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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Generation game

Solar flare up
Since the last post there have been moves to further consolidation and government control of the solar industry as two of the largest players, LDK and Suntech are facing increased state involvement and even takeover.  Amidst global oversupply, plummeting prices and possible trade law sanctions, a couple of themes are present (i) use of bankruptcy is not prevalent yet (with rollovers of debt preferred) and (ii) increasing state involvement.  An excellent article by Tim Worstall in Forbes had a headline which summed up the situation - "China still hasn't got the hang of this capitalism thing", namely the importance of unprofitable enterprises going bankrupt.  It would seem fairly obvious that there are plenty of impediments to swift and orderly wind-down of institutions - loss of face, bureaucratic interference, vested local government interests and the like.

But it wasn't supposed to be like this - the article refers to an official who pronounced that the government intended the industry to consolidate - i.e. a large number of enterprises close or merge - intentions which were complicated by unwillingness of banks and local governments to toe the line.    And what a contrast from the fanfare in a previous Forbes article announcing the launch of the new US style bankruptcy regime China in 2007 - the predictions of a "high level of sophistication" and "determination to build a sound legal system" seem over-enthusiastic statements now.  Possibly due to the need to promote stability ahead of the leadership change next month, officials seem to be falling back to tried and tested methods of state interventionism, which will only continue to propagate distortions in the current financial system.

It's a family affair
At the time of writing there has been an overwhelming response to the New York Times' investigation into the wealth and connections of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's family.  It is not just that the Chinese administration has blocked access to the Times' website (as it did with Bloomberg and the Brookings Institution when they released similar findings regarding incoming Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang), responded with what the Financial Times referred to as a "hatchet job" piece in the People's Daily, or that unusually the administration has instructed lawyers to deny and  look at pursuing legal redress (which members of the legal community thought were poorly thought out) With the Guardian comparing it to the Pentagon Papers as the most "direct challenge to a sitting government", it is clear that the investigation has ruffled feathers at a sensitive time.

It is not clear yet if there will be a lasting impact from these revelations about China's leaders - the Economist which has a special report covering the upcoming Party Congress, concludes that all the disclosures strengthen the case for reform.  Like many similar autocracies the connected elite of China have had an entrenched position for a long time in China and it seems unlikely that this will change after the handover beyond certain personnel changes (which was the conclusion of Katherine Hille in the FT).  But could tensions between ruling factions and their connected others spillover after the transition?

Factional tension was suggested by Hille (noting rumours on Chinese social media that information in the New York Times had been provided by factional opponents of Wen) and more broadly the Wen revelations have opened a greater discussion on corruption in China, which as the FT Alphaville blog noted that perceptions of corruption were reaching levels where they could be destabilising.  Cue then a closed door lecture from a Chinese (or Hong Kong-based) academic arguing that China is in fact nearly bankrupt and a warning from permanent China bear Gordon Chang warning that there is now a "stampede" of money and even officials are now fleeing China and all does not seem well.

A light-hearted piece in the Daily Mail might suggest otherwise (with news of a marriage of the niece of president-in-waiting Xi Jinping to a young unknown British businessman, Daniel Foa) but there is a very deep family tension involved in this year's leadership trauma.  Forming part of a highly recommendable podcast of experts (comprising Chovanec, Garnaut and Anderlini) was a real insight into the the deep inter-generational enmity between Jinping and Xilai (and their factions in the Party), which had arisen between their fathers, Xi Zhongxun and Bo Yibo, during the cultural revolution.  Garnaut in particular has been in explosive form revealing casualties of the factional struggles for position in both the military and political leadership. Add to this interventions of factions led by Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao and Jiang Zemin and things look set for an explosive mix.

An Englishman called Daniel Foa holds a book (c) ImageChina
As has been noted China's new leaders are likely to signal a clear directional change in policy very soon after the handover (as has been customary).  Whether they retain a princeling dominance and an absolute autocracy or opt for a more compromising approach (such as a management focussed Singaporean model) will remain to be seen.

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