Ged Carroll

China evacuation

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China evac‘ or China evacuation is something that I have been hearing more about from my network. Its less dramatic in it sounds in some respects. It isn’t an immediate bailout like the fall of Saigon in 1975.

China evacuation in this case is about businesses moving processes and supply chains out of the country to more stable and friendly environments. This has resulted in net capital outflows from China.

US Embassy April 29, 1975

China’s policy of lockdowns and Ukraine have brought a ‘China evac’ to the fore in terms of public discussions, but its actually been on the the minds of business people and think tanks for far longer. The reality of a china evacuation for businesses is more like apocryphal tale of a slow boiled frog.

The China of Xi Jingping isn’t the China of 20 years ago when it ascended to joining the WTO. China has an unusual concentration of direct and indirect government funding in business. The state uses this funding to direct industry. In some respects this is similar to the development model deployed by Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. The difference is that the Chinese industry has kept up this investment for both military and economic purposes – what’s known as military civil fusion.

A second aspect was forced technology transfer that happened. And ongoing industrial espionage on a scale that has been unprecedented in world history to date. China now leads in certain technological areas that it intends to use for diplomatic coercion and military advantage.

Xi Jingping is looking to direct the economy more under the government and looking to remove any dependencies on western countries – including foreign companies doing business in China.

Why China evac now?

In order to understand the forces driving the consideration of China evacuation, one has to go back to the Initial incentives to invest in China.

Initial incentives

Stability

The government was literally prepared to crush dissenting voices. The government controls the labour unions and isn’t afraid to use force. Home markets and stakeholders shamefully ignored June 4th, but the Hong Kong protests and Xinjiang have brought the dark side of stability to the fore. Many brands are having to choose between China, or their western stakeholders and customers – they have straddled both sides but a China evacuation is only a matter of time.

China’s market size

The size of the local Chinese market. However this is better for some markets than others. KFC benefited for a while. As have luxury goods manufacturers. FMCG and technology brands have seen them ‘make a market’ for local brands to then come in and fill, pushing the pioneering multinationals to the sidelines. In the meantime their western market middle class customer base was declining due to globalisation.

Secondly, the spending power of a Chinese middle class on a per person basis is way lower than in the west. Just because there is an increase in middle class, doesn’t mean that there will be a like-for-like spending boost like one would get in the west. In absolute terms, incomes and tax are both lower than the UK, but then there isn’t much of a social welfare safety net and no health insurance.

China’s regulatory environment

China is skilled in the use of non-tariff barriers to punish businesses and countries. This skill was used previously to ‘compel’ foreign direct investment in order to sell within the Chinese market.

Changing macro-environment

COVID-19 demonstrated the fragility of global supply chains with China at the centre of them. China’s foreign policy stance has forced companies and governments to ask what would happen when they get into the kind of conflict with China that is currently happening with Russia.

China like Russia has maximised its actions in the grey zone so far. It is only a matter of time when open conflict happens. Whether its over North Korea, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, military action against the Philippines, Australia or Japan.

Policy thinkers are also conscious of the way China wilfully acts against western aligned countries with less and less regard to the mutually beneficial relationship that they currently have.

What are the limitations of leaving China?

China’s rise has led to a catastrophic wilful destruction of capability by multinational companies in other countries. What made sense from a short term shareholder value perspective, was strategically deadly for their home countries. (The only bigger bit of corporate criminality would be Lee Raymond’s time at Exxon which excessively aggregated climate change, despite the early work on alternative energy done under the likes of previous CEO John Kenneth Jamieson.)

So China is the single source for a lot of products, and the more one relies on it, the worse things get in terms of doing a China evacuation:

One of the reasons why this all happened is that businesses believed you could design products without having to understand deeply how the products are made. But the situation has now moved from CEOs being misguided, to being willing agents of the Chinese state. In foreign countries from the UK to Australia political and business elites have been willing participants against their countries own interests.

Businesses often don’t realise when the gap that they are trying to straddle has become too wide. Examples of this include law firms in Hong Kong and clothing brands Nike and H&M. Professional services firms have actively looked to profit from the deteriorating relationship between China and the west.

Finally executives that have built their careers on saying that China is the future are emotionally, intellectually and personally invested in staying put rather than doing a China evacuation. Examples of this would be companies like Apple, Swire and HSBC.

Policy implications of a China evacuation

Dealing with the enemies within

China’s state capture of a country’s elite is the single most problematic aspect of preparing for, and dealing with a widespread China evacuation of business functions and processes. The UK and Australia have made baby steps in this regard. The challenge will be realigning the incentives of the business elites away from short term stakeholder value to a longer term view that takes into account stakeholders and national expectations. (There is a certain irony in this when you realise that it was the short termist shareholder value crowd who bankrolled Sir David Sterling’s efforts to cling on to the British empire by his fingertips.) It will mean unwinding long tentacles sown by the United Work Front and Chinese state media without alienating Asian minority communities, including effective policing actions against operators as diverse as social media influencers and organised criminals.

Understanding the limitations

Policy makers will have to understand the difference between what’s possible, all be it painful and what can’t be done at the present time. This means navigating between the nay-saying short-termist interests of business elites and reality of operations. Certain things will take decades to reshore as part of a China evacuation of business precesses. Expertise and knowledge will need to be learned, plants built on the rubble of bankrupt retail parks

Building effective defences

Any sign of concerted China evacuation will see a dramatic Chinese response. Countries would need to learn lessons from the experiences of Norway, Lithuania and Australia who have incurred responses from China in the past. At the present time the European Union is failing its members in this regard.

Long term planning

Maintaining secure supply lines and economic growth requires long term planning. The financialisation of western economies rewards short term opportunism and there lies a fundamental tension in how things are done. There could have been no China without the asset strippers of the 1960s onwards and a narrow interpretation of ‘shareholder value as god‘ mantra.