Chapter 15 – Human resource and infrastructure challenges

[Note: below is Chapter 15 from Great Wall of Numbers]

Consulting firms in China are abundant and usually just a stone’s throw away.  The primary reason has to do with China’s developmental status: China currently lacks expertise and experience in several fields.  As a consequence many domestic companies are willing and increasingly have the funds to hire foreign experts to guide, manage and even direct operations at companies.  To paint a clearer picture of the situation, according to Chen Yuyu, associate professor at Peking University, “[h]igh-end jobs that should have been produced by industrialization, including research, marketing and accounting etc., have been left in the West.”1 As a consequence, because they are faced with dilemma of working in low-skilled, low-waged professions, a recent survey found that “among people in their early 20s, those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education.”2

At the same time, it is advised that rosy enthusiasm – get-rich-quick in China – be tempered with a dose of reality.  For example, the Wall Street journal ran a piece in March 2012 which details the gradual shift away from recruiting expats at all corporate levels.3 This is due in part to increasingly expensive compensation packages needed to lure experienced expats and because of a growing talent pool of educated Chinese returning from overseas dubbed “sea-turtles” (hǎiguī). This changing outlook is best summed up by hedge fund manager Mark DeWeaver who recently told me in an interview,

I don’t think immigrating to China would be a logical choice for most foreigners.  There just wouldn’t be that many job opportunities for them, particularly if they don’t speak the language.  They would also be competing with the many Chinese graduates of US colleges that return home after graduating.4

Between 2000-2009, more than 630,000 Chinese-born immigrants received US green cards.5 Over the past 30 years more than 1.2 million Chinese studied abroad, approximately 20% of who matriculated to US schools and institutions.678 During the 2012-2013 school year, more than 190,000 Chinese students studied at US schools (up from 160,000 the year before) – they also comprise a quarter of all international students in the US.910 In fact, 37% of all international graduate students in the US now are Chinese nationals.11  While there is some overlap between the two groups and some manage to stay and attain green cards, some of the remaining – well-trained and educated – return home to join the Chinese workforce.12

According to the Ministry of Education, due in part to the incentives mentioned above in Chapter 9 (“1,000 Talents”) approximately 186,000 overseas Chinese returned to China in 2011, an increase of nearly 40%.1314 While some do move back to the West again, others stay.  For example, Kevin Woo is a Shanghai native who received an LL.M. from the University of Wisconsin yet works as an auditor for a large Chinese real-estate firm.  He returned to Shanghai in part due to the soft labor market in the US.  Anthony Wang received his bachelor’s and master’s from the University of Waikato and now works at his family-owned factory in Anhui.  Tony Wu received his bachelor’s from the University of Stirling and now works for AMER International Group, a large Chinese resource company in Shanghai.

So before packing your bags and flying out to China to open an office, you and your company need to answer the following questions: are you really a foreign expert?  Make a list of things you can do comparatively better than your Chinese counterpart.  What is your marginal productive value and what is the typical salary an expat with your skill set makes in China?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of opening an office overseas headed by a foreigner?

If you hesitated to answer at least one of these questions, remember that you and your company can always hire Western educated local Chinese who understand not only the complex culture of China but also can usually communicate effectively in English and understand many aspects of the West as well.

With that said, there are still a large number of multinationals that have moved in and set up shop on the mainland, recruiting both locals and expats alike.  Some notable examples in Shanghai are Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly which manages about 2,000 in the Pudong and Xintiandi districts; Sunnyvalle-based Intel which operates a 2,000 person division in Minhang, Shanghai, and another smaller office in Beijing of less than 1,000 workers (less than 5% are foreigners) both divisions focus on software development of chipset drivers; English First (EF), a Lucerne-based Swedish company which is the world’s biggest EFL training company and employs more than 2,100 full-time employees in the Shanghai metro alone, approximately 15% of which are expats.  In contrast, BP’s Pudong office has 200 employees, 10 of whom are foreigners; AIA’s Shanghai office only has about 150 non-sales employees; and Geneva-based Mercuria – a $75 billion resource multinational company (MNC) – operates a small corporate office of about 25 people also in Pudong.15

Some other auxiliary issues to consider before opening an office in China: according to the 2012 Expat Explorer survey, half of the expats recruited expect not only to earn more money upon relocation to China but also perks.16 For perspective consider that according to one October 2012 estimate that the per capita income of Tier 1 cities such as Guangzhou ($9200), Beijing ($8980) and Shanghai ($8325) are significantly higher than the average urban annual salary ($3,430).1718 For comparison according to the Social Security Administration the national average wage in the US in 2011 was $42,979.19 Yet Mercer’s 2012 ranking report on the most expensive cities notes that the cost of living for expats in China is disproportionally higher in these same cities: (being closer to 1st means more expensive) Shanghai is 16th, Beijing is 17th and  Guangzhou is 31st.2021 Similarly, an ECA International cost-of-living survey published in December 2012 found that Beijing is the 22nd and Shanghai is the 26th most expensive cities globally for expats.22 Why?  Because according to Lee Quane of ECA, “[e]ssentially what’s happening in China is that prices are rising at a faster rate than they are in the West, and that’s caused Beijing to leapfrog all those other locations in the rankings.”23 Or in other words, make sure to get firm budgetary numbers for the costs of: expat compensation packages (transportation costs, hardship perks, recruiting bonus) and rental property expenditures.

How large are these mainland cities?  Shanghai is the largest, with 23 million permanent residents, Beijing is slightly smaller with 20 million residents and Guangzhou has 16 million.24 Furthermore in terms of internet penetration rates across the country, Shenzhen has the highest (76.8%) followed by Guangzhou (72.9%), Beijing (70.3%) and Shanghai (66.2%).25 In contrast, Hong Kong is 68.7% and Singapore is 77.2%.  In terms of foreigners, despite the fact that more than 57 million inbound tourists visited the mainland in 2011 (see Chapter 4) there are only 600,000 foreigners who are permanent residents and 220,000 foreigners legally working on the mainland.26 Shanghai itself is home to the most foreign residents (200,000), roughly a third of all foreign residents on the mainland (in contrast Hong Kong has about 400,000 foreign residents).27

What city should you set up your first office and hire local labor from?  In addition to doing your due diligence regarding business licenses, you and your company should perform a cost-benefit analysis of mainland cities.  While labor costs are significantly cheaper in Tier 2 & 3 cities, salaries in Tier 1 cities also varied.  For example, the average monthly salary for an internet censor in Beijing is $653 whereas a similar censor in Tianjin is paid $480 a month.28 Similarly while land rental rates may be cheaper inland, larger metros like Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing typically have modern infrastructure (e.g., subways, well-maintained highways) which in turn attracts multinational corporations (MNCs).  Shanghai, which was according to a recent Forbes report is the best city for business on the mainland, itself has roughly 60 MNCs – more than any other city on the mainland.2930 This is due in part to subsidies and duty-free policies.  For example, a MNC can now receive an 8 million RMB ($1.3 million) subsidy for 3 years plus duty-free imports at facilities by setting up an office in Shanghai.31

Attracting, retaining and discovering talent and connections

Another seemingly mundane recruitment issue facing foreign and domestic companies alike is the labor hiring cycle.  Simply put, some recruiting months are not the same as others.  While most firms in large cities use the Gregorian calendar year for GAAP accounting, nearly every domestic firm celebrates holidays based on the traditional lunar calendar.  The biggest holiday of the year is Spring Festival or Chinese New Year, typically at the end of January to beginning of February.  Like their Japanese counterparts, it is customary for domestic companies to award significant bonuses – 20-50% of a month’s salary and even higher – to each employee just before Spring Festival.32 As a consequence, it becomes increasingly difficult to hire qualified workers after Mid-Autumn festival (also called Moon festival which is usually held in September) because employees not only would lose their potential bonus at the first, current company but would only be eligible to receive a reduced bonus at the new company.  This is just one more cultural issue US firms should be aware of before starting up a domestic office.

How hard is it to hire expats?  I posed this question to nearly every person I interviewed and the answer was unsurprisingly the same as it would be in other countries: compensation packages are usually the top priority.  And specifically, full medical insurance with coverage and reimbursements to private hospitals (see Chapter 19).  One of the reasons why this was important is that in the eyes of these managers, directors and CEOs, expats typically feel more comfortable in a foreign country if they knew they could have access to doctors and medical providers that spoke their native language.  As a consequence, firms looking to attract overseas talent may need to factor in the costs of medical reimbursements which can run up to 20,000 RMB ($3200) a night at some of the foreign owned and operated medical facilities.

Natalia Shuman, the new COO of Kelly Services’ in China mentioned in a recent interview that the top challenge in China for 2013 is,

I think retention and hiring talent are still going to be challenging.  More multinational companies are expanding their Chinese operations.  And the war for talent continues.  From the staffing and recruitment industry prospective, the operating environment here in China is tough: the competition is strong, limited collaboration between players, not enough regulations from the staffing associations, quality issues, cost pressures and price wars.33

In terms of retaining employees, in November 2012 I spoke with one foreign executive at a technology company in Shanghai who has employed a unique strategy in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone: retaining skilled employees and maintaining information integrity.  After losing several key staff to competitors, instead liquidating his assets he decided to go a different path, a “hollowed castle” route based on a strategy from Zhuge Liang in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义).

In a nutshell, there was a volatile period two thousand years ago when what we now know as China was divided into three warring states (三国时代).  One of the states (Shu) had its capital in Chengdu, in the contemporary western province of Sichuan.  This kingdom was ruled by a calculating leader named Liu Bei who had under his command an able minister and war general, Zhuge Liang.  At one point in this time period Liang had ordered all of his troops to leave the city and engage the enemy (Wei) capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an) to the north.  Yet his enemy took a different route avoiding a clash with the Shu, moving rapidly towards Chengdu whereupon they began preparations to lay siege to the Shu castle.  Liang, with little recourse attempted an unusual tactic: he opened the castle doors, disguised the remaining soldiers as civilians and played music from the top gates.  The leader of the opposing forces, Sima Yi, knew that Liang was a shrewd and calculating opponent and thus came to the conclusion that this ploy must be a trap.  So Yi withdrew his forces.  This type of reverse psychology is termed the Empty Fort Strategy (空城计).  Similarly this executive has since brought his subsequent teams into the fold, explicitly imparting the knowledge that they alone hold the key to their own long-term success – and that they could walk away at any time.  His staff turnover was subsequently lower largely due to what he considers from this frankness towards future revenue generation and employee trust.

In terms of specific retention examples in the service industry, when I spoke with both Scott Freeman and Richard Qi (see Chapter 13) they both noted that based on their experiences in the domestic IT industry there is a usually a dividing line of 1985.  That is to say, that the turnover rate is substantially higher for those born post-1985 (50-60%) than those born before it (20%).  Or in other words, the younger the employee, the riskier they may be – yet simultaneously, the younger the employee the more familiar they may be with new ways of thinking differently.  And it is a conundrum that is not endemic to China.

Another way to utilize and attract talent is a method used at Motion Global (MG).  Nira Binderer is an HR manager at MG in Shanghai and noted in our May 2012 interview that MG unequivocally sees China as the long-term home for its future base of operations.34 While it is no secret that from a wage and salary perspective it may make financial sense to hire local talent (e.g.,Chinese graduates from lesser known schools earn less than $350 a month at their first job35 ), Binderer said that MG had a unique external hiring strategy: hire expats as interns.  According to her, MG will give each intern a small stipend each month, but requires the interns to pay their own way (flights, accommodation, food) to show just how dedicated and genuine they are regarding SEO (search-engine optimization) and internet marketing.  After a two-month probation, their salaries increase proportionally to the success of their SEO campaigns (judged by analytic tools measuring click through rates, bounce rates, etc).  When I visited their Shanghai headquarters in May, more than two dozen foreigners (typically recent college graduates) were working side by side with local Chinese.  I spoke with one former intern, Miles Vaughn – now in Florida, who noted that he learned more in the months he was at MG than in any classroom.  In his words, “I hit the ground running and had a chance to not only learn as I went but each week we had a chance to talk with SEO teams from other companies including Google.”

While it would be difficult to convince the average expat to pay his or her own way just to be an intern at your new China office, hiring interns in general could help tide your firm over during cyclical periods such as the post-Mid-Autumn holiday (when fewer workers are willing to leave their employers due to bonus incentives).  Interns can also be viewed as an ongoing-asset.  After all your firm has invested both time and money in them, perhaps they can eventually be promoted to a permanent position in the future.

As mentioned several times previously as well as in Chapter 13, one of the problems that Larry Chang specifically faced when setting up shop in Shanghai five years ago was a lack of local contacts.  He did not know any businessmen or government employees and the locals were unfamiliar with him because he did not go to school with any of their colleagues, teachers or family members.  Thus building his guanxi (social, business, personal connections) was a challenge that required significant attention – one that he still focuses on.  In Chang’s words, “SMEs cannot make their own guanxi over night.”  One way he has successfully gotten his foot into the door is by meeting with consultants who act as his ‘air force’ – while he trains a figurative army of software designers, he relies on consultant connections to help put him into contact with suppliers, vendors and other contacts.  After years of meetings, this has enabled his firm to grow 30% annually.  Thus entrepreneurs should be cognizant of this all-encompassing cultural trait that Matt Garner described in Chapter 1 as “relationship focused” – in contrast to the “results focused” in the West.

Telecom infrastructure

ClarkMorgan runs a very tight ship in Shanghai’s Changning district, next to Jing’an Temple.36 Founded more than a decade ago by Australian Andy Clark and Briton Morry Morgan, it is primarily known as a firm specializing in corporate training, yet I would argue it publishes one of the top quarterly magazines on HR-related issues in China.  When I visited their office in May 2012, I had a chance to see firsthand the typical workday in which expat and local employees worked side by side, sometimes even sharing the same scarce tables.  The Shanghai office is staffed by approximately 20 full time employees (half expats) and as Gary Isse explained to me in an interview, “one of the challenges we continually face is maintaining a reliable network connections both internally and externally.”

This is one of the struggles that all potential firms wanting to move to China will face: how to deal with a relatively static telecom industry within each city.  While China is home to state-of-the-art telecom gear manufacturers such as Huawei and ZTE who produce modern equipment, its domestic broadband build-out is lagging neighboring peers such as Japan and Korea in part because its internal telecom infrastructure is organized into two disparate tiers.

In October 2012 I spoke with Scott Freeman, CEO of ITBN, a private internet service provider (ISP) that provides broadband connectivity solutions in Beijing and Shanghai.37 ITBN was founded in 2000 and offers a range of connections from dedicated ISDN lines to full fiber connections.  While ITBN charges a premium for their services, they also provide something that these SOEs cannot: reliability and bi-lingual telephone support and thus have captured a significant percent of the urban market share.

While much speculation exists about the telecom infrastructure in China, Freeman described the seemingly complicated national network thusly, “there are hundreds of licensed and probably thousands of unlicensed ISPs in China. Some have national licenses (like we do); others have only provincial licenses. Many more operate without licenses. The official differentiation between ISPs like us and the big state-run ones is that we are called “second-tier” ISPs, whereas they are called “first-tier” ones.  Theoretically the first-tier telcos are supposed to control all of the physical connections in and out of the country.  Other than that it’s not so clear what else differentiates them on the ground, other than the fact that the big state-run telcos have a lot more money and the extra job of content monitoring.”

As Freeman noted, aside from a few licensed private firms such as ITBN, there are essentially only three tier 1 ISPs in the whole country (China Telecom, Unicom and Mobile) all of whom are state-owned enterprises.38 In fact, on a user basis China Telecom and China Unicom (both SOEs) are the largest ISPs in the world.39 And while there may be developmental reasons for relatively slower bandwidth speeds (compared with their neighbors), in terms of throughput, according to their Q3 2012 speed survey, ChinaCache noted that while the overall speeds are a little slower than previous speed rankings, Shanghai currently leads the country in average speeds at roughly 3.44 Mb/s and Beijing is 10th at around 2.5 Mb/s.40

While the quality of wireless telephony signals between the US and China is debatable, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced in September 2012 that it plans to being issuing 4G licenses within the following year.41 Thus while Western countries are finishing rolling out 4G networks, aside from a pilot roll-out in a dozen cities such as Chengdu, Hangzhou and Wenzhou (from China Mobile), the majority of Chinese users unfortunately have another couple of years before 4G becomes an installed reality.42 And in the case of ClarkMorgan, there just are not many broadband packages that fit their needs at the prices expat managers are accustomed to (e.g., choice between a relatively inexpensive 5 mb/s DSL versus an expensive dedicated T1).

Takeaway: before opening up a Chinese branch for your company be sure to research the costs of living, property rental prices and telecom infrastructure availability in the area.  In addition, paying attention to hiring cycles, offering internships and recruiting hǎiguī may also give your company a significant advantage over your competition that fails to do so.



Endnotes:

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  1. See China’s Graduates Face Glut from The Wall Street Journal and University Graduates Have Hard Time Finding Job, Initial Survey Finds from Caixin []
  2. In other words, many college graduates are typically uninterested in low-wage, low-skilled factory work.  See Chinese Graduates Say No Thanks to Factory Jobs from The New York Times []
  3. Asia’s Endangered Species: The Expat from The Wall Street Journal []
  4. Animal Spirits with Chinese Characteristics: An Interview with Mark DeWeaver from The Libertarian Standard []
  5. Legal and Unauthorized Chinese Immigrant Population from Migration Policy Institute []
  6. According to a 2008 report from Reuters, “Of the 1.2 million Chinese people who have gone abroad to study in the past 30 years, only one fourth of them have returned, according to the Chinese government.”  In addition to Chapter 19, see China’s Brain Drain at the High End by Cong Cao, China’s Brain Drain Dilemma: Elite Emigration from The Jamestown Foundation and China fears brain drain as its overseas students stay put from The Guardian and China goes on the road to lure “sea turtles” home from Reuters []
  7. Unrealistic U.S. Immigration Policies Push Away China’s Best And Brightest by Forbes []
  8. An Export of Students: Where Are China’s Ultra-Rich Sending Their Children to Study? from Good Infographics []
  9. In 2011, the US embassy in China issued more than 160,000 student visas for Chinese students to study at American schools.  Yet a November 2012 report from Open Doors notes that the actual number is even higher, 194,029.  See Ten Years of Rapid Development of China-US Relations from Xinhua and Students from China add $5b to US economy from China Daily []
  10. Spreading their wings early from China Daily []
  11. U.S. a Hot Spot for Chinese Grad Students from The Wall Street Journal []
  12. Tough US job market sends Chinese students home from China Daily []
  13. Reverse brain drain: China engineers incentives for “brain gain” from The Christian Science Monitor []
  14. Is overseas returnee working as driver a waste of talents? from People’s Daily []
  15. It should also be noted that due in part to an economic slow-down on the mainland and because of political tensions, numerous Japanese firms are purportedly considering relocating elsewhere.  According to Reuters a “quarter of Japanese manufacturers are rethinking their investment plans in China and some may shift future production elsewhere.”  For perspective, since 1990, Japanese firms have invested almost $1 trillion the mainland.  And despite these tensions, in 2012, “Chinese consumers bought nearly 3 million Japanese cars and trucks.”  See As China tensions simmer, Japan pulls back from “world’s factory” from Reuters and Five Predictions for China’s Auto Industry in the Year of the Snake from The Wall Street Journal []
  16. Expat preference for the growing Chinese economy is apparent from HSBC []
  17. Other estimates such as the National Bureau of Statistics put the per capita averages higher:  (~$13,000/capita), Beijing (~$12,500) and Guangzhou (~$13,000).  The reason for the disparity involves not just sample size but also what geographic districts are included or excluded (e.g., in the NBS case they divided total GDP by population in the region).  See Guangzhou has highest average salaries for cities in mainland China from South China Morning Post []
  18. Charting China’s Family Value from The Wall Street Journal []
  19. National Average Wage Index from Social Security Administration []
  20. Modern China: A tale of luxury villas and displaced villagers from McClatchy []
  21. Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2012 from Mercer []
  22. Beijing, Shanghai Cost-of-Living Leaps from The Wall Street Journal []
  23. Ibid []
  24. See The Current Demographic Profiles of Shanghai (2011) from Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission, Beijing’s temporary population fell in 2011 from China Daily and Guangzhou seeks opinions on population draft from China Daily []
  25. Shenzhen Has the Highest Weibo Penetration Rate in China from China Internet Watch []
  26. See 593,832 foreigners live on Chinese mainland: census data from Xinhua and Plan to reduce minimum stay for foreign workers from Shanghai Daily []
  27. Shanghai’s foreign population above 200,000 from Want China Times []
  28. Wages have also decreased for certain professions over time.  For example, in 2000 a computer science graduate could earn $725 a month in Shenzhen, a wage that has decreased to $550 a month due to more competition from graduates.  See China’s ‘Manhattan’ becomes censorship capital from Financial Times and Chinese Graduates Say No Thanks to Factory Jobs from The New York Times []
  29. See Shanghai tops China’s “best city for business” from Sina and Top 10 best cities for business in China 2012 from China.org.cn []
  30. Another estimate puts the number of Asia-Pacific headquarters in Shanghai at 393.  See Almost 400 MNCs have their Asia HQs in Shanghai from IANS and Shanghai tops China in attracting multinational headquarters from Xinhua []
  31. Shanghai policies woo multinational headquarters from Xinhua []
  32. This is different than shūshin koyō (employment for life).  For a dated yet clear explanation of the Japanese bonus system see Bonuses and Employment in Japan from Journal of the Japanese and International Economies, 1987 []
  33. Developing a Competitive Edge from Insight []
  34. Motion Global []
  35. China’s Graduates Face Glut from The Wall Street Journal []
  36. Clark Morgan []
  37. ITBN and ITR []
  38. While there are a few large, private, independent ISPs on the mainland such as 263.net (网络通信) and Great Wall Broadband (recently acquired in Q4 2012 by Chengdu-based Dr. Peng Telecom, 成都鹏博士电信传媒集团股份有限公司) nearly all traffic is still routed through the three SOE tier 1 backbone monopolies.  China Tietong Telecommunications (中国铁通集团有限公司) which used to be China Railcom, merged with China Mobile in May 2008.  China Netcom (CNC) merged with China Unicom in October 2008.  See Users angry at slow Internet speeds from Global Times []
  39. Just two Chinese ISPs serve 20% of the world broadband users from ArsTechnica []
  40. ChinaCache Releases Third Quarter 2012 China Internet Connection Speed Rankings from China Web Report []
  41. China 4G licenses to be issues in 2013 from ZDNet []
  42. See China Mobile Network Costs Mean First Net Drop Since ’99 from Bloomberg, China Mobile Builds First 4G Base Station In Chengdu from China Tech News and China Unicom Books 50% Net Profit Growth In 2012 from China Tech News []

Chapter 20 – VPN and infrastructure services

[Note: below is Chapter 20 from Great Wall of Numbers]

Any company wanting to conduct international business on the mainland, irrespective of whether it is local or foreign, must invariably factor in the additional costs of communicating electronically beyond the mainland.  Beginning in 1996 and launching in 1999, the Ministry of Public Security and other governmental organizations began implementing and enforcing a series of regulations involving data filtering that ultimately matured into what is commonly referred to as the “Great Firewall” (GFW).12 Collectively, the types of filtering techniques employed by the Ministry through Tier 1 ISPs (all SOEs as noted in Chapter 15) include: IP blocking, DNS filtering, URL filtering, packet filtering and connection resets.  Simultaneously, the Ministry maintains a continuously updated “black list” of websites that mainland users are unable to access through this dynamic filtering and blocking mechanism.

This presents an opportunity to virtual private network (VPN) providers overseas.  A VPN is a type of technology that effectively creates a secure tunnel from one computer to another, isolating its data stream from the surrounding traffic.  This can be done by means of encryption and as a consequence many banks, financial institutions and national security centers – irrespective of the region or hemisphere – typically use some form of VPN to securely communicate with outside parties (e.g., for wiring money, discussing trade secrets, or diplomacy).3

There is no shortage of VPN providers in Western countries and there are in fact, Chinese-based VPN providers as well – the efficacy and reliability of which is debatable.4 In my own anecdotal experience, even with a paid service based in a foreign country, data can still be throttled and your connection reset.5 One reason is that the GFW is not a passive system – it is continually tweaked and changed.  In an interview in 2011, Fang Binxing, the Father of the Great Firewall explained that he himself has “six VPNs on my home computer.”6 He uses them to “test which side wins: the GFW or the VPN.”  And in his opinion, “[s]o far, the GFW is lagging behind and still needs improvement.”7

One world, two internets

As I mentioned in Chapter 12, while there are any number of domestically made and managed counterparts and clones of foreign social media services (e.g., Sina Weibo is the equivalent to Twitter), there is still niche demand for foreign-based web services.  For example, as I mentioned in Chapter 9, there are now about a million Chinese students studying overseas each year; more than 190,000 Chinese students studied in the US this past year alone.8 In addition, 1.36 million Chinese tourists visited the US in 2011.9 What this means is that as I mentioned in Chapter 3, Chinese consumers are increasingly exposed to Western and in particular, American tastes and services.

Yet to temper the optimism that a VPN provider could immediately sell several million service packages to individual mainlanders, consider this rough facsimile: while we may never know the real number, Facebook’s own indirect estimate of mainland usage of its social network is close to 600,000.10 While there are a number of other niche services in demand, especially from financial service firms, this 600,000 number can be used as a proxy to estimate the general demand for VPNs.

It should also be noted that not all foreigners use Facebook in China nor do all foreigners want to pay for a VPN to access it.  Furthermore, based on my own anecdotal experience at various institutions, the average Chinese user does not currently have access to a VPN or other fan qiang (“Wall Climbing”) software such as UltraSurf or Hotspot.  In their mind, why should they have to pay to access foreign services when there is a similar Chinese version available for free?  This is not to say that they could not gain access to the services if they were motivated and inclined to do so.  In my own anecdotal experience virtually none of the several thousand students I have had at various cities on the mainland over the past four years have had active Facebook accounts.  A few however have had VPN accounts so they could play online games like World of Warcraft on servers outside the mainland (e.g., “gold farmers,” see Chapter 14).11

Assuming the number is around 600,000, how much can a foreign-based service provider expect to generate?  Currently, the average monthly rates at PandaPow, Astril and most others are roughly $10 a month.12 And because a large portion of a VPN package is based on software that is open-source and free, the initial setup costs are minimal.13 Yet bandwidth charges, hardware purchases, customer support labor and utilities charges all vary and will depend on how large you plan to scale your company to.  Thus before investing in this segment, do your due diligence.

Entrepreneurs should also consider this: Bill Bishop has cogently noted numerous times over the past several years that while mainland users are effectively prevented from using some foreign web services, the mainland equivalents are not only more easily accessible and relatively comparable (e.g. same features), but the interconnectivity issues (e.g., latency, bandwidth) with them are relatively muted.14  In other words, assuming you have access to a VPN, it is still more convenient for mainland based users to stream videos on Youku than it would be to stream from Youtube because of the increased bandwidth throughput and reduced lag due to closer proximities to the content delivery networks (CDNs) for Youku-like providers such as ChinaCache.15 David Wolf, a partner at Allison+Partners (a consulting firm) echoed similar reasoning recently in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, noting that “What they [national government] prefer is that Chinese users decide it is just too much trouble and by default use onshore sites, or sites that are mirrored onshore.”16 As a consequence, because of the sheer size of the Chinese-based internet (see Chapter 12 and Chapter 13), there is now “one world, two internets.”17

Climbing the wall

I spoke with security expert David Veksler (see also Chapter 13), CEO of CryptAByte, who has given security workshops and seminars about these issues.18 In his view, “the GFW presents a fundamental problem for domestic researchers.  Because significantly large portions of foreign-based information are blocked and denied, only researchers with VPNs are able to keep up-to-date with their foreign counterparts.  Those without VPNs are left trying to use Google which is frequently blocked and misdirected or Baidu, which outputs few useful or useable results.  Thus they become discouraged, often times quitting and are ultimately unable to do the necessary research – idea investigations – for innovation.”

How does this create opportunities?  According to Veksler, this ties into another Catch-22 that domestic firms find themselves in, this endless cycle of benchmarking and cloning.  That irrespective as to whether or not they want to innovate, they are in a prisoner’s dilemma, “every competitor on the mainland expects to have the lowest costs.  Yet if they increase their research and development – creating higher quality products – consumers do not believe them, because consumers also expect that domestic companies are cutting corners, so why pay extra for a product that is probably just the same as the rest?”

He also likens this dilemma to a game theory scenario: the first domestic company to make that leap into quality is punished because consumers simply do not trust the product quality due to a history of scandals.  Thus any firm that does it is unable to recoup the capital costs of the research and development.  In contrast, foreign companies have spent decades building up their brands and reputations based on quality control programs (e.g., Six Sigma) and as a consequence are readily more trusted on the mainland.  Yet he remains optimistic, “the first domestic company to make a concerted, long-term leap into quality will not only be monetarily successful, but will help end this never ending cycle of benchmarking and cloning.”

Thus Veksler thinks that foreign brand managers, experts like Matt Garner, will be able to find opportunities to work within the entire spectrum of industries as their participants build national and internationalization expansion plans.

Chicken and egg problem

It is hard to measure the impact that an apparatus like the GFW has on productivity and creativity which business start-ups should take into consideration.  Consider Silicon Valley and Moore’s Law.  Much like other projects and mian zi gong cheng, there have been several public initiatives to replicate Silicon Valley in China, such as Zhongguancun in Beijing.  And yet for every successful start-up like iQiyi or venture capitalist like Kai-Fu Lee (see Chapter 12), large quantities of resources have been misallocated towards supercomputers that when installed – while capturing headlines for theoretical peak performances – are unable to be fully utilized because there are not enough trained software engineers to develop the sophisticated machines.19 Similarly despite 2 billion RMB ($320 million) in investment since 2010, Jike, a new search engine developed by People’s Daily (an SOE) has managed to capture a mere 0.0001% marketshare forcing the organization to lay off 20% of its staff.20

Empirically speaking, if central planners were to be the creators of Silicon Valley, they would have created Silicon Valley.  If central planners were to be the creators of Moore’s Law, they would have created Moore’s Law.2122 For example, the Soviets spent decades and relatively large budgets to overtake the West in computing innovations, yet failed at every turn.  In fact, it was not just one or two half-hearted attempts, it was a concerted effort directed from the top.  Mikhail Gorbachev himself made advancements in microprocessor technology a cornerstone part of Perestroikain 1985 (encompassing the 14th Five Year Plan).

Just how much effort was put into their centrally planned machine industry? Consider what the USSR tech industry was like circa 1988:

Machine building is the sector of industry on which Gorbachev is relying to ensure the success of his [Perestroika] strategy.  The hub of Soviet [computing] industry, this complex employs over 16 million workers at more than 9,000 research institutes, design bureaus, and production and enterprises, and is responsible for designing, developing, and producing over one-fourth of the country’s industrial output.  Of the 17 industrial ministries that make up the machine-building complex (detailed in foldout at back of paper), nine — collectively referred to as the defense industry — specialize in military hardware. The other eight produce primarily consumer goods and equipment for investment in the civil sector.23

Gorbachev recognized that “a high-investment, high-growth strategy must, at a minimum, continue through at least the first few years of the period to renew the sector’s capital stock.”  Yet ultimately, the Soviets tried, consumed their capital base, and failed.2425 Instead, hundreds of private companies, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, designers, and one relatively free market created a semiconductor industry that accounts for the number one export of the United States.26 Furthermore, this is not to say that technological activity will not take place in China, nor that Chinese institutions and researchers will not produce usable technology.  The question is rather, can it be cutting edge and innovative?  And if your firm hopes to tap into the innovation potential of the mainland, how does this impact your firms’ investment?

Many of these artificial technology and science research parks conflate cause and effect.  For example, during World War II, the Allies used Pacific islands as forward operating bases to protect their overseas supply routes.  On many of the islands the Allied forces built airstrips, including one on Vanuatu.  Following post-war demilitarization, most of these islands were vacated as the warring militaries returned home.  On Vanuatu, many of the islanders wanted the supply ships to return and provide modern goods to their pre-industrial society.  As a consequence, the islanders staged “drills” and “marches” with mock soldiers while others attempted to man the airstrips – all under the belief that it is these superficial motions and actions that originally brought the Western supplies.  Richard Feynman dubbed this “cargo cultism” (e.g., a cult that dreamt of Western cargo).27

In November 2012 I spoke with Mark Thornton, an economist at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and an expert in the boom-bust investment cycle.28  According to him, “Research parks are all about inventing technology for commercial and other purposes. Generally we are speaking of higher order goods, the types of goods associated with the boom phase of the business cycle. Therefore we would expect that research park projects tend to be established during booms when profits are high, the cost of capital is low, and where retained earnings are more than sufficient to support additional projects. If research parks are established at or near the peak in the business cycle then it would be wise to avoid contracting with research parks that have few tenants.  Traditionally one of the main benefits of research parks is synergy.  If your research park has no tenants then you do not have the type of synergies that successful research parks generate.  New companies, new technologies and products, as well as successful research parks (e.g. Stanford Research Park and Research Triangle Park) tend to get their starts during bad economic times.  During recessions land, labor, capital are cheaper and budding entrepreneurs are more abundant.”  In economic terms, higher order goods are goods used to produce consumer goods (e.g., those which require a long-term investment such as building a factory which in turn creates consumer goods).29

Similarly, many of these research parks and endeavors – not just in China – arguably exhibit patterns of modern-day cargo cultism.  Thornton noted that, “The next Silicon Valley will not look like Silicon Valley.  It will have some new features and not have all the same features as Silicon Valley.  You cannot just build “it” and expect them to come.  Silicon Valley is more than just Stanford Research Park and Stanford University. There are tangible and intangible factors that matter. They include things like the weather, demographics, culture, and relatively limited regulatory impact from the government. Even some factors we just do not know. Government can subsidize research parks but it takes a free market and entrepreneurs to actually weave the fibers of something extremely complex like Silicon Valley.”

In fact, in the US, nearly every state has erected several tech parks with the hopes of “creating” another Silicon Valley; there are dozens of research and technology centers across the country.  This raises the question: if you build it, will they (the creative classes) come?

In February 2013 I spoke with Becky Wu a native of Jiangsu province and a project manager at Xi-Tong Scientific & Technology Industrial Park located in Nantong, Jiangsu province.30 The primary task of her job is attracting and relocating foreign firms so that they will build and setup operations in the industrial park.  According to her, “we provide incentives and subsidies to attract firms from abroad.  For example, if land prices were with 230,000 RMB per mu, depending on how promising the project is and what industry your firm is in we can lower the price to 200,000 RMB or even 150,000 per mu.  This helps attract firms, enticing them to construct their new offices in the park.  We will also provide free temporary offices for new companies for up to 6 months while their new office is being built.  The utilities are also free of charge as well.”  As noted earlier in Chapter 3, a mu is 1/6th of an acre.

Wu also explained that there are other rebates and training subsidies that firms can receive.  She noted that, “we also offer new companies subsidies for research and to train personnel that can be allocated and spent without strings attached.  For example, we can provide up to $1,000 a year per person, up to 10 people to help offset training and research costs.  In terms of income taxes, we provide rebates to specific workers, typically managers and high-level executives for 3-5 years.  The way this works is that if you have to pay 100 RMB in taxes, 60% goes to the central government, 8% goes to the provincial government, the remaining portion goes to Nantong, thus we at the park can reimburse the remaining 32% back to you.”  Clients such as Caterpillar, BIC, Accuma and Kopron have taken advantage of these incentives over the past several years.

Does the return-on-investment pay for the capital expenditures which were originally expended?  While it is impossible to say yes or no for all the cases, what can be said is that the GFW itself probably does not create innovation, foster creativity or act as an incentive to attracting outside talent.  If it did, the Chinese computing industry would not be reliant on Western semiconductors, Western software and foreign know-how.31 And as a consequence, mainlanders conducting research are left using a virtual straw in order to access, view and communicate with the outside world.

How is this relevant and how does this affect your company?  Without virtual openness to new ideas, the domestic, indigenous engineering industries – while not autarchic – will probably always be laggards due to what Veksler noted above (e.g., getting frustrated and quitting).  To this point, last year the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing conducted a survey of its members, “nearly three-quarters of about 300 businesses it surveyed said unstable Internet access impedes their efficiency. About 40% said China’s censorship efforts have a negative business impact.”32 Similarly, economist Arthur Kroeber, founder of Dragonomics research noted in March 2013 that one obstacle to growth is the GFW.  In his view, innovation in the modern world today comes from “the sharing of knowledge and information across a variety of fields.  Innovation comes when you take knowledge in one area and it migrates over to another area and someone comes up with a new way of using it.  China seems to have a political system that mentally at its core is opposed to those networks ever becoming viable.”33 Thus, in addition to the issues raised in Chapter 15, this obstacle is another consideration that all firms looking to recruit talent must take account for.34

While there are occasional opportunities and projects like “1,000 talents” (mentioned in Chapter 9 and Chapter 15) that provide monetary and other perks and incentives to relocate, these well-intentioned plans may be unable to offset the hurdles created by the GFW and as a consequence there has been a “brain drain” that all firms and HR departments should be aware of.35

Yet to be even handed, Larry Chang mentions that he works within this system on purpose because it is “an untapped opportunity.”  He only hires fresh mainland graduates with the sole purpose of building an indigenous software industry.  And in his opinion, with more than 6 million college students graduating each year, there are bound to be creative, outside-the-box thinkers.  Similarly, at the 2013 Unleashing Innovation conference recently held in Singapore, Ya-Qin Zhang, chairman of Microsoft’s Asia Pacific research and development group, noted that “Chinese engineers are well equipped to produce the kind of innovative work that their more illustrious American rivals are renowned for” and continued with, “[t]he scale of innovators and the scale of the market will converge and eventually make China a key [innovation] center in the region.”36 Thus it may just be a matter of time before the right combination of inputs brings about the transition up the value chain as described in Chapter 7.

Opportunities in the rough

Again, even with these seemingly insurmountable challenges there are also opportunities.  For example, as I noted in Chapter 17, foreign architects are in high demand to help build and design buildings, bridges and even office parks.  Perhaps your firm can find new revenue streams by helping to build out domestic content delivery networks (CDNs) and cloud computing initiatives that are part of these technology parks.  As I mentioned in Chapter 13, according to IDC, $286 million was spent on cloud-computing infrastructure in China in 2011 and this is expected to increase to $1 billion by 2016.37 And this segment is quickly professionalizing, for example, ChinaCache is the largest CDN on the mainland with 53% of the marketshare.38 It was initially funded by the likes of Intel and is now listed on NASDAQ.

Another opportunity is with corporate VPNs.  While the individual market may seem like a logical way to establish a steady revenue stream, according to David Veksler, corporate enterprises – both domestic and foreign – will eventually want and need to have VPNs to secure their communication with clients, vendors and essentially anyone.  Irrespective of the GFW, Veksler’s own estimate is that there is an unlimited amount of potential growth for VPNs because very few domestic firms currently recognize the need to protect their assets.  But Veskler suggests, “this attitude will probably change, due to the increasing security vulnerabilities publicly acknowledged by even the largest of enterprises.”

But there is also a challenge regarding foreign owned and run VPNs on the mainland, as the Global Times recently quoted Fang Binxing (father of the GFW as noted above) that, “[u]nregistered VPN service providers are not protected by Chinese laws, and any company running a VPN business should realize they have a responsibility to register.”39 More directly, an employee in the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology pointed out in the same report that, “only Chinese companies and Sino-foreign joint ventures can apply to establish a VPN business.”  This is not to say that is illegal to connect to a VPN outside of the mainland.  Currently there are no laws which prohibit users in China from connecting to an overseas VPN.40

In December 2012 I spoke with an American executive at a large IT company that provides dedicated internet connections to enterprises and institutions primarily in Tier 1 cities.  According to him, “no foreign IT company and few domestic companies advertise their VPN services yet many of them will bundle it as part of a package to corporate clients.  Furthermore, Chinese regulators typically permit VPNs so as long as it is privately – not publicly – accessible as well as the stipulation that consumers use leased-lines.  A typical dedicated leased-line will cost over 3,000 RMB a month for 1 mb/s, this scales linearly (e.g., if you need 4 mb/s you are charged around 12,000 RMB), thus this option is typically out of reach by most consumers outside of the corporate and foreign communities.  In addition, you can find a number of local firms that will provide point-to-point VPN services within the mainland.  So if you are an expat that works for a foreign company that operates a VPN network elsewhere, then you will be able to securely connect from your local VPN to their secure environment overseas.”

Similarly, as an entrepreneur you can utilize these tech parks in China since they are not going to disappear overnight, if ever.  For example, Larry Chang merged all company divisions under one roof in a research park located on a campus of a local college in Changning, Shanghai.  His firm was provided incentives such as reduced rental rates for doing so.  Similarly, Richard Qi mentioned that a new area in Shanghai called Cloud City – a tech park – provides perks and benefits to foreign software, engineering and IT firms.  For example, Cloud City provides discounted office property, assistance in communicating with governmental organizations, stipends form the government and as the name-sake suggests, access to cloud services.  Prior to relocating to this tech park, Qi mentioned that it was often difficult as a foreign service provider to issue invoices because of unclear laws (e.g., Shanghai and other municipalities are currently transitioning from a business tax to a VAT) and it was hard to find the government contacts needed to settle these transactions.  In addition, perhaps your software or semiconductor firm can also take advantage of these inducements created by the 2011 policy which provides a tax holiday for several years, reduces the subsequent tax rates and provides exemptions on profits.41

Takeaway:  Due to a variety of regulations and policies on the mainland, certain telecommunication restrictions have germinated into a formidable barrier called the GFW.  And with several million technologically-inclined consumers familiar with Western tastes and styles, there exists a potentially new customer base for VPN service providers.  Yet just because there is potential for growth does not necessarily mean that the potential customers will purchase your goods and services (e.g., “if you build it, will they come?”).


Endnotes:

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  1. According to Fang Binxing, the ‘Father of the Great Firewall,’ it was “reportedly launched in 1998 [and] came online about 2003.”  See Great Firewall father speaks out from Global Times []
  2. Splinternet Behind the Great Firewall of China from Association for Computing Machinery []
  3. To bypass copyright restrictions, VPN uptake has increased over the past several years in several Western countries, as consumers move to alternative methods for downloading copyrighted content.  According to a study from Lund University in Sweden, there has “been a 40% rise in the number of 15 to 25-year-olds using such [VPN] services since 2009.”  See File-sharers look to VPNs to overcome Pirate Bay ban from BBC []
  4. Even with encryption algorithms like AES, third parties which have direct access to even one end of a data stream can conduct packet sniffing and other “side channel” attacks. []
  5. See Five Myths about the Chinese Internet from Foreign Policy and Florida pet spa mystery link to China’s great firewall from New Scientist []
  6. Great Firewall father speaks out from Global Times []
  7. In January 2013, Han Weili, a software instructor at Fudan University in Shanghai publicly solicited applications for employment to improve the GFW.  In his view there are two problems with the GFW technology, “The first is a lack of transparency in strategy, the second is that Great Firewall strategy execution has a false-report rate that is too high.”  See Great Firewall Engineer Han Weili Calls for Job Applications from Fei Chang Dao []
  8. In 2011, the US embassy in China issued more than 160,000 student visas for Chinese students to study at American schools.  Yet a November 2012 report from Open Doors notes that the actual number is even higher, 194,029.  See Ten Years of Rapid Development of China-US Relations from Xinhua and Students from China add $5b to US economy from China Daily []
  9. Chinese tourists spend more in US in 2011 from China Daily []
  10. No, Facebook does not have 63.5 million active users in China from The Next Web []
  11. Approximately half of World of Warcraft’s 10-12 million userbase is estimated to be from mainland China.  See “Gold Farming”: Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games by Richard Heeks and Converting the Virtual Economy into Development Potential: Knowledge Map of the Virtual Economy from the World Bank []
  12. Disclosure: I do not currently have any stakes in these products, services or companies.  See Testing five VPNs that’ll get you back on YouTube, Facebook in China from c|net []
  13. A user can remotely set up their own VPN practically anywhere using software such as OpenVPN.  The primary key issue is locating a computer outside of the mainland where it can be installed on and reliably connected to. []
  14. Sinocism []
  15. To better understand the importance of CDNs see, Google and Netflix Make Land Grab On Edge Of Internet from Wired []
  16. China’s ‘Wall’ Hits Business from The Wall Street Journal []
  17. See One World, Two Internets by Bill Bishop and Iran’s network in a bottle from The Boston Globe []
  18. CryptAByte []
  19. According to one estimate regarding software application investment for supercomputers in China, “Less than 10% of supercomputing funding goes to developing such applications, said Chinese researchers who complain that political leaders press them to build headline-grabbing new machines rather than focus on whether they are used to their full capabilities.”  See China’s Not-So-Super Computers from The Wall Street Journal []
  20. See People’s Search Engine Denies Layoff Rumors; Says More Jobs Open from Caijing, Jike’s attempt to censor news about its 0.0001% market share has backfired from Shanghaiist and You’ve been Jiked! from China Media Project []
  21. Debt as Tall as Dubai, or How the Singularity Is Not a Guaranteed Phenomenon by Tim Swanson []
  22. They cannot a priori due to the economic calculation problem.  See Economic Calculation In The Socialist Commonwealth by Ludwig von Mises []
  23. The Soviet Machine-Building Complex: Perestroyka’s Sputtering Engine from the Office of Soviet Analysis published by the Directorate of Intelligence []
  24. Throughout its existence the Soviet Union tried to incorporate technology in its Pyatiletka — Five Year Plans.  They even tried to recreate Silicon Valley through the construction of numerous science and research parks called Naukograd.  Numerous other countries have also tried to emulate the success of the Bay Area with little measurable return-on-investment; this includes Silicon Taiga in Novosibirsk.  The Soviet Union was unable to incubate something akin to Moore’s Law for the same reason the Soviet Union ultimately failed: without prices, you cannot make efficient allocation decisions.  Prices only arise from market interactions, through profit and loss — which signal to entrepreneurs when to buy, sell, trade, and invest capital.  Without this organic knowledge Soviet planners were left using arbitrary coefficients to plug into their various economic models with the net result: planned chaos.  See Planned Chaos by Ludwig von Mises. []
  25. One frequently cited myth regarding Japan is that it was successful in its attempts to centrally plan scientific innovation.  This is untrue.  See The Fifth Generation Fallacy by J. Marshall Unger.  See also Chapter 9 in Animal Spirits with Chinese Characteristics by Mark DeWeaver []
  26. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, “three quarters” of all semiconductor design and manufacturing takes place in the United States and that 82% of semiconductor sales are outside the United States.  See America’s #1 Export Industry Applauds Passage of Free Trade Agreements from the Semiconductor Industry Association []
  27. See Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman and In John They Trust from Smithsonian []
  28. Skyscrapers and Business Cycles by Mark Thornton []
  29. See Chapter 1 in Principles of Economics by Carl Menger and Chapter 16 in Human Action by Ludwig von Mises []
  30. Xi-Tong Scientific & Technology Industrial Park []
  31. According to recent reports, Chinese policy makers are attempting to build a 100-petaflop supercomputer which would be five times faster than the current record holder (Titan).  As part of this plan, Zhang Yunquan, a professor at the Institute of Software Chinese Academy of Sciences, noted that domestically designed chips may be used.  These domestic chips, called Loongson are based on MIPS, a chip design developed by a Sunnyvalle-based technology firm (MIPS Technologies).  Similarly, Chinese policy makers are frustrated by the fact that Android (which is managed by Google) has the lion’s share of marketshare and would prefer to have a domestic, homegrown OS used by smartphone makers instead.  See China is building a 100-petaflop supercomputer from IT World, China’s godson gamble from IEEE SpectrumWhy China Can’t Make Its Own Mobile OS from Tech In Asia and Google controls too much of China’s smartphone sector: ministry from Reuters []
  32. China’s ‘Wall’ Hits Business from The Wall Street Journal []
  33. Economist: China Plenty Creative, Just Not in Right Ways from The Wall Street Journal []
  34. China’s self-defeating war with information by Andy Yee []
  35. See Rich Chinese want to buy happiness — by emigrating from Los Angeles Times and Wary of Future, Professionals Leave China in Record Numbers from The New York Times []
  36. Microsoft’s Zhang Sees China as Asia’s Innovation Center from The Wall Street Journal []
  37. Cloud computing investment ‘to hit $1b’ from China Daily []
  38. ChinaCache investor relations []
  39. Foreign-run VPNs illegal in China: govt from Global Times []
  40. Adding Some Key Facts In WSJ.com’s China’s Internet ‘Wall’ Hits Business Article from VPN Instructions []
  41. China offers new incentives to further boost software and semiconductor industries by Peng Tao []