– There are many flavors of State-Owned Enterprise (“SOE”) in China, from polluting monster chemical factories to quaint dumpling houses that date from before the revolution. Since coming to China, I’ve seen up-close quite a number SOEs, probably more than most other non-Chinese. No two are quite alike. But, equally, SOEs in China, from the largest centrally-administered “national champions” (known as 央企, or “yangqi”, in Chinese and include such familiar names like Sinopec, China Mobile, ICBC) that earn billions in profits every year to smaller local loss-making industrial companies with a few hundred employees, share a similar genetic code. Or more precisely, provide the same iron rice bowl.
That phrase (铁饭碗 ) was widely used during Mao’s time, and I still heard it frequently when I first came to China 1981. It’s since faded from common use. But, the concept remains embodied within all SOEs. Simply put, an “iron rice bowl” means a job for life, and so a life without the worry of going unfed. In today’s China, with the threat and the memory of famine now extinguished, it’s more a way of expressing the unique way an SOE functions, how it views its role in society and the benevolent — some might say paternalistic — way it cares for its employees.
An SOE is, above all, a very Chinese institution, and in many ways, one of the few holdovers from the Maoist era. Chinese then didn’t so much work for a company as they belonged to a “work unit“, a 单位 (“danwei”). A paying job was in some senses the least important thing provided by one’s work unit, since cash salaries used to be very low, under $10 a month for mid-level managers. Instead, one’s work unit provided housing, schools, communal heating, medical care, ration tickets, permission to marry, to travel or have a child, subsidized meals and fresh food.
In theory, the work unit was the Great Provider, anticipating and meeting all of one’s needs in life. In practice, of course, it offered not a lot more than a very rudimentary existence and a job for life. For most Chinese, especially all working for private sector companies, the danwei system was dismantled ten years ago. A job is just a job, not a lifetime meal ticket.
But, for those working at SOEs, many of the more desirable features of the danwei system have been preserved, starting with the fact you are very unlikely ever to be fired. What’s more, the company itself is also highly unlikely to ever go bankrupt or face a serious crisis that would lead to mass layoffs. Today’s SOEs hold, in effect, a permanent right to operate, regardless of market conditions.
China’s current group of SOEs are a privileged rump, those spared from a massive cull over ten years ago. That put the worst, least efficient SOEs out of business, and forced tens of millions to take early retirement or go off in search of new jobs, mainly in the private sector.
SOEs, along with the military and the Party, are the third of China’s key pillars of state power. While each is subject to the control of the country’s leadership, each also operates, to some extent, by rules of its own. Chinese leaders are known to complain, at times, about the power, wealth and influence of the country’s larger SOEs.
SOEs are ultimately kept in business by other SOEs — loans from the state-owned banks, and orders or supplies from fellow SOEs. In most cases, they have a marked preference for doing business with one another. Partly, this is because SOEs tend to understand better the way other SOEs think and act. Partly, it’s also because SOEs function together as mutual assistance society. If one gets in trouble, others will either voluntarily help out, or be ordered to do so by SASAC （“国资委”）, the government organization that manages Chinese SOEs.
SOE jobs usually pay less than private sector competitors. But, for many, that’s more than compensated by the perks that come with the job. While Google is famous for its free food and recreation areas, an SOE has its own attractions, tailored to the tastes of its Chinese employees. Workloads tend to be modest, and a long lunchtime siesta is built into every working day. During winter, the company will often provide extra cash to pay for heating.
There is, in my experience, an obvious camaraderie among SOE workers, a shared identity and pride working for what are usually very large, well-known companies that tower over their private sector competitors and neighbors. If not always in practice, at least in theory, an SOE is meant to be in business for the benefit of all of China, not to accumulate profits or generate wealth purely for its shareholders.
It’s a noble mission, but one that can lead to its own rather systematic form of inefficiency. Urged on by SASAC, they set ambitious growth targets every year to increase output. They achieve this, in most cases, by pouring more borrowed money into new capital equipment, often to produce products the government says China needs or wants. The amounts invested, and the returns on those investments, tend to move in opposite directions.
SOEs can borrow at half the cost of private sector companies. Their hurdle rate is also often half that, or less, than private companies’. As a result, projects with limited financial rationale often get built.
Take LEDs, solar and wind power. All three were heavily over-invested by SOEs because the Chinese government had made such “green energy” projects a national priority. More energy was probably consumed forging the steel and building factories and equipment to produce LED assemblies, solar panels and wind turbines than has been saved by lowering overall energy use in China. A lot of these LED, solar and wind projects are now mothballed, due to losses and falling demand.
Part of what SOEs exist to do is to take government economic policy and turn it into hard, if sometimes not very productive, assets. That outlook, of course, also impacts the way SOE staff work. Their pay isn’t linked to profits any more than company-wide strategy is.