Thursday, June 26, 2008

An Investor's Guide to China

Which could alternatively be titled: "Ways to Throw Money Away Quickly".

This is not to say that there aren't ways to profit off the massive economic boom that is today's China. Export is popular specifically because no matter how much the government and crooked business partners rob you blind in China, the real money is being made outside of China where they can't get their hands on it. Import, conversely, is a game only to be played by multinationals strong enough to exert their own force of gravity and create brand awareness through product placement in all those billions of pirated DVDs.

Most of the ways to profit have already been monopolized by the Chinese government, their favorite business pals, the triads, or brand-name multinationals. Of these, it is hard to say which is most crooked and anti-competitive, but they all seem to know exactly how to get filthy rich off the liberalization of a once-dormant economy.

But what, you may ask, of the well known entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese? Is this shopworn stereotype of no use? Are there not small businesses by the billions to prove that the little guys can get their share of the big red pie?

There are indeed. But from my experience of business in China, I would have to wonder if even half of the mom and pop shops break even. Given the distortion of the exchange rate, one imagines that only an infinitesimal number of startups here can eventually make a decent profit. Shops are constantly going out of business and being replaced by yet more foolish hopefuls. Many are simply fronts for laundering the dirty money of civil servants and gangsters. The landlords and civil servant extortionists are the only ones laughing their way to the bank on any given day. If you want to set up shop in China and have the audacity to hope for a profit, you'd better come with a multi-national brand name and/or serious government connections. Simply put, you're better off gambling your life savings in a game of mahjong than attempting a start-up.

Take the example of a restaurant I know of. The local fire department came by and insisted that they had to buy a massive machine with various bells and whistles. The owner considered, where would he even put such a thing, a thing not even required in the most safety-conscious districts of the developed world? Why would they make him pay through the nose for a machine that was needless and a waste of space? It turns out there is only one company that makes this machine, and guess which government department has connections to it?

With the English school I've worked for over the last year, the requirements and chances for bribery (hong bao) are somewhat subtler than this, but no less existent. We too had to take the fire department bigwigs out for dinner and liquor, slipping them the money they asked for. We too find that our little school has not, is not, and probably will never make money. A completely wasted investment. Meanwhile, all the BMW-driving local government workers as well as the landlord whose decrepit, dirty, smelly building we rent from (and can never be located when a problem occurs) are laughing their way to the bank.

The lesson of China is simple: if someplace looks like a get-rich-quick bonanza, you can bet that it's really nothing more than a big money pit. The winners are all selected, here, and all the other punters are just being taken for a ride.

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