Jan 25th 2014

ACCORDING to the late Roberto Goizueta, a former boss of The Coca-Cola Company, April 15th 1981 was “one of the most important days…in the history of the world.” That date marked the opening of the first Coke bottling plant to be built in China since the Communist revolution.

The claim was over the top, but not absurd. Mao Zedong’s disastrous policies had left the economy in tatters. The height of popular aspiration was the “four things that go round”: bicycles, sewing machines, fans and watches. The welcome that Deng Xiaoping, China’s then leader, gave to foreign firms was part of a series of changes that turned China into one of the biggest and fastest-growing markets in the world

For the past three decades, multinationals have poured in. After the financial crisis, many companies looked to China for salvation. Now it looks as though the gold rush may be over.

More pain, less gain

In some ways, China’s market is still the world’s most enticing. Although it accounts for only around 8% of private consumption in the world, it contributed more than any other country to the growth of consumption in 2011-13. Firms like GM and Apple have made fat profits there.

But for many foreign companies, things are getting harder. That is partly because growth is flagging (see article), while costs are rising. Talented young workers are getting harder to find, and pay is soaring.

China’s government has always made life difficult for firms in some sectors—it has restricted market access for foreign banks and brokerage houses and blocked internet firms, including Facebook and Twitter—but the tough treatment seems to be spreading. Hardware firms such as Cisco, IBM and Qualcomm are facing a post-Snowden backlash; GlaxoSmithKline, a drugmaker, is ensnared in a corruption probe; Apple was forced into a humiliating apology last year for offering inadequate warranties; and Starbucks has been accused by state media of price-gouging. A sweeping consumer-protection law will come into force in March, possibly providing a fresh line of attack on multinationals. And the government’s crackdown on extravagant spending by officials is hitting the foreign firms that peddle luxuries (see article).

(Read more: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21595001-life-getting-tougher-foreign-companies-those-want-stay-will-have-adjust-china)

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