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State Inc.

The most important new forces in global business are aggressive, wealthy, and entrepreneurial. But they aren't corporations: they're authoritarian governments.

Officials from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Officials from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. (Bloomberg )
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joshua Kurlantzick
March 16, 2008

IT WAS THE biggest corporate deal in the history of sub-Saharan Africa: Last October, a foreign firm spent nearly $6 billion for a chunk of Standard Bank, the South African company that has long dominated finance on the continent.

Yet the foreign suitor was not Citigroup, or UBS, or some other titan of private commerce. It was the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a company owned wholly by the Chinese government.

On a business level, the deal gave ICBC's Chinese customers access to banking across Africa, and set the stage for closer relations between Chinese companies and African nations. In a bigger sense, it embodies a change that is reshaping the dynamics of global business.

In the past five years, governments around the world have been transforming themselves into deal makers and business players on a scale never seen in the modern era. In China, state-owned oil giant PetroChina has become the largest company in the world, worth more than $1 trillion. In Russia, state-owned Gazprom has grown into the world's largest gas company. States are also wielding influence by directly buying into major private firms: The investment fund run by the Arab emirate of Abu Dhabi is now the world's largest, and recently spent $7.5 billion to become the top shareholder of the American financial giant Citigroup. Singapore's state-controlled wealth fund, Temasek Holdings, sank $5 billion into Merrill Lynch, the largest US brokerage. By 2015, according to an estimate by Morgan Stanley, such state-owned funds will control a staggering $12 trillion, far outpacing any private investors.

The rise of states as global economic players marks a sharp reversal from decades in which private enterprise seemed an unstoppable force in global finance, commerce, and culture. It represents a new and unexpected fusion of state control with the business principles of capitalism. And it is already causing a significant shift in global power.

The new state capitalists - China, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and others - are primarily authoritarian nations. And as they become bigger commercial players, they are gaining new influence in a realm once dominated by the democratic West. Some political scientists, such as Azar Gat of Tel Aviv University, who coined the phrase "authoritarian capitalism" to describe the trend, see these countries as the first major threat to the idea of free-market democracy since fascism and communism.

One striking recent study by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, shows that the economies of politically unfree nations have grown faster than those of politically free nations over the past decade, often through forceful use of business and financial power. A recent report by the global monitoring organization Freedom House found that "a group of market-oriented autocracies" were an important force in an overall decline in world freedom.

Arch Puddington, Freedom House's director of research, sees these countries' new financial clout as having significant consequences for the world. "These autocracies are unapologetic and increasingly assertive, at home and abroad," he writes.

In modern times, business and government have occupied increasingly separate spheres in Western economies - separation that has laid the groundwork for their economic ascendancy. By the end of the 20th century, many economists and political scientists assumed there was no other path to growth.

The modern record of state-controlled business, by contrast, was chiefly one of failure. When the fascist and communist governments of the 20th century seized the reins of domestic industries, they ended up undermining development and bringing misery to millions of their own citizens. As private enterprise flourished in the West, the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union were widely seen as a repudiation of the idea that governments could successfully control the business sector.

But the wake of the Cold War also sowed the seeds of a new discontent with free-market private enterprise. Many emerging nations were stung by ill-planned privatization strategies in the 1990s. In Latin America, a decade of privatization proved so unpopular that, in a regionwide poll taken in 2001, a majority of people across 17 countries viewed privatization unfavorably. Across Africa, this era, known as the "lost decade," resulted in rising poverty, and even longing for some nations' authoritarian past.

The failure of those privatization strategies helped create a ready audience for a different model. Perhaps the most dramatic example is China. Over the past 25 years, while keeping firm control over its economy, China has adopted many of the tools of capitalism - ceding some operational power to a Western-trained executive class, inviting foreign investment and partnerships, and buying and selling on the global open market.

Beijing has also selected a range of strategic industries to develop, from oil to telecommunications to automobiles. By creating the state-owned China National Chemical Corporation in 2004, Beijing birthed a plastics manufacturing giant, one that quickly swallowed foreign companies like Qenos, one of the biggest plastics firms in Australia. State-owned Chinese automaker Nanjing Automobile bought up famed British car brand MG Rover, while Huawei, boosted by massive loans from state-linked Chinese banks, has expanded around the globe, even trying to take over US tech giant 3Com, a deal essentially scuttled by Congress.

The result has been the most staggering economic development in modern history - all with a firm government hand on the tiller, and without the liberal political reforms considered by many in the West essential to economic growth. China has become the third-largest economy in the world; the city of Shanghai has transformed into a soaring business district packed with skyscrapers and luxury hotels. Even smaller provincial cities have grown into high-rise centers whose shopping malls are packed with moneyed Chinese buying up cars, lattes, and all the other fruits of capitalist prosperity.

The Chinese example is proving immensely influential. Though China does not explicitly promote itself as a model of development, its government runs training programs for thousands of technocrats from across the globe, who hail from nations as wide ranging as Cuba and Vietnam. At last year's African Development Bank summit, held in Shanghai, President Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar told the hosts, "You are an example of transformation. We in Africa must learn from your success."

Even officials from wealthier developing nations come home impressed. When I interviewed one leading Thai businessman, a titan who owns a slew of industrial estates, he couldn't stop talking about China's development. He marveled at how quickly investments could be set up in a Chinese city: If the government decided it wanted that company, it would make permits so easy they could be done in a day.

In Syria, the government of Bashar Assad has launched plans to emulate China, while in Iran both reformers and conservatives have discussed how to copy China. Raul Castro, who has visited China several times, reportedly wants to emulate Beijing in revamping Cuba's economy.

Other nations are building their own powerhouse companies. In Russia, Vladimir Putin essentially has shut down most of Russia's privately held natural resources companies in order to build up the national gas firm Gazprom and other state companies. Gazprom alone controls roughly one-fifth of all gas production in the world, far larger than any private sector rival. (And its financial power translates into political power: Presumptive next Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, anointed by Putin, previously ran Gazprom.) Under Putin, the Kremlin also has extended its reach into industries from titanium manufacturing to aviation.

Across Latin America and Central Asia, governments like Bolivia, Venezuela, and Kazakhstan also have reasserted state control over their oil and gas resources.Already, many of these national companies dwarf any rivals. State-owned oil companies around the world now control nearly five times the reserves of their private rivals; Saudi Aramco, the Saudi government's oil company, can pump roughly three times as much oil as any other firm, and has launched a massive $50 billion expansion program that will make it even more powerful. Corporate behemoths such as ExxonMobil and Shell may be among the largest private corporations in the world, but they are no longer the biggest players in their own industry.

In aviation, an industry that requires vast amounts of capital, state-linked airlines now dominate private firms. From virtually nothing two decades ago, Dubai has built Emirates airlines, backed by the state, into a world leader and the second-most profitable airline in the world. The most profitable, Singapore Airlines, also enjoys state support - Singapore's state-owned fund owns nearly half the airline, as well as six of the country's other largest corporations.

Nations are entering global business in another way as well. Besides building companies, states are using their cash reserves to create their own investment funds, and have rapidly become major players in global finance.

The rising price of oil has put a gusher of cash in the hands of authoritarian petrostates like Saudi Arabia and Russia, all of which now want to invest their cash hoards. With their pile of reserves, oil producers like the United Arab Emirates and Asian exporters have developed massive state-controlled funds that can buy into companies around the globe. Abu Dhabi's fund alone controls nearly $900 billion, while China's controls $200 billion and Kuwait's $250 billion.

Overall, state-controlled funds control as much as $7 trillion, according to several estimates, more than the entire hedge-fund industry. And they are growing.

"The [funds] will become absolutely massive in size in the not-too-distant future, and will have powerful implications for the financial markets," notes Morgan Stanley's Stephen Jen, an expert on state funds.

As the global business momentum shifts from private companies to national governments, the implications are far reaching.

Many authoritarian governments realize that, in the post-Cold War era, a wealthy nation can extend its power very effectively without trying to build an army to compete with the US in military force in the short term. In Beijing, policy makers have developed a definition of China's strength called "comprehensive national power," which goes far beyond military strength to include economic might. China is now becoming a major aid donor across Africa, which it can than leverage to help Chinese companies win access to African resources.

The state capitalists also are gaining influence through their power in global finance. As firms like Merrill Lynch and Citigroup have found out, state funds provide a vital new source of investment across a world in need of capital. The funds are increasingly bailing out American banks, giving them significant leverage over the US financial sector.

They also are forcing the financial world, accustomed to a tight circle of power concentrated in places like New York and London, to woo developing nations. As shown by this winter's deals, leading banks have begun aggressively courting Middle Eastern and Asian state funds. Global institutions, too, understand the power shift: Recognizing China's growing economic might, the International Monetary Fund has revamped its voting structure to give Beijing more power.

Yet these state funds are often far more opaque than major investors in the West. Even the largest, like Abu Dhabi's, reveal little about their workings. And unlike hedge funds, which are also secretive, they could be acting on political motives rather than purely financial ones. When a Russian fund buys into companies in Eastern Europe, for example, it is impossible to tell if it is doing so for financial reasons or to boost the Kremlin's political influence over its neighbors.

Because of the close links between government and company, the state capitalists also use their diplomatic might to create business opportunities in a way free market nations never could. As Chinese oil companies have tried to win contracts to explore fields in Vietnam, they have come head to head with Western competitors. According to two people with knowledge of the negotiations, Chinese government officials have informed these Western firms that, if they want continued access to Chinese markets, they should give up their efforts in Vietnam. In Russia, the Kremlin's growing wealth has allowed Moscow to use Gazprom as a weapon against democratic neighbors like Georgia.

Wealth also can be used in other ways. Within authoritarian countries, the new model allows governments to dilute potential opposition without giving up political power. In China, the government's co-opting of entrepreneurs, now allowed to join the Party, has helped ensure that the middle class, which in the 1980s usually supported reform, increasingly tolerates the regime. In Russia, nationalizing the energy industry has reduced the possibility that any future Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a tycoon who once used his petroleum wealth to fund civil society groups, might emerge within Russia itself.

In the long run, though, worries about these developments may fade. Though it may seem as unstoppable as the rise of private corporations in the 20th century, today's shift to authoritarian capitalism may actually contain the seeds of its own demise.

State capitalism fosters corruption, allowing smaller circles of state-connected elites to control more wealth. In China, state dominance has meant that "princelings," relatives of leading Communist Party members, have gained control of some of the nation's most powerful companies. Even one Chinese government study of 3,000 of the nation's richest businesspeople admitted that a significant majority are related to top officials.

In Venezuela, growing state control has made the national oil firm less productive and more opaque, one reason why the country now ranks near the bottom on Transparency International's index of the world's most corrupt nations. Across Central Asia, too, state dominance of national oil companies has led to a spout of graft, including a US Justice Department indictment that fingers Kazakhstan's president, identified as "Official #2," for receiving millions in bribes.

And despite the national resources that can be poured into business growth, in the long term, state mega-companies are likely to suffer from competition on the global stage. Without exposure to domestic competition, their managers never get enough experience to compete on an open market. They also have no pressure to adopt real corporate governance and oversight measures.

There is already some indication that openness has its advantages: India has more globally competitive multinationals than China. It is a slightly smaller country, and far poorer, but unlike China it is a true democracy.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of "Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power is Transforming the World."

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