China prods state firms to boost investment in crisis-hit Hong Kong

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, a key infrastructure project. (Reuters)
Updated 13 September 2019

China prods state firms to boost investment in crisis-hit Hong Kong

  • The state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in attendance included oil giant Sinopec and conglomerate China Merchants Group

SINGAPORE: China has called on its biggest state firms to take a more active role in Hong Kong, including stepping up investment and asserting more control of companies in the financial hub, executives familiar with the matter said, as Beijing attempts to calm months of unrest in the city.

At a meeting this week in Shenzhen, the city bordering Hong Kong, senior representatives from nearly 100 of China’s largest state-run companies were urged to do their part to help cool China’s biggest political crisis in years, three executives, including one who was present, told Reuters.

At the meeting, the SOEs pledged to invest more in key Hong Kong industries including real estate and tourism in a bid to create jobs for local citizens and stabilize financial markets, two of the executives said, speaking on condition of anonymity. No specific investments were discussed or agreed on, they said.

The state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in attendance included oil giant Sinopec and conglomerate China Merchants Group.

The meeting was organized by the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), the powerful central body that oversees China’s sprawling state sector, which includes some of the world’s biggest companies in industries such as steel, energy, shipping and telecoms.

SASAC did not respond to a request for comment. Officials at Sinopec and China Merchants Group did not respond to requests for comment and calls to the two companies went unanswered.

Instead of simply holding stakes in Hong Kong companies, the Chinese SOEs were also urged to look to control companies and have decision-making power in them, one of the people familiar with the meeting said.

FASTFACT

China has ruled Hong Kong since its handover from the UK in 1997.

“The business elites in Hong Kong are certainly not doing enough. Most of them are just not one of us,” the SOE executive who was at the meeting told Reuters.

SASAC’s Communist Party chief, Hao Peng, appeared in Hong Kong on Wednesday at a forum for the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and said that SOEs were looking for ways to cooperate in major projects in the city, according to a SASAC news release.

Hao, who was accompanied by a group of SOE executives, also met with Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive.

While China’s big state firms are for-profit enterprises and many are publicly traded, they have long been expected to do national service, including maintaining high levels of employment and helping Beijing execute initiatives such as its big Belt & Road infrastructure plan.

Months of huge and often-violent protests in Hong Kong were triggered by planned legislation that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland courts. The protests have been fueled by what is seen by many in Hong Kong as creeping Chinese influence that is a eroding the “one country, two system” model under which China has ruled Hong Kong since its handover from the UK in 1997.

Widening mainland influence in Hong Kong has included the purchase of corporate assets and real estate.

The Hong Kong economy was once dominated by Britishtrading houses with roots in the 19th century. Local tycoons started to take over many of the businesses in the latter part of the 20th century, creating huge conglomerates such as Li Ka-shing’s CK Hutchison Holdings

Beijing has been willing to put pressure on Hong Kong businesses to be more patriotic, expressing unhappiness during an August meeting with the city’s business elites that they weren’t doing enough to quiet the protests, according to a report at the time by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

In the meeting last month with about 500 business leaders and pro-Beijing politicians from Hong Kong, Chinese authorities urged that they should “have no fears and stand up” to stop violence in the city, Xinhua reported.

Cathay Pacific Airways, a legacy of Hong Kong’s colonial era, has become the biggest corporate casualty of the protests after Beijing demanded it suspend
staff who support the demonstrations. Its chairman announced plans to step down in November, less than three weeks after CEO Rupert Hogg left amid mounting regulatory scrutiny.


India probes Flipkart, Amazon discounts after retailers complain

Updated 15 October 2019

India probes Flipkart, Amazon discounts after retailers complain

  • Products on Amazon, Flipkart listed at steep discounts in sale
  • Trader groups allege firms violating foreign investment rules

NEW DELHI: The Indian government is looking into whether hefty discounts offered on Walmart-owned Flipkart and Amazon.com during their online festive sales violate foreign investment rules, a commerce ministry official told Reuters.
India introduced new rules in February aimed at protecting the 130 million people dependent on small-scale retail by deterring big online discounts. The rules forced e-commerce firms to tweak their business structures and drew criticism from the United States, straining trade ties between New Delhi and Washington.
While Amazon and Flipkart say they’ve complied with the federal rules, local trader groups say the two companies are violating them by burning money to offer discounts — of more than 50 percent in some cases — during the ongoing festive sales.
Reuters reviewed emails and internal training material from Flipkart showing the company is in some cases offering to reduce, or forfeit, its sales commission from sellers that offer discounts.
The commerce ministry official said the government was reviewing complaints and evidence filed by the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), a group representing some 70 million brick-and-mortar retailers, alleging Amazon and Flipkart were violating the foreign investment rules.
The official declined to comment on possible action, but executives from Amazon and Flipkart were summoned to meet commerce ministry officials last week to discuss the matter.
Flipkart in a statement said it had a “good meeting” with government officials and it was “deeply committed to doing business the right way in India.”
Amazon said it had an “open & transparent discussion” with officials and has a high bar for compliance.
Seeking to attract shoppers around the key Hindu festival of Diwali, both retailers have placed full-page advertisements in top national daily the Times of India to showcase discount offerings stretching from Samsung and Apple phones to clothing and diapers.
“Customers are going online because of the unbelievable discounts. Because of this sales at offline businesses are down 30 percent to 40 percent this month,” CAIT’s secretary general Praveen Khandelwal said.
Two emails received by Flipkart sellers in September, just days ahead of the inaugural phase of the festive sales, showed it offering to partly fund discounts.
The company would “burn” 3 percent of the discount if a seller lowered a product price by 15 percent, or 9 percent if the seller discounted by 30 percent, said one of the emails.
In training material posted on Flipkart’s restricted website for its sellers, seen by Reuters, the company asks them to prepare for the festive season by saying “nothing is bigger than this” and explaining how they can benefit by discounting products for Flipkart’s premium customers.
“We want to ensure that you fetch as much profit from it as possible ... whatever the discount you are offering, half of that will be reimbursed to you by Flipkart,” a post said.
A Flipkart source said the incentives were compliant with Indian regulations and were aimed at promoting sellers’ earnings by effectively reducing the commission they pay.
All India Online Vendors Association, whose 3,500 members sell products on various online platforms including Flipkart, in a statement said fewer than 100 of its members benefitted from Flipkart’s partial discount funding, giving some sellers an unfair advantage.