BEIJING (AdAgeChina.com) -- China is entering the year of the tiger with an air of cautious optimism and energy. According to one popular geomancer, 2010 will be "a dynamic year of sudden opportunities and bold actions," especially compared to last year's global economic crisis.
But prickly challenges lie ahead for marketers, government officials and consumers. Ogilvy & Mather has ten predictions to help marketers understand key issues shaping China's business environment.
Here are five of those predictions in the first of a two-part special report written by two executives at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, Scott Kronick, president, North Asia in Beijing and Jamie Moeller, managing director, global public affairs in Washington, D.C. (The second part is published here.)
1. It's social stability, stupid
Roll the calendar forward in China, and our adaptation of the old U.S. campaign phrase, "It's the economy, stupid," clearly applies. More than trade friction, more than the debate on devaluing the RMB, more than the many issues involving other regions and countries, it's a sure bet that China's political elite will focus on maintaining stability and avoiding even the smallest risk of unrest during 2010.
Most political decisions in China connect back to social stability.
The government is particularly concerned about unemployment. More than six million university students will graduate this year and join the three million grads from last year who have still not found employment. Marketing messages relating to employment and contribution to jobs are as important in China as they are anywhere else in the world.
The growing income disparity between urban and rural residents is another issue to watch. Over the past decade, the average salary of rural residents grew much more slowly than that of urban Chinese. City dwellers now earn more than two-and-a-half times their rural counterparts and some high-level executives have salaries hundreds of times larger than their own staff. Chinese leaders would like to narrow this gap.
What impact will this have on marketers? Don't expect Facebook, YouTube or Twitter to operate freely anytime soon. Any platform that could be a potential risk for a healthy and stable nation will be blocked. Chinese leaders know that these tools can be used to organize political unrest.
Companies should refrain from meddling in China's goals for social harmony. Google's recent troubles here clearly spell out the government's priorities in China. Maintaining access to google.com.cn is not one of them.
2. The domestic agenda will dominate
President Hu and Premier Wen recently outlined their "People First" policy which will focus on improving quality of life for Chinese residents.
The domestic agenda reigns in China. And the top two issues on that agenda are consumption and utilities -- not exactly sexy but extremely practical. A third key issue is healthcare reform.
In 2010, the government will continue investing stimulus funds into areas that will benefit consumers and lead to increased domestic consumption.
Priorities include funding public utilities, primarily transportation. The goal is to encourage Chinese consumers to buy more while improving their quality of life and building out the country's mass transportation infrastructure. The "appliances to the countryside" program will continue in 2010. Since last year, millions of Chinese consumers have bought televisions, computers and washing machines due to a 10% government discount.
The mass rail system will expand. In December, China launched the fastest train link in the world, connecting the southern cities of Wuhan and Guangzhou with a high-speed train that runs close to 200 miles per hour.
Healthcare reform is closely tied to domestic consumption, as one-third of Chinese residents have no insurance coverage and save money for a potential health crisis. The government is investing RMB 850 billion ($125 billion) over the next two years on programs including a national health insurance system, prescription drugs, improved rural healthcare, and public hospital reform.
Despite a tightening of the market in China, particularly for multinational firms, foreign companies that fit within China's domestic agenda can reap the benefits in 2010, especially in technology, engineering and healthcare fields.
3. Self-reliant economic nationalism will continue
There is a shift taking place in China which has become very clear for those in joint ventures or in deep discussions with Chinese partners -- favoritism towards domestic enterprises over foreign firms.
For those operating here, it is being labeled as "self-reliant economic nationalism." While leaders do not refer to this directive specifically, many multinationals have expressed concern about it, and this has been reinforced from sources within the government leadership.
As a result, most successful multinationals have a mandate to become even more deeply rooted in China, and part of the fabric of everyday society. That involves true, long-term partnerships focusing on joint innovation projects that move China towards its quest for innovation and self reliance. The challenge is protecting sensitive technologies and intellectual property while doing so.
In 2009, Chinese leaders indicated their overwhelming support for the SMEs that employ 80% of the workforce. These small and medium-size enterprises help the government move away from clumsy, dated state-owned enterprises.
A metaphor we hear often related to China's massive stimulus package that speaks of this shift is: "If the stimulus package is a bowl of soup, let the multinationals drink the broth, while the domestic companies eat the meat." It is similar to the "Buy American" campaign in the U.S.. and means multinational companies must work harder to both succeed and show how they are part of China's long term socio-economic solution.
4. "Made in China" will shift to "created in China"
The government is strongly urging a "created in China" approach. Is this a risk to foreign companies operating here?
There are two lines of thought. First, certain sectors of the U.S. economy are concerned that this movement poses a clear risk to foreign firms by excluding them from the market.
A key worry is a new rule on government procurement which requires Chinese government contracts to be carried out by companies that rely on intellectual property developed in China. In 2010, this will impact numerous products, including computers, software and energy equipment.
Second, China is encouraging foreign companies to work with domestic companies more closely to expand globally.
Which is correct? The answer is somewhere in the middle. Going forward, foreign companies operating in China must make clear that they are willing to work with the government to benefit the domestic economy.
By forming alliances with Chinese companies, investing in rural areas and raising the bar on Chinese technology and development, multinationals can share best practices, help improve the domestic economy and still develop a robust China business plan. It's clear China no longer wants foreign corporations to simply inject funds into this market.
5. A rocky road ahead for U.S.-China relations
In the Year of Tiger, we enter unfamiliar terrain in U.S.-China relations. There's a new dynamic in the relationship, one in which China is increasingly assertive and confident, while the U.S. becomes dependent on China to fuel its economy and assist it on multilateral priorities. While we anticipate these issues to be irritants between the two super powers, we believe a constructive and cooperative relationship will emerge as it is in the best interest of both countries.
While we know the U.S. government will support American companies' commercial interests (including Google), this won't translate into a broader political campaign on internet freedom in China.
Posturing on such issues in Beijing and Washington, largely to appeal to domestic political constituencies, isn't likely to derail the world's most important bilateral relationship. The economic issues are likely to cause the greatest friction, but paradoxically create the strongest bonds.
Given China's much more rapid and robust economic recovery and the immense trade imbalance between the two countries, it is increasingly clear that China will be a target of American policymakers.
For its part, the U.S. continues to need cheap imports from China as increased consumer spending will be the only sustainable way to fuel a long-term economic recovery. In addition, the U.S. hopes for greater access to the world's largest market to sell goods and services.
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