While the Chinese government uses its vast financial resources to secure Beijing’s interests abroad, wealthy private Chinese citizens and corporations are on an international buying frenzy. China’s ever-increasing purchasing power is influencing every region of the globe, with some striking parallels between its overseas acquisitions and Japan’s international investments in the 1980s. However, China’s political system, a foreign policy that is often at odds with Western interests, and (counter-intuitively) its relative poverty mean that China’s global shopping spree may effect the balance of global politics in a way Japan never could.
Chinese recycling mogul Chen Guangbiao’s public intention to buy The New York Times highlighted both the lofty ambitions and the occasional crassness of China’s nouveau riche. Images of Chen’s business card, in which he describes himself as “Most Influential Person of China,” “China Moral Leader,” and “Most Well-known and Beloved Chinese Role Model” went viral online. Any potential deal to buy the venerable U.S. newspaper quickly fell through. Undaunted, Chen announced his desire to by The Wall Street Journal, saying “I am very good at working with Jews…I can comfortably run an American newspaper because I have equally competent IQ and EQ compared to Jews.”
While Chen’s over-the-top ego and utter lack of political correctness may seem comical, his ambition to purchase major American media outlets has serious implications. The New York Times website is currently blocked in China. In an interview with China’s Global Times, Chen said, “The tradition and style of The New York Times make it very difficult to have objective coverage of China. If we could purchase it, its tone might turn around.”
Media empires are by no means the primary objects of affection for China’s nouveau riche. The increased purchasing power of China’s wealthiest citizens is spurring luxury sales around the world. Dalian Wanda Group, headed by China’s second richest person, bought Picasso’s Claude et Paloma at a Christie’s auction in New York for $28 million – more than double the estimated price.
Who exactly are these ultra-rich Chinese making waves overseas? Aspiring media mogul Chen Guanbiao, with a net worth of less than a billion dollars, cannot even scratch the top-ten list. The wealthiest person in Mainland China is Ma Huateng, founder of Tencent, inc., a leading Chinese Internet company. Number two is real estate developer Wang Jianlin, and number three is Li Yanhong, founder of Baidu, China’s most popular search engine.
All of these entrepreneurs are self-made. True, they may have used official contacts to game an unfair system, but their achievements are impressive nonetheless. Not a single one is over the age of sixty. Capitalistic ambitions and thoughts were dangerous in China merely one generation ago. These men – and the growing ranks of Chinese rich who aspire to emulate them – are a generation of nouveau riche the likes of which the world has never seen.
Increasingly cash-flush Chinese companies are joining the spending spree of rich individuals. Lenovo’s plan to acquire Google’s smartphone hardware division, Motorola, further underlines Chinese investments overseas. The $2.91 billion deal will be the biggest technology purchase by a Chinese company in history. The transaction still needs approval from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, but Google’s executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is not worried about the agreement falling through: ”There’s a good chance of it being OK. We would not have done the transaction if we thought it would be in trouble.”
As impressive as Lenovo’s planned acquisition is, it still pales in comparison with the overseas investments of the Chinese government and state-owned enterprises. During a recent trip to Central Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged over $56 billion in loans to facilitate gas field development and pipeline construction. China’s holdings of U.S. government debt have increased to a record high of $1.317 trillion. Meanwhile, the Export-Import Bank of China (Eximbank) is forecasting that total Chinese investments in Africa will reach one trillion dollars between now and 2025. At the Africa Investment Summit in Hong Kong, Eximbank’s chief country risk analyst noted, “We have plenty of money to spend…We have the budget for major projects. China has US$3.5 trillion of reserves, which cannot just buy U.S. treasuries. We need to use part of them in overseas investments.”
There are some striking parallels between China’s buying spree and Japan’s investments in America in the 1980s. Three decades ago Japan, much like modern China, was in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom largely driven by exports. In response to a massive American trade deficit, the governments of the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Japan agreed in 1985 to intervene in currency markets to devalue the U.S. dollar.
With their newly boosted currency, Japanese multinationals went on an American shopping spree, buying U.S. treasury bonds, commercial properties (including Rockefeller Center in New York), and entire companies on a scale previously unseen. There were widespread fears of Japan “buying up” America. Some commentators even warned of an “economic Pearl Harbor.”
While Beijing still regulates the RMB, it has gradually loosened controls. The Chinese currency is now at record highs against the U.S. dollar.
There is one more potential parallel between China’s purchasing spree and 1980s Japan’s investments. Japan’s three-decade economic boom came to a crashing halt in 1991 with the bursting of the Japanese asset price bubble. There are some very real fears of a similar bubble in China. The last several years have seen consecutive double-digit increases in housing prices in almost all of China’s largest cities, with a 20 percent increase in the cost of a new home in Shenzhen in one year.
In a way China’s red-hot housing market stems from the same factors as China’s massive investments overseas. Many wealthy Chinese individuals, private corporations, and state-owned enterprises have more cash than they know what to do with. The value of an apartment in Beijing, a Picasso piece, or the U.S dollar are all very much dependent on Chinese demand.
However, China’s buying spree is different from Japan’s in several key respects. First China, unlike Japan, has not been co-opted into the U.S.-led international order. China has a very independent foreign policy that is often at odds with Washington’s unipolar ambitions. Washington and Beijing face off in areas from Iran to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China’s economic largesse is effective at making friends at the expense of U.S. interests, especially in Central Asia and Africa.
A second difference is strong potential for continued growth. Japan in the early 1990s briefly had a per capita GDP higher than that of the U.S. Measured by purchasing power parity, average Chinese GDP is now only one fifth that of the U.S. There is scope for economic expansion, especially in China’s interior. If China could grow its economy to the point where average GDP was even a third that of America’s, it would have the largest economy on earth – and plenty more money for overseas investments. It is worth noting that even with the world’s second largest GDP, China has already overtaken the U.S. as the largest trading nation.
China’s buying spree will have economic, political and strategic implications for the entire world. Investments abroad are much more important to Beijing’s long-term strategy than assertive posturing in long-running territorial disputes. Beijing’s tough stance in the East China Sea is primarily a means for rallying the domestic population. The last time China went to war was against Vietnam in 1979, and the campaign was a costly disaster for the Chinese military. On the other hand, China is poised to reap the harvest of African economic growth without having a single military base in the continent. If Beijing can continue to grow its economy, then China’s leaders may find that buying is easier and – safer – than conquering.
Brendan P. O’Reilly is China-based writer and educator. His specialty is Chinese foreign policy.