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China's new party

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The world's most populous nation is finally a member of the global free-trade club. What does that mean for U.S. business?

China officially joined the World Trade Organization on Dec. 11, but the celebratory fireworks went off nearly two months earlier, at a gathering in Shanghai of the world's top business and government leaders. For 20 minutes, bursts of communist red and capitalist gold above the Huangpu River reminded onlookers that China invented such displays, more than 1,000 years ago, when the Asian giant had little contact with the outside world. At the Shanghai show, however, the fireworks were choreographed by a company named Grucci, based in Brookhaven, N.Y.--an emblem of China's acceptance of the competition and specialization embodied in global commerce.

China's leaders are making a huge bet: that their 1.3 billion people will gain more and better new jobs from the opening of foreign markets and the inflow of new capital than they will lose from the idling of state-supported industries and farms that can't compete with the more efficient producers that will have access to China. The 143 other WTO members are making a similar bet: that they will lose less business by opening themselves wider to China's exports of, say, textiles and apparel, than they will gain through new factories in China and new exports of technical know-how and certain grains. (Uncle Ben's is not expected any time soon.) There's enough efficiency to be gained from quickened global commerce that all these bets may well turn out winners.

But it will not happen overnight. Little does in China. The country's leaders must carefully manage the five-year transition to full WTO compliance. The potential for social and political unrest will be high, as an estimated 10 million peasants leave their land to search for new work in the cities. Even the executives and heads of government oohing and aahing at the fireworks in Shanghai at October's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum wonder to what extent China will play by the rules or find clever bureaucratic ways to keep goods and services out, as Japan and Korea often have done.

What's certain is that China will lift some of its restrictions and open some of its markets faster than others, and that will require some deft navigation by global businesses expanding there. And expand they will, despite the hazards and uncertainties. They can't afford not to. The potential profits--though far off--are just too large, and so is the risk of being left behind. It's a cliche, but it's nonetheless apt to note that in written Chinese, the same ideogram is used to express both danger and opportunity. As Sy Sternberg, chairman of New York Life Insurance, puts it, "If we got 1% of the Chinese population, we would double the number of policies we have." That has been the dream of global executives ever since the first glimmers of an opening by China in the 1970s.

But as early entrants to the China market have learned, the notion that 1.3 billion consumers are waiting to buy your widgets is a mirage. More than 400 million people live in China's cities, where they have, on average, an annual disposable income that equals about $760. That's not nearly enough to buy a Xiali automobile for $9,600 or even a $145 mobile handset. The real targets: about 3 million Chinese who have assets worth more than $120,000, plus 15 million who have more than $60,000. This Chinese middle class's disposable income grew about 7% last year. But the advice of old China hands is: Get in, learn the market and go slowly.

China's WTO commitments require an ambitious five-year transition. Crucially, state-owned companies will in that time need to stop borrowing from state banks to cover their losses, and either learn to compete or fail. To emerge from their predicament--they take people's good money as deposits but make bad loans--the banks must channel that money to productive entrepreneurs. The average tariff on all products will gradually dip below 10%, from 44% in 1991. Nontariff barriers like quotas and licensing will also ease; still harder to eliminate will be such thorns as impromptu road taxes and directed purchasing meant to support local businesses.

From 1998 to mid-2001, 35 million Chinese lost jobs in the state sector through bankruptcies, downsizing or privatization (called "corporatization" in the argot of this still officially communist land). Some workers have found new jobs in the expanding private sector, but urban unemployment remains high, at more than 8%. The economy grew last year 7.4%, which sounds extremely robust by U.S. standards but is dangerously near the minimum rate needed to create jobs for the tens of millions entering the work force each year or laid off from the slowly shrinking state sector.

By 2005 China's share of world exports will reach 6.8%, almost twice its percentage in 1995. Its share of world imports will also nearly double over the same period, to 6.6%, and U.S. firms will be fighting to meet that huge new demand. Of $140 billion in foreign direct investment to the developing world, China received more than $40 billion in 2000--a number that could surpass $50 billion this year. U.S. firms are scrambling to provide that investment, through new factories, offices and partnerships.

What follows is a look at five key industries in which U.S. firms stand to gain the most new business from China, through both export sales and direct investment. Think of them as the first going over the wall:

CATTLE FEED AND CITRUS

The first thing President Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin discussed when they met in Shanghai in October was the Sept. 11 attacks. Then they got down to business: soybeans. A few years ago, U.S. soy exports to China were negligible. But last year China became the top buyer of U.S. soy products, purchasing $1 billion worth, much of it for animal feed. On the agenda in Shanghai was a dispute over whether China would temporarily accept usda assurances about the safety of America's genetically modified soy crops. Jiang, wary of starting a trade dispute on the eve of China's WTO entry, acquiesced.

Of all U.S. exports, agriculture is poised to see the largest gains from China's WTO accession. Beijing agreed to eliminate all nontariff barriers to trade, revising rules for sanitary inspections and domestic taxes to comply with WTO standards. Tariffs on all farm products are slated to fall in 2004 to an average of 17%, from 22%. And for certain goods, including animal products, fruits and dairy, tariffs will fall to 14.5%. U.S. agriculture exports to China may nearly double, to $4 billion a year, once the agreement is fully implemented.

Besides grain producers, the big winners will be American producers of meats, citrus and nuts. Sunkist shipped 350,000 cartons of oranges, grapefruit and lemons directly to Shanghai and Dalian last year--an amount expected to double this year--and recently started a multimedia Chinese marketing campaign. Farm-product traders such as ADM, Bunge and Cargill should also profit by being allowed to set up import and distribution companies.

At the same time, Beijing is encouraging its farmers to grow more of certain cash crops for export. And it has shown a willingness to play hardball over market access. Last year, after Japan slapped duties on Chinese mushrooms and leeks, Beijing retaliated with 100% tariffs on Japanese cars, cell phones and air conditioners--a spat resolved only last month. In the U.S., Chinese apple concentrate and dehydrated garlic imports have surged, and Chinese fruit and vegetable exports to other Asian nations have eroded U.S. market share.

MONOLITHS AND MORTGAGES

Banking in China is dominated by four monolithic state institutions, which, if forced into battle too soon, would be crushed by competition from foreign banks, with their established brands, advanced products and superior ability to evaluate creditworthiness. So China agreed to allow foreign banks to work with Chinese companies after two years but will not lift all restrictions for five years.

In the meantime, foreign lenders are finding ways to keep busy. HSBC has aligned itself with local banks and with the four state-owned major institutions, which gives the London-based bank's customers access to branches across much of China. HSBC last month bought an 8% share in the Bank of Shanghai, a seven-year-old entity controlled by the city. Citibank is reportedly considering the purchase of a 15% stake in the Bank of Communications, the fifth largest state-owned lender, also based in Shanghai.

To help modernize, the Bank of China, second largest of the state-owned banks, has contracted with Citibank in China to study its technological infrastructure. "They're so cognizant of the importance of technology," says Daniel Rosen, a former White House adviser, "that they're letting a major foreign potential competitor write the book for them on what they need to do differently."

Thanks to a 1996 reform that allowed the Chinese to purchase homes, mortgage lending has skyrocketed. And rising home prices have encouraged homeowners to buy more furnishings. "The property-market story is probably the most compelling untold story," says Paul Matthews, chairman of Matthews Asian Funds, based in San Francisco.

SOMETHING WORTH INSURING

Once middle-class Chinese have homes and steady incomes, they will want to insure them. That, at least, is the bet of foreign life and property insurers, among the earliest financial-service companies to enter China's markets. Upon accession, China began to allow foreign life insurers to own 50% of any partnership with a Chinese company in specific regions, and the geographic restrictions will be lifted in three years. Late last month New York Life announced a partnership with Haier, China's leading home-appliance manufacturer, which is clearly mimicking part of General Electric's business model.

China's $20 billion-a-year life-insurance market won't be smaller than South Korea's, at $35 billion, for long. Metropolitan Life, New York Life and the American International Group all run educational programs that will help train a generation of agents. "People don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I've got to run out to buy a life-insurance policy,'" says William Toppeta, president of Met Life International. "Somebody must make the case."

AIG was founded by an American in China in 1919, was expelled after the 1949 revolution and returned in 1992. It maintains a special presence there--one that complicated the final WTO negotiations. AIG will enjoy an exception to the new fifty-fifty ownership rule, able in four cities to run wholly owned enterprises, with China's O.K. for operations in four more, but forced elsewhere to partner with a Chinese company, just as its competitors must.

FARM TRUCKS AND FOREIGN COMPACTS

In 1998, when the first shiny white Buick rolled out of GM's new Shanghai plant, no one talked seriously about selling the car to China's millions of consumers. The factory would produce Buicks for corporate and government fleets, with a targeted annual run of 100,000 units.

Nearly four years later, the strategy is paying off: GM says its Shanghai plant is profitable, and China's entry to the WTO should now help open up its vaunted consumer market. By 2006, according to the agreement, tariffs on imported autos and auto parts will fall to as low as 10%, from as high as 80% today. Foreign automakers will have permission to distribute, sell and service their vehicles and to offer loans to customers. And the government has pledged to address the issue of regional protectionism, which renders a VW produced in Shanghai, say, twice as expensive in the remote province of Gansu, thanks to a slew of local fees and taxes.

With the largest presence in China of America's Big Three, GM is well positioned to grab an early lead in selling to the nation's growing middle class. The company is ramping up production of its compact Buick Sail (based on its Opel Corsa design). Other foreign automakers planning to produce compacts in China include Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota and Citroen.

Beijing wants carmakers, from Nissan to DaimlerChrysler, to help make the nation an auto-exporting powerhouse. That has not happened yet, because total costs in China aren't competitive with those in other emerging economies such as Brazil, where energy and--believe it or not--land are cheaper. Lower tariffs will help lure foreigners but will be disastrous for China's 120-plus state-subsidized automakers.

For now, the vehicles that are selling best in China are heavily polluting diesel three-wheelers and light trucks costing only $1,000 to $3,000 that farmers use to haul produce and other goods. Though these are banned in cities, rural sales have been surging. The segment is the only part of China's domestic auto industry that Beijing has allowed to develop along free-market lines, and it's the only one with a handful of supposedly profitable companies. One company even exports its light trucks to Cambodia. "Beijing wants to keep the countryside happy," says Columbia Business School professor Lee Branstetter. GM recently purchased a stake in a factory producing farm vehicles.

PCS AND CELL PHONES

To measure China's surge into technology manufacturing, consider that it sold only 1% of the computers in the U.S. in 1992 but 13% through the third quarter of 2001; Japan sold 35% and 15% in the same periods. China is the world's third largest PC exporter and is expected within four years to overtake Japan for the No. 2 spot, behind the U.S. Taiwanese original-equipment manufacturers are increasingly moving to the mainland, where labor is cheaper, and where powerhouses such as Dell and IBM are expanding their market presence. In November Taiwan lifted its $50 million cap on individual mainland investments, launching Taiwanese-invested companies such as Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing to build billion-dollar chip factories there.

Sales of PCs in China are expected to grow 20% this year, with most bought from the Legend Group, a homegrown computer company based in Beijing. Legend has benefited from distribution deals with many of China's state-owned companies and from its exclusive right to distribute popular Toshiba notebooks in China. But these two privileges will increasingly be in jeopardy as more companies gain entrance to the market.

Telecommunications companies such as Motorola, which is China's largest foreign investor, are wiring the nation--rather, making it wireless. Last July, the number of Chinese mobile subscribers surpassed the U.S.'s lead, and construction continues on state-of-the-art digital wireless networks. According to the WTO terms, foreign companies will be able to control 49% of communications networks within three years in certain regions.

Internet use in China is growing even faster than use of cell phones. And despite Beijing's best efforts, says Rosen, "there's no way for the government to keep a tight cap on the flow of information anymore." That poses a dilemma both for Beijing and for businesses that traditionally prize political stability. Fifteen years in the making, China's WTO push constitutes just an epic prologue to great social and economic transformations to come. Observers uniformly call it a revolution from above. But unless successors to Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji can deftly manage the upheaval, there will be fireworks of a much different kind--a revolution from below.



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Cover Date: January 28, 2002

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