interesting article about business in China

by Sebastian Benthall

I don’t know much about China, really, so I’m always fascinated to learn more.

This FT article, “Anbang arrests demonstrates hostility to business”, by Jamil Anderlini, provides some wonderful historical context to a story about the arrest of an insurance oligarch.

In ancient times, merchants were at the very bottom of the four official social classes, below warrior-scholars, farmers and artisans. Although some became very rich they were considered parasites in Chinese society.

Ever since the Han emperors established the state salt monopoly in the second century BCE (remnants of which remain to this day), large-scale business enterprises have been controlled by the state or completely reliant on the favour of the emperor and the bureaucrat class.

In the 20th century, the Communist emperor Mao Zedong effectively managed to stamp out all private enterprise for a while.

Until the party finally allowed “capitalists” to join its ranks in 2002, many of the business activities carried out by the resurgent merchant class were technically illegal.

China’s rich lists are populated by entrepreneurs operating in just a handful of industries — particularly real estate and the internet.

Tycoons like Mr Wu who emerge in state-dominated sectors are still exceedingly rare. They are almost always closely linked to one of the old revolutionary families exercising enormous power from the shadows.

Everything about this is interesting.

First, in Western scholarship we rarely give China credit for its history of bureaucracy in the absence of capitalism. In the well know Weberian account, bureaucracy is an institutional invention that provides regular rule of law so that capitalism can thrive. But China’s history is one that is statist “from ancient times”, but with effective bureaucracy from the beginning. A managerialist history, perhaps.

Which makes the second point so unusual: why, given this long history of bureaucratic rule, are Internet companies operating in a comparatively unregulated way? This seems like a massive concession of power, not unlike how (arguably) the government of the United States conceded a lot of power to Silicon Valley under the Obama administration.

The article dramatically foreshadows a potential power struggle between Xi Jinping’s consolidated state and the tech giant oligarchs:

Now that Chinese President Xi Jinping has abolished his own term limits, setting the stage for him to rule for life if he wants to, the system of state patronage and the punishment of independent oligarchs is likely to expand. Any company or billionaire who offends the emperor or his minions will be swiftly dealt with in the same way as Mr Wu.

There is one group of Chinese companies with charismatic — some would say arrogant — founders that enjoy immense economic power in China today. They would seem to be prime candidates if the assault on private enterprise is stepped up.

Internet giants Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu are not only hugely profitable, they control the data that is the lifeblood of the modern economy. That is why Alibaba founder Jack Ma has repeatedly said, including to the FT, that he would gladly hand his company over to the state if Beijing ever asked him to. Investors in BABA can only hope it never comes to that.

That is quite the expression of feudal fealty from Jack Ma. Truly, a totally different business culture from that of the United States.

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