Another foreign industry pining its hopes of future growth on the Chinese market has fallen under the beady eye of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the country’s top economic planner. This Bystander reads reports that the NDRC has put the China Automobile Dealers Association (CADA) to work researching the price of foreign cars sold in China, both those imported and those locally produced. This is not attention carmakers will relish.
The nominal issue at hand is whether foreign carmakers are setting a minimum retail price for their vehicles, which could break the 2008 anti-monopoly law. Last month, state media accused foreign luxury carmaker carmakers of reaping what they said were exorbitant profits in China and should face an antitrust investigation. It now seems that they knew of what they wrote.
The NDRC has already been successful in getting foreign milk-powder producers to pay fines and lower their prices. It recently fined five of them, including Mead Johnson Nutrition, Danone and Fonterra, and one local firm a total of $110 million for anti-competitive behaviour in effectively setting prices for retailers. Earlier this week, five Shanghai-based jewelry firms were fined $1.7 million for price fixing. Foreign drug makers are also feeling the pressure for making payments to doctors to use their drugs. Some three score of foreign and local pharma firms are under investigation for possible price manipulation.
That a mix of foreign and local companies are being punished is significant, even if foreign firms are bearing the brunt. Authorities have never been above targeting foreign companies for an abuse when they want to send a message to local firms that it is equally unacceptable from them. Tackling corruption within the Party and the government has become a core policy for the new leadership, but it also needs to break a similar culture in business that companies, if sufficiently well connected, can be above the law, too.
If China is to have the better corporate governance that it will need as it develops and rebalances its economy, the grey areas in which many firms now operate will shrink. Carmakers are only the latest to be given an indication of that.