TWO THINGS WILL emerge — eventually — from China’s reform of its state-owned enterprises (SOEs): the elimination of a lot of redundant capacity in heavy industry and some multinationals that are strategically important domestically and formidably competitive internationally.
China has 111 centrally owned SOEs (those under the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission), down from 196 in 2004. The goal is to more than halve the number to around 50.
The consolidation of heavy industry, which accounts for more than two-thirds of SOEs, will let that target be attacked forcefully. Capacity reduction, particularly in steel and coal, is a policy priority in the near term.
That will drive consolidations. So, too, with inefficient and unprofitable, or zombie, SOEs in all sectors. Making globally competitive SOEs, particularly those that can underpin and benefit from the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, will also be undertaken by horizontal and vertical merger and acquisition.
Similarly, SOEs that operate in sectors identified as strategically important: vehicle making, ‘green’ industries, information technology, biosciences, advanced engineering (from defence to aerospace, robotics and advanced transport), energy (nuclear and renewables) and new materials. AVIC in aerospace and CRRC in high-speed-rail equipment are examples of merging existing SOEs into huge monopolists that can dominate the domestic market and provide a platform for international sales (just, it seems, the same way Western companies are going).
The intention is to reinforce government control over core industries while opening up some parts to private and, particularly in financial services and telecommunications, to foreign investors. The intention of what is delicately called ‘mixed ownership’ is to drive improvements in governance, competitiveness and efficiency. Wholesale privatisation is not on the cards, though some spin-offs, such as Sinopec’s sale of its retail division, are.
A contradiction in all this is that the current five-year plan, to 2020, calls for its ambitious growth target (average annual GDP growth of 6.5% to vault the ‘middle-income trap‘) to be achieved through innovation based on entrepreneurship and advanced technology, not oligopolistic state capitalism.
Yet economic decision making is being centralised as warp and woof of the Party’s reassertion of its political control.
At the same time, SOE reform is proceeding slowly (too slowly for the IMF) in the face of stiff resistance from long-standing interests that feel endangered and the anti-corruption investigations that are being used by President Xi Jinping to break it. The Maoist tradition of regarding SOEs as economic arms of political institutions (and the politicians that control them) has deep roots.
A similarly live memory is of the social unrest that followed Prime Minister Zhu Rongji’s round of SOE reform in the 1990s. Then, tens of millions of workers lost their jobs and the big state-owned banks carrying the SOEs bad loans had to be bailed out.
Even though SOEs have steadily withdrawn from labour-intensive industries over the past two decades and they no longer get favoured policy loans to the extent they once did, the risk of social unrest remains a significant reason that this latest round of SOE reform will proceed slowly.