The Political Anxiety of Chinese Entrepreneurs

The Political Anxiety of Chinese Entrepreneurs – Economic Observer Online

By Qiu Feng (秋风)
Issue 629, July 22, 2013
In China, politics is something that worries and tangles up the minds of businessmen, perhaps more than others. Two recent events shed new light on what we can call the political anxiety (政治焦虑症) of Chinese entrepreneurs. The first incident came after the remarks of Liu Chuanzhi (柳传志), the recently retired Chairman of Legend Holdings and one of China’s best known business personalities, during a forum for Chinese entrepreneurs on Zhenghe Island. Liu stated that China’s “economic trend is currently in a state of uncertainty” and that “the most important thing for Chinese entrepreneurs is to mentally focus and concentrate.” Responding in an article, Huang Lilu (黄丽陆), chairman of Zhenghe Island, then interpreted what Liu actually meant by “focusing” and “concentrating.”And what did he mean? That from now on businessmen should only talk about business. “In meetings henceforth we shall only discuss business, no politics. Under the current political and economical situation doing well in business is our duty.”
Liu’s “reminder” resonates well among most of the entrepreneurs of this businessmen’s club.
However, one woman resolutely refused Liu’s viewpoint. She is Wang Ying (王瑛), the president of an investment corporation. Wang flatly declared, “I don’t belong among those businessmen who don’t talk about politics. Nor do I believe that Chinese entrepreneurs can survive just by kneeling down. So as not to involve this club, I hereby declare that I am officially withdrawing from it.”
At the same moment, another act at the crossroads of business and politics was occurring in China. Zeng Chengjie (曾成杰), a Hunan businessman convicted of illegal fund-raising, was executed. According to Zeng’s daughter, before putting him to death the court didn’t even inform the family, nor was he allowed to see his family for a final time. This cruelty set off an uproar across China’s Internet.
The online discussion included a post on the Sina Weibo account of Wang Shi (王石), the founder and Chairman of China Vanke (万科), the country’s largest real estate developer. “Reviewing the Chongqing incident: During the period of Bo Xilai as Secretary of Communist Party and the “Sing Red Beat Black” (唱红打黑) movement, a large number of Chongqing businessmen were forced into prison and had their properties confiscated. Their lives and dignity lost, no legal protection and even the lawyers who defended some of them were wrongfully jailed. At that time, I chose to stay silent. Reflection: that was cowardly, mistaken behavior. We should clearly say “NO” to those authoritative departments that violate the laws and infringe on people’s lives and property.”
Wang Wei (王巍) and Ren Zhiqiang (任志强), two other high-profile Chinese entrepreneurs have given their support to Wang’s declaration.
Chinese entrepreneurs are of two mindsets, both of which can be attributed to China’s unfettered government power.
Since government power is not constrained, that power is everywhere. If a Chinese businessman wants to do business, and in particular, big business, he or she cannot avoid having connections with governmental officials to obtain their support, or at least their recognition. Of course, since economic construction is at the core of Chinese authority and local officials need to show good economic performance, they also need the businessmen’s support. They are very willing to deal with business people and provide them with benefits and preferential treatment. Nowhere else in the world is there a closer relationship between politicians and businessmen than in China.
Nevertheless, such close ties are not necessarily what Chinese entrepreneurs would prefer. Indeed, such relations often create serious anxiety for them. This is because the system behind these guanxi (relationships) is not rational.
The fact that Chinese politicians and businessmen can have such tight relations is precisely because China doesn’t have a sound democracy and a complete rule of law to properly administer justice.
To any entrepreneur at all, such an institution is inherently uncertain. The probable result is that an entrepreneur could be put in jail just like those who experienced this during the “Sing Red and Beat Black” rule of Bo Xilai in Chongqing. This was mentioned by Wang Shi. When power is abused, a once glorious Chinese entrepreneur can instantly become very fragile, as his property and person lose institutional protection.
Thus comes the dilemma for Chinese businessmen, how to avoid suffering such an experience?
There are two strategic choices for them. Liu Chuanzhi chose the first kind. In a recent interview with CCTV, he expressed in detail his attitude. “I can only obey the environment. I have never imagined that I can confront the environment or anything of the sort. Neither do I have the ambition, nor do I dare. If it is impossible to change the larger environment, one can make efforts to change the smaller one. Were it also impossible to change the small environment, one might as well adapt oneself to it and wait until the moment is ripe to change it. I am a reformist. If I count as a successful businessman today it’s because I do not victimize myself in reform. If the reform is not to be, I keep myself out of danger.”
Wang Ying is instead the one who opts for the second kind of choice, and she is supported by certain Chinese entrepreneurs such as Wang Shi. That is, through open conceptual efforts a civil society can strive to change unreasonable institutions.
The two strategies look seemingly opposed to each other. But, maybe they are actually complementary.
Entrepreneurs who actively engage in cultural undertakings to build a civil society should be respected. China needs such entrepreneurs today, and the more the better.
It in fact doesn’t imply confrontation. Even so, this choice requires greater courage, of which not every entrepreneur is capable. However, the ones failing to stand up should still show their respect to the others because the others’ efforts are beneficial to the entire group of Chinese entrepreneurs and to the whole of society.
As to “businessmen should talk about business” (在商言商), even though it is seemingly passive, it can nonetheless contribute to improving the existing system.
Of course businessmen are to talk about only business. In interpreting correctly “Business people are to make good business sense”, this can play a positive role in transforming China’s system and institutions.
If businessmen are really to stick to only business, they are to focus on business innovation and integrity. They should have self-restraint, and be clean themselves. They should not collude with authorities, refuse to bribe governmental officials and adhere to business ethics.
Were this the true practice of all Chinese businessmen, the current deformity of political-business relations would have ceased to exist. But if instead, a businessman on one hand declares to only talk about business, but on the other hand turns around and gets very close to the authorities, this is a symptom of schizophrenia that can only harm the functioning of the nation.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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