Chinese billionaire sees baguette goldmine in French fields

Chinese waitresses work in a Chinese bakery “Chez Blandine,” belonging to the Chinese billionaire Hu Keqin, in Beijing. China, eager for lands abroad, is now interested in French wheat. A discreet billionaire, Hu Keqin, bought farms in Indre and Allier. He has just opened a first bakery in a chic Beijing complex and does not intend to stop there. (AFP)
Updated 25 February 2018
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Chinese billionaire sees baguette goldmine in French fields

Thiel-sur-Acolin, FRANCE: In the peaceful French village of Thiel-sur-Acolin, retired farmer Marc Bernardet is ambivalent about having a Chinese billionaire for a neighbor.
Over the past four years Hu Keqin has quietly snapped up 3,000 hectares of wheat fields in the central Indre and Allier regions, including next door to Bernardet.
His purchases are part of a Chinese buying-spree in recent years stretching from the US to Australia. And in France, struggling farmers fear a landgrab.
“It’s a piece of French heritage that is being taken, but that’s globalization and that’s the trend at the moment,” Bernardet told AFP.
“If it wasn’t the Chinese, it would be someone else.”
The fields may be bare for winter, but Hu has big dreams: Eventually they’ll provide some of the flour for 1,500 French bakeries in China, catering to a burgeoning middle class.
But he is keenly aware of the suspicions his project faces in France, where farmers say their traditional family ownership model is under threat from a huge rise in investor purchases.
“We take extremely good care of our land, and we’re using only French people to cultivate it,” the 57-year-old insisted in an interview at his Beijing offices.
“Many foreign investors are buying land in France,” added the understated businessman with a net worth estimated at $1.22 billion (€1 billion) by Forbes magazine.
“Are we so different from the Germans or the English? Shouldn’t we, like the others, encourage the local economy to develop?“
Hu cannily used legal loopholes — buying almost all of each farm rather than the entirety — to skirt rules that can allow the French government to block sales of farmland.
But President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday vowed to crack down on foreign investors buying up swathes of French land.
“French agricultural lands are strategic investments on which our sovereignty depends,” he told a crowd of young farmers at the presidential palace.
“We can’t allow hundreds of hectares of land to be bought by foreign powers without us knowing the aims of these purchases.”
Hu, who has spent €11 million on land in Allier alone, stressed that his plan is moving ahead with “solid support” from the French government.
His Reward Group is exploring a slew of tie-ups with French firms which, despite their suspicions, come as welcome news for a government that has prioritized kickstarting the economy.
Central to Hu’s plans to conquer China with baguettes is a partnership with France’s biggest cereal cooperative Axereal to supply flour as well as bread-making know-how.
And that’s just one of several potential French deals for Reward, which since 1995 has built an empire of everything from cleaning products to powdered milk.
It is exploring a possible import deal with Bel, the maker of Laughing Cow cheese, and France’s biggest meat producer Bigard ahead of the lifting of an embargo on French beef.
Reward took control last summer of a lavender soap maker in the south of France, Le Chatelard 1802, and has held further talks with a bakery chain, grain processor and soy company.
As it looks to diversify and grow its foreign assets, the conglomerate is also eyeing land in Romania and has bought a US cosmetics factory.
As far as the bakeries are concerned, having ingredients imported from France is particularly reassuring for Chinese consumers after a series of food scandals.
The first, Chez Blandine, just opened in a chic Beijing shopping center designed by star architect Zaha Hadid.
Bread is rarely served with meals in a country of rice and dumplings, and the Chinese bakery scene remains dominated by chains offering filled buns adapted to local tastes.
But Hu is banking on China getting hooked on the crunch of a traditional French baguette as more and more of its middle classes take European holidays.
“I’m counting on the young generation born in the 1980s and 1990s — keen travelers — and on children, but also the older generation whose eating habits are changing,” he said.
“The potential is huge.”


‘Don’t be too optimistic’: Huawei employees fret at US ban

Updated 26 May 2019
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‘Don’t be too optimistic’: Huawei employees fret at US ban

  • This week Google, whose Android operating system powers most of the world’s smartphones, said it would cut ties with Huawei
  • Another critical partner, ARM Holdings, said it was complying with the US restrictions

BEIJING: While Huawei’s founder brushes aside a US ban against his company, the telecom giant’s employees have been less sanguine, confessing fears for their future in online chat rooms.
Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei declared this week the company has a hoard of microchips and the ability to make its own in order to withstand a potentially crippling US ban on using American components and software in its products.
“If you really want to know what’s going on with us, you can visit our Xinsheng Community,” Ren told Chinese media, alluding to Huawei’s internal forum partially open to viewers outside the company.
But a peek into Xinsheng shows his words have not reassured everyone within the Shenzhen-based company.
“During difficult times, what should we do as individuals?” posted an employee under the handle Xiao Feng on Thursday.
“At home reduce your debts and maintain enough cash,” Xiao Feng wrote.
“Make a plan for your financial assets and don’t be overly optimistic about your remuneration and income.”
This week Google, whose Android operating system powers most of the world’s smartphones, said it would cut ties with Huawei as a result of the ban.
Another critical partner, ARM Holdings — a British designer of semiconductors owned by Japanese group Softbank — said it was complying with the US restrictions.
“On its own Huawei can’t resolve this problem, we need to seek support from government policy,” one unnamed employee wrote last week, in a post that received dozens of likes and replies.
The employee outlined a plan for China to block off its smartphone market from all American components much in the same way Beijing fostered its Internet tech giants behind a “Great Firewall” that keeps out Google, Facebook, Twitter and dozens of other foreign companies.
“Our domestic market is big enough, we can use this opportunity to build up domestic suppliers and our ecosystem,” the employee wrote.
For his part, Ren advocated the opposite response in his interview with Chinese media.
“We should not promote populism; populism is detrimental to the country,” he said, noting that his family uses Apple products.
Other employees strategized ways to circumvent the US ban.
One advocated turning to Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao to buy the needed components. Another dangled the prospect of setting up dozens of new companies to make purchases from US suppliers.
Many denounced the US and proposed China ban McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and all-American movies and TV shows.
“First time posting under my real name: we must do our jobs well, advance and retreat with our company,” said an employee named Xu Jin.
The tech ban caps months of US effort to isolate Huawei, whose equipment Washington fears could be used as a Trojan horse by Chinese intelligence services.
Still, last week Trump indicated he was willing to include a fix for Huawei in a trade deal that the two economic giants have struggled to seal and US officials issued a 90-day reprieve on the ban.
In Xinsheng, an employee with the handle Youxin lamented: “I want to advance and retreat alongside the company, but then my boss told me to pack up and go,” followed by two sad-face emoticons.