China is now home to many of the world’s largest and most dynamic private companies. But apart from a few exceptions such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma, little is known outside China about the intrepid entrepreneurs who built these business empires, often against astonishing odds. Professor Peter Cappelli at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and author of Fortune Makers: The Leaders Creating China’s Great Global Companies, is trying to change that.
Economic changes and government policies are driving millions of China’s migrant workers away from the wealthy coastal regions back to the less developed western regions. The trend is a clear sign that a fundamental change to China’s economy is in progress, as a growth model that lifted more than half a billion people out of poverty starts to slow. From the early 1990s onwards, China’s double-digit GDP growth was fueled largely by the cheap labor provided by people leaving their farms in China’s poorer inland provinces to find work in the factories springing up along the coast. Now this has changed.
One of the world’s most high-profile China experts, Shaun Rein made his name by highlighting new trends in the Chinese economy years before the Western media caught on. In 2012, his first book, The End of Cheap China, highlighted that China’s low-cost manufacturing miracle was coming to an end. Two years later, he correctly predicted the rise of a new generation of innovation-led Chinese companies in The End of Copycat China. In his third book, The War for China’s Wallet, he tells us that it has never been more critical for brands to understand the Chinese market.
Decades of breakneck development in China have taken a terrible toll on the air, water, and soil. The good news is that the government has started a massive anti-pollution campaign, investing at least $477 billion in environmental protection and shutting down thousands of factories. While many are being driven out of business by the campaign, it’s also creating new opportunities for green technology companies and pushing manufacturing companies to upgrade. And although a government-led campaign, further clean-up efforts can be made by private companies as local governments search for clean solutions.
As the world’s most populous country, China should have the potential to become the world’s most profitable music market, yet it is far away from that—China was the 12th largest market in 2016, with $202 million in revenue compared to the US’s No.1 ranking of $5.3 billion. But there are important differences in the way music is consumed that may give China a business edge. Led by internet firms like Tencent, China has adjusted to the digital future of music more quickly, with a whopping 96% of music revenue from digital releases and 75% of that number coming from streaming sales.
Although China views space exploration as important for bolstering national prestige and influence, boosting national defense, and promoting domestic industries and economic realignment, the country’s space program is still far behind the United States. It has fast caught up fast with other nations, however. China aims to send a rover to Mars and launch a manned space station by 2020, and is also testing the ability of astronauts to stay on the moon for extended periods. And while the government increases its efforts, private companies are also joining to make a presence in space exploration.
On April 1st, 2017, the Chinese government announced the formation of a new special economic and development zone: the Xiong’an New Area. About 60 miles southwest of Beijing, in Hebei province, the area will combine the now relatively rural counties of Rongcheng, Anxin and Xiong. With an expected investment of $583 billion over the next 20 years in infrastructure alone, Xiong’an is set to transform from a largely agricultural and low-tech manufacturing region, into a high-tech, environmentally sustainable modern metropolis. It will also, according to the plan, alleviate some population pressures from Beijing while serving as a destination for some administrative departments, logistics bases and other government offices.
The sharing economy exploded in China this year, with companies for all kinds of shareable objects taking part in this new business model. While there are businesses familiar to Westerners—shared offices, cars and rides—there are also ideas that seem a little kooky, such as shared basketballs and umbrellas. Although some call it innovative, many realize these companies are just “rental 2.0” companies, assisted by digital technology. As the concept reaches fever pitch, however, it is also facing a reality check, especially as many firms, ballooned by venture capital funds, start to show signs of failing.
For the past few years, China has been pursuing a new and ambitious state-owned enterprise (SOE) reform program. SEOs are huge in terms of size, yet they only provide 16% of jobs, less than a third of national economic output, and a return on assets of only 2.9%. Hugely inefficient, debt-ridden and responsible for most of China’s ballooning corporate debt, SOEs are a drag on an economy that Beijing wants to transition—unlike past efforts which is about privatization, but just the opposite—from investment and export-driven to services and consumption-driven.
Many developing nations see China as a champion and as an investor. Western countries wish to see China shoulder a greater share of the burden of global leadership, and a growing number of Chinese citizens want China to reclaim its ancient role of international dominance. But is China ready to “lead the world?” Has it reached the stage where it can set the international tone, take the central role on global issues and provide preeminent guidance toward the future? To many the answer might be “yes”, but as the foundations of the powerhouse economy are actually weaker than they seem, that assessment may be premature.