蛇年:跨国企业在中国走到了十字路口 / Year of the Snake: A Crossroads for International Business in China

蛇年:跨国企业在中国走到了十字路口

鉴于这已经是我连续第四次写博客谈论跨国公司在中国遭遇的挑战了,读者们可能会觉得我最近对这个问题的关注有点过火。

但从另一方面考虑一下,目前中国正处于一个改革开放30年的历史时刻。新一届领导人面临着各种迫切挑战。同时,中国的年轻一代正亟需规划他们的职业路径,摆在眼前的选择不仅更复杂多样,也更令人迷惑。

也许,对外企相关政策和法规的审视还不是当前中国新领导层最优先考虑的事情,但涉及金融、经济、国企改革的很多方面都会对外国直接投资的环境造成重大影响,这些结果是值得密切关注的。

对年轻人来说,从5年前甚至更早开始,最佳就业选择的钟摆就已经偏离了跨国企业。对高级人才的争夺也变得愈加激烈。但在任何一个国家,求职意向的钟摆总是两头摇晃,到一定阶段总会出现回潮。

无论是中国政府的决策者,还是筹谋事业发展的年轻人,抑或是评估与在华外企合作前景的CEO,对外企如何看待眼下在中国面临的挑战进行一下了解总是有好处的。

最近我在The China Law Blog上看到一段Youtube视频链接,内容是与此有关的一个演讲,题目为“在中国经商的五大挑战”。演讲人是业内广受尊重的专家、Control Risks大中华区及北亚执行董事Kent Kedl。

他在演讲中提到的五大挑战对我来说再真实不过。我就曾亲眼见过某些外国企业因为对其中某个或几个问题应对有误,导致在中国市场折戟沉沙。

Kedl先生提出的第一个问题是要首先明确企业进入中国市场的动机。这个问题看似简单,实则不然。如果外国企业只看到中国市场的规模巨大,没有考虑清楚或拟定出战略规划就贸然进入,失败的机率很高。公司经营战略还必须获得各部门高层的广泛支持,短期即使未能如愿,也要确保不会发生180度的大逆转。而更长远的目光及战略规划是一笔巨大财富,二者缺其一都可能增添失败的风险。

第二个挑战就是各类经营信息不透明,在这方面企业会遇到与进入别国市场完全不同的情况。目前中国的透明度已比30年前进步了很多,但市场数据不足或可信度低仍让外国企业感到棘手。而某类信息周围还存在着危险的灰色区域,这些信息在别国本该属于市场调查领域,但在中国却仍被视作国家机密。

Kedl提出的第三个挑战 与上一个相关,但与市场数据本身无关,更多是关于如何对中方合作企业或个人进行确凿背景调查的难题。中国历史悠久,人际和家族关系绵延数代,企业形态在过去20年间发生了巨变,地域差异明显,环境极为复杂。如果不能充分了解企业背景的细微之处以及个人之间的联系,将会酿成代价惨重的错误。

Kedl提出的第四个挑战是了解政府在商业领域中的角色变化,领会其对规章制度、市场准入、投资奖励等构成的影响。在开放前,政府、企业和媒体实为一个统一整体。中国的改革正是为了改变这一状况,大方向是让政府和军队脱离经商行为,使市场监管机构独立于经营单位。但是,在各地区和行业,这项改革的推进程度各不相同,尚处于试验阶段,仍需调整和完善。外国企业需要充分掌握相关信息,以减少政府对企业运营造成的意外影响。

布鲁斯学会曾在2011年出版了Ken Lieberthal教授的《管理中国挑战》一书。书中,Ken Lieberthal教授探讨了外国企业了解中方潜在合作单位或相关政府机构的汇报关系(如领导关系、业务关系等)的重要性。这类信息并不算作机密,虽然没有摆在明面上,但只要有心打听还是可以获得的。这对了解中方潜在合作伙伴或监管机构的组织架构很有帮助。

Kedl提出的第五个挑战是中国的经商模式仍存在极强的本土性和地域性,某个城市的成功做法到了另一个地方可能会适得其反。也就是说,在中国没有一个适用于各地区、各企业的“万能”方案。与五年前相比,目前这个问题和外国投资者的关联更加密切,因为中国3、4、5线城市的经济发展迅速,重要性也在不断地提高。

《孙子兵法》云“知己知彼,百战不殆”。这句话同样可以应用于中国政府的决策者、潜在的商业伙伴以及求职者身上。

大家从各自的角度了解在华外企所面临的挑战,对各方来说这都是一个天赐良机。

蛇年将会是外国企业反思和调整其中国策略的关键年,在总结过往经验教训的同时也要把握新的政策导向。

这同样适用于“走出去”的中国企业。无论是出去还是进来,都面临着错综复杂的挑战和瞬息万变的环境。

Year of the Snake: A Crossroads for International Business in China

Since this is my 4th post in a row dealing with the challenges which international businesses face in China, readers may think am overdoing it on this subject of late.

On the other hand, this is a historic moment in China’s 30-year opening and reform era. New leaders face a wide range of pressing challenges. At the same time, a younger generation of bright young Chinese are planning their career paths, facing choices which are simultaneously more numerous, more complex, and more confusing.

A review of policies and regulations dealing with foreign enterprises may not be among the top priorities of the new leadership at this moment, but many aspects of financial, economic and SOE reforms will have significant impact on the foreign investment environment. The consequences are worthy of careful consideration.

For younger people, the pendulum has clearly swung away from MNCs being employers of first choice, unlike five or more years ago. The competitive environment for top talent has become fierce. Like all markets, however, pendulums can and do swing in both directions, in due course.

Whether as a Chinese government policy-maker, a young person thinking about career directions, or a CEO evaluating potential business deals with foreign companies in China, it’s useful to consider how foreign companies view the current challenges of the China market.

Recently on The China Law Blog I came across a Youtube link to a good presentation on this subject: The Five Biggest Challenges to Doing Business in China. The presenter is a respected expert in the field, Kent Kedl, Managing Director for Greater China and North Asia, Control Risks.

The five big challenges he describes ring true for me. I’ve seen foreign companies stumble in China due to getting one or more of them wrong.

The first one Mr. Kedl identifies is clarifying why the company is coming to China in the first place. This seems a very simple question, but it’s actually not. If foreign companies rush into China just because it’s a big market, without a clearly considered and planned strategy, their chances of failure are high. The strategy also has to be agreed upon by a broad-based cross-section of top management, and not subject to 180-degree swings and roundabouts if things don’t go quite as planned within the short term. A longer term vision and plan is an enormous asset; the absence of one increases the risk of failure.

The second challenge is the lack of transparency in many categories of business-related information which companies would normally expect to have access to in other markets. China is far more transparent than it was 30 years ago, but foreign companies still struggle with the issue of insufficient or unreliable market data. There is also a risky gray area surrounding some categories of information which would be deemed market research in other countries but may be considered state secrets in China.

The third challenge Kedl identifies is related to the second, but does not concern market data per se, but rather the challenge of doing adequate due diligence on potential Chinese partner companies and individuals. As an ancient country with strong personal and family relationships which can span generations, a corporate landscape which has changed so dramatically in the past 20 years, and big differences from one region to another, China is a very complex environment. Failure to understand the nuances of the background to companies and individual relationships can lead to costly mistakes.

Kedl’s fourth challenge is understanding the changing role of government in business, and how it impacts rules, regulations, market access, investment incentives, etc. Before the open door, government, business, and media were essentially one and the same. Changing this has of course been part and parcel of the reform process. The broad direction has been to get government and the military out of business, and to separate regulators from active players in the market. However, the pace has been variable from one region and industry to another, and has involved experimental stages, with room for adjustment and fine-tuning. As a foreign company, you need to be well-informed enough to minimize unexpected changes in how the government impacts your business.

In Professor Ken Lieberthal’s excellent book “Managing the China Challenge”, Brookings Institution Press, 2011, he discusses the importance of foreign companies inquiring of their potential Chinese business partners or related state agencies about their reporting relationships (e.g. lingdao guanxi, yewu guanxi, etc.). This information is not considered secret, nor is it obvious, but it is openly available if you inquire about it. It is useful and important as a part of understanding the structural context in which a potential Chinese partner or regulatory organization functions.

Kedl’s fifth and final challenge relates to the fact that business in China is still very local and regional, and what works in one city may backfire in another. In other words, there is no “one size fits all” solution to navigating the regional complexities and variations of the business landscape in China. This issue is relevant for more foreign investors today than it was 5 years ago due to the rapid economic growth and importance of China’s 3rd, 4th and 5th tier cities.

The ancient strategist Sunzi’s dictum “Know yourself, know your enemy, and in one hundred battles you will be victorious” can also be applied to Chinese government policy makers, prospective business partners, and job seekers in this context.

Understanding the challenges which foreign businesses face in China, from their own viewpoint, represents an important and timely opportunity for all these groups.

The Year of the Snake will be a significant year for foreign companies to re-evaluate and fine tune their China strategies, reflecting on lessons learned as well as new policy directions.

The same will be true for Chinese companies going global. Both the inbound and the outbound roads involve complex challenges and fast-changing environments.


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