China's State-Owned Enterprises: How Much Do We Know? From CNOOC to Its Siblings
28 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2013
Date Written: June 6, 2013
China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are sometimes compared to Canadian Crown corporations, such as VIA Rail or the CBC. But that comparison is not only profoundly inaccurate, it can also be a dangerous assumption to make when crafting Canadian economic policy. China’s SOEs have been actively buying up interests in major Canadian resource firms. But that phenomenon has much more serious implications for Canada than if these were, say, state-owned European firms, such as Norway’s Statoil. China’s SOEs do not operate by the normal rules of commerce. They are, in fact, a very powerful tool of the Chinese government’s industrial policy, which is aimed at a ruthless expansion of its global economic empire.
The spectacular growth of China’s SOEs over the last two decades, at a rate unrivalled by virtually any other sector on earth, has been driven by the will of the Chinese government, which provides cheap or free inputs — such as access to capital and real estate — in order to create globally dominant corporate powers. There is also the Chinese competitive advantage that comes with not just lower wages for workers but also behaviour that would be considered irresponsible in a Western context. Placing a lower priority on human rights, the environment, social justice and corporate rectitude give China and its SOEs an edge that have helped them in their goal of leapfrogging competing world economic powers, including Canada. Without these explicit and implicit subsidies, China’s SOEs have actually proven to be far less economically competitive than their private-sector rivals.
Chinese SOEs are not publicly accountable the way that Crown corporations in Canada are. Chinese SOEs are run by appointees of the Communist party, whose first duty is to the state, the majority or even sole shareholder of SOEs. Unlike Canada’s Crown corporations, which are designed to fill in market-failure gaps or provide public service, China’s SOEs are permitted to chase profits in sectors that do not even fall within their primary mandate. And unlike Canada, China jealously guards the sectors in which its SOEs exert absolute or strong control, disallowing any private-sector competitors — domestic or foreign — free entry.
When Canada’s federal government last December granted approval to the takeover of Nexen Inc. it made it clear that this would be the “end of a trend” of Chinese SOEs controlling acquisition of major Canadian energy firms. Such takeovers would be allowed only in exceptional circumstances from now on. That is how it should be. Canada’s business sector should contribute to market-driven economic growth, through efficient management and upright corporate behavior. It should not be allowed to become an instrument in China’s distorted and often disreputable drive toward global hegemony.
Keywords: China, Chinese, takeover, acquisition, energy, bid, investment, industry, government, Communist, party, business, sector, oil, Canada, Nexen, CNOOC
JEL Classification: Q32, Q4, P21, O13, O19, N55, N75, L71, L52, F21, F23, F13
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