China - 7-State Owned EnterprisesChina - State Owned Enterprises
China has approximately 150,000 SOEs, of which around 50,000 (33 percent) are owned by the central government and the remainder by local governments. The central government directly controls and manages 102 strategic SOEs through the State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), of which 66 are listed on stock exchanges domestically and/or internationally. SOEs, both central and local, account for 30 to 40 percent of total GDP and about 20 percent of China’s total employment. The percentage of SOE revenue spent on research and development is unknown. SOEs can be found in all sectors of the economy, from tourism to heavy industries.
China’s leading SOEs benefit from preferential government policies aimed at developing bigger and stronger “national champions.” SOEs enjoy favored access to essential economic inputs (land, hydrocarbons, finance, telecoms, and electricity) and exercise considerable power in markets like steel and minerals. SOEs have long enjoyed preferential access to credit and the ability to issue publicly traded equity and debt. SOEs also are not subject to the same tax burdens as their private sector competitors. According to some Chinese academics, provincial governments have used their power to manipulate industrial policies and deny operating licenses to domestic and foreign investors in order to persuade reluctant owners to sell out to bigger, state-owned suitors.
During the November 2013 Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress—a hallmark session that announced economic reforms, including calling for the market to play a more decisive role in the allocation of resources—President Xi Jinping called for broad SOE reforms. Cautioning that SOEs will remain a key part of China’s economic system, Xi emphasized improved SOE operational transparency and legal reforms that would subject SOEs to greater competition by opening up more industry sectors to domestic and foreign competitors and by reducing provincial and central government preferential treatment of SOEs. The Third Plenum also called for “mixed ownership” economic structures, providing greater economic balance between private and state-owned businesses in certain industries, including equal access to factors of production, competition on a level playing field, and equal legal protection.
OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance
SASAC participates in the OECD Working Party on State Ownership and Privatization Practices (WPSOPP). Chinese officials have indicated China intends to utilize OECD SOE guidelines to improve the professionalism and independence of SOEs, including relying on Boards of Directors that are independent from political influence. However, despite China’s Third Plenum commitments to foster “market-oriented” reforms in China’s state sectors, Chinese officials and SASAC have made minimal progress in fundamentally changing the regulation and business conduct of SOEs. China has also committed to implement the G-20/OECD Principles of Corporate Governance, which apply to all publicly-listed companies, including listed SOEs.
Chinese law lacks unified guidelines or a governance code for SOEs, especially among provincial or locally-controlled SOEs. Among larger SOEs that are primarily managed by SASAC, senior management positions are filled by senior CCP members who report directly to the CCP. SASAC Chairman Xiao Yaqing reemphasized this point during a March 9, 2017 press conference at the National People’s Congress, where he stated newly implemented rules required the chairman of any SOE under his ministry’s control to also be the secretary of the SOE’s CCP committee, as a way of strengthening the Party’s control.
The lack of management independence and the controlling ownership interest of the State make SOEs de facto arms of the government, subject to government direction and interference. SOEs are rarely the defendant in legal disputes, and when they are, they almost always prevail due to the close relationship with the CCP. U.S. companies often complain about the lack of transparency and objectivity in commercial disputes with SOEs. In addition, SOEs enjoy preferential access to a disproportionate share of available capital, whether in the form of loans or equity.
In its September 2015 Guiding Opinions on Deepening the Reform of State-Owned Enterprises, the State Council instituted a system for classifying SOEs as “public service” or “commercial enterprises.” Some commercial enterprise SOEs were further sub-classified into “strategic” or “critically important” sectors (i.e., with strong national economic or security importance). SASAC has said the new classification system would allow the government to reduce support for commercial enterprises competing with private firms and instead channel resources toward public service SOEs.
Other recent reforms have included salary caps, limits on employee benefits, and attempts to create stock incentive programs for managers that have produced mixed results. However, analysts believe minor reforms will be ineffective as long as SOE administration and government policy are intertwined.
A major stumbling block of SOE reform is that SOE regulators are outranked in the CCP party structure by SOE executives, which minimizes SASAC and other government regulators’ effectiveness at implementing reforms. In addition, SOE executives are often promoted to high-ranking positions in the CCP or local government, further complicating the work of regulators.
The Third Plenum Decision emphasizes that SOEs need to focus resources in areas that “serve state strategic objectives.” However, experts point out that despite these new SOE distinctions, SOEs continue to hold dominant shares in their respective industries, regardless of whether they are strategic, which may further restrain private investment in the economy. Moreover, the application of China’s Anti-Monopoly Law, together with other industrial policies and practices that are selectively enforced by the authorities, protect SOEs from private sector competition.
China is not a party to the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) within the framework of the WTO, although Hong Kong is listed.
Investment Restrictions in “Vital Industries and Key Fields”
The intended purpose of China’s State Assets Law is to safeguard and protect China’s economic system, promoting “socialist market economy” principles that fortify and develop a strong, state-owned economy. A key component of the State Asset Law is enabling SOEs to play the leading role in China’s economic development, especially in “vital industries and key fields.” To accomplish this, the law encourages Chinese regulators to adopt policies that consolidate SOE concentrations to ensure dominance in industries deemed vital to “national security” and “national economic security.” This principle is further reinforced by the December 2006 announcement of the Guiding Opinions Concerning the Advancement of Adjustments of State Capital and the Restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which called for more SOE consolidation to advance the development of the state-owned economy, including enhancing and expanding the role of the State in controlling and influencing “vital industries and key fields relating to national security and national economic lifelines.” These guidelines defined “vital industries and key fields” as “industries concerning national security, major infrastructure and important mineral resources, industries that provide essential public goods and services, and key enterprises in pillar industries and high-tech industries.”
Around the time the guidelines were published, the SASAC Chairman also listed industries where the State should maintain “absolute control” (e.g., aviation, coal, defense, electric power and the state grid, oil and petrochemicals, shipping, and telecommunications) and “relative control” (e.g., automotive, chemical, construction, exploration and design, electronic information, equipment manufacturing, iron and steel, nonferrous metal, and science and technology). China has said these lists do not reflect its official policy on SOEs. In fact, in some cases, regulators have allowed for more than 50 percent private ownership in some of the listed industries on a case-by-case basis, especially in industries where Chinese firms lack expertise and capabilities or in a given technology that Chinese officials deemed important at the time.
A key SOE-dominant industry that is insulated from competition is agricultural products. Current agriculture trade rules, regulations, and limitations placed on foreign investment severely restrict the contributions of U.S. agricultural companies, depriving China’s consumers of the many potential benefits additional foreign investment could provide. These investment restrictions in the agricultural sectors are at odds with China’s 12th Five Year Plan objective of shifting more resources to agriculture and food production in order to improve Chinese lives, food security, and food safety.
Right to Private Ownership & Establishment
At the November 2013 Third Plenum, the Chinese government announced reforms to SOEs that included selling shares of SOEs to outside investors. This gradual approach to privatization is an effort to improve SOE management structures, emphasize the use of financial benchmarks, and gradually take steps that will bring private capital into some sectors traditionally monopolized by SOEs like energy, telecommunications, and finance. In practice, these reforms have been gradual as the Chinese government has struggled to implement its SOE reform vision and often opted to utilize a preferred SOE consolidation approach. In the past few years, the Chinese government has listed several large SOEs and their assets on the Hong Kong stock exchange, subjecting SOEs to greater transparency requirements and heightened regulatory scrutiny. This approach is a possible mechanism to improve SOE corporate governance and transparency. The government also committed at the Third Plenum to raise the portion of earnings that SOEs pay out as dividends to the public budget, although here, too, the pace and method of implementation remain uncertain.Prepared by our U.S. Embassies abroad. With its network of 108 offices across the United States and in more than 75 countries, the U.S. Commercial Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce utilizes its global presence and international marketing expertise to help U.S. companies sell their products and services worldwide. Locate the U.S. Commercial Service trade specialist in the U.S. nearest you by visiting http://export.gov/usoffices.
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