming cash flow problems. This is old style China management: don’t pay, offer excuses. This boss assumed he could continue indefinitely with this trickery, in part because the general view is that female workers in China are more easily cowed or mollified. 

Instead, my friend quit without warning,  went right to the Labor Bureau, which made one call to her ex-boss. No investigation. Just a phone call and a stern warning from the Labor Bureau. My friend got her money – about $20,000 in total – within a week. The boss will now have a much harder time doing what he’s always done – pad his own take-home by cheating workers out of what they are entitled to. Tyrannizing workers is no longer a workable HR strategy for a Chinese management team. 

New environmental rules are, if anything,  even more disruptive of old lax ways of managing business in China. Managers who choose to improve margins by ignoring pollution standards are risking an early unpaid retirement. Example: a client of ours is the leading environmentally-friendly paper manufacturer in Shandong. Two years ago, he had 29 competitors in Shandong. Today, he has only three. 

The other 26 were shut down, virtually overnight, for violating environmental standards. The managers at those factories, most of which were around for many years, now likely understand better than most how much the craft of management has changed in China.  

Elsewhere in Shandong, my friend the chemical company boss, is now making another decision that was unimaginable when he began his career: he is working on a plan for a management buyout of the factory. The business is now 65%-owned by a large local coal mine, which in turn, is owned by the provincial government. 

The buy-out plan is still in its early stages. To succeed, he’ll need to persuade several levels of government – no one is quite sure how many – and also take over some significant liabilities, including debts of about $15mn.  It’s not clear if the current management will need to put up cash to buy the government’s controlling stake, or if, as preferred, they can pay in installments, using cash from the business. 

Servicing debt and having most of one’s wealth tied up in illiquid shares of one’s company are other adaptations now being learned by Chinese management. Each year, their working lives grow harder, more pressured and, for the more talented and nimble ones, far more financially rewarding.  Stride-for-stride with the modernization of China’s economy, Chinese corporate managers have gotten better faster than anywhere else, ever.


 

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.