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Chinese private enterprise; communist party seeks greater control

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At a summit with China’s richest entrepreneurs in late 2018 Xi Jinping sought to allay concerns that the state had declared war on the country’s private sector. Although officials in Beijing had spent the previous year bringing to heel unruly tycoons, China’s president insisted that rumours of a forceful push for party influence in the private sector were untrue. He exhorted the business leaders to “take a pill of reassurance”.

The medicine has been hard to swallow. Since then the Communist Party has sought a more active hand in recruitment and business decisions. And after subduing a band of headstrong bosses at overextended financial conglomerates, the state is now taking aim at China’s tech billionaires, making it clear that outspoken critics will not be tolerated.

Mr Xi’s preoccupation has always been maintaining China’s social and financial stability. Keeping big business in check is part of that plan. It should come as no surprise that the state is now homing in on tech, which has expanded rapidly. Six of China’s 20 most valuable listed companies are tech firms and with billions of users they touch the lives and wallets of almost all citizens.

A reckoning for the sector began with what looked like a shot across the bows of China’s largest financial-technology group. The suspension by regulators on November 5th of Ant Financial’s $37bn initial public offering with less than 48 hours’ notice was at first interpreted merely as a warning to its founder, Jack Ma, who had previously criticised China’s state-owned banks. But on November 10th the publication of an extensive draft of new rules for technology groups laid bare the state’s ambitions to bring to heel not just Ant, but the whole of China’s tech industry.

Mr Xi’s relationship with China’s tycoons has always been troubled. When he became president in 2013, he inherited a corporate system replete with fraud, patchy regulation and surging debt. After the success of an anti-corruption campaign that mostly targeted officials, Mr Xi took aim at a group of businessmen who were ploughing huge sums into risky overseas investments. Purchases included SeaWorld, an American amusement-park group, and the Waldorf Astoria, a swish hotel in New York. Officials argued that many of these acquisitions were thinly disguised means to divert capital out of China. 

Many of the businessmen who once fancied themselves as a Chinese Warren Buffett are in prison or worse. Wu Xiaohui, the chairman of Anbang, which bought the Waldorf among other assets, was handed an 18-year prison sentence in 2018 for financial crimes. Ye Jianming, who attempted to buy a $9bn stake in Rosneft, a Russian oil producer, was detained in early 2018. His whereabouts is still unknown. Xiao Jianhua, a broker for China’s political elite who once controlled Baoshang Bank, was kidnapped by Chinese agents from his flat at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong in 2017 and is thought to be co-operating with authorities in the unwinding of his financial conglomerate.

The crackdown has put an abrupt end to a boom in global spending by Chinese firms: in 2016 there were $200bn-worth of overseas mergers and acquisitions, the figure in 2019 was less than a fifth of that. And under government pressure private groups have divested assets worth billions of dollars. hna, an airlines and logistics group that bought a large stake in Deutsche Bank and Hilton Worldwide, a hotel group, has sold assets worth over $20bn in recent years. Anbang Insurance was nationalised, putting the Waldorf under the ownership of China’s Ministry of Finance. Baoshang was taken over by the state and allowed to file for bankruptcy in August. Acquisitions of European football clubs by Chinese groups have all but ended.

Analysts have praised the way in which systemic risks posed by companies such as Anbang and hna appear to have been reduced on Mr Xi’s watch. Within China few dare to criticise him for his failings. Those who have done so have been dealt with severely. Ren Zhiqiang, a senior member of the Communist Party who once ran a state-owned property firm, penned a missive to friends earlier this year in which he referred to Mr Xi as a “naked clown”. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison in September for bribery and embezzlement.

The party has also been increasing its influence over private firms in more subtle ways. Under a strategy referred to as “party building”, firms have been asked to launch party committees, which can opine on whether a corporate decision is in line with government policy. The number of committees in publicly traded but privately controlled companies is still low. According to a survey of 1,378 Chinese listed firms by Plenum, a consultancy, of the 61% that were privately controlled only 11.5% had party-building clauses in their charters compared with 90% of state-owned firms.

Party invitation

Yet the prevalence of such committees looks likely to grow. In September Mr Xi asked for the private sector to “unite around the party”. A day later Ye Qing, vice-chairman of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, a powerful organisation controlled by the Communist Party, issued a more detailed list of demands. He called for private groups to establish human-resources departments led by the party and monitoring units that would allow the party to audit company managers.

This might not affect all firms equally. “For big companies, there’s no negotiation. The party approaches you and you say yes,” says Joe Zhang, a business consultant who has sat on the boards of Chinese private and state corporations. However, he also argues that for most smaller firms, less visible and not as economically important, party cells are little more than a rubber stamp as profits will trump state influence on decision-making. Their influence may not necessarily be unwelcome either. One executive, whose company has a party committee, argues that by growing closer to the thinking of the party leadership, “we can steer the company accordingly”. This heads off potential clashes with the state.

So far there is little evidence to suggest that party committees have hurt profitability, says Huang Tianlei of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think-tank. But increased party influence could inhibit some operations. “Innovation may be suppressed. More red tape can emerge. A firm can turn from profit-driven to goal-driven, sacrificing profitability,” says Mr Huang.

It is possible that party committees may soon play a larger role in tech firms. A raft of new regulations presents a more immediate threat. Ant is connected to hundreds of millions of people through its payments and lending platforms. Like other Chinese tech giants it holds precious data on customers as well as controlling a pipeline through which hundreds of billions of dollars are lent and spent. That such power lies in private hands is a source of tension between the party and entrepreneurs.

“These resources need to be tightly controlled and the political loyalty of the firms and entrepreneurs, not only to the regime but also to individual political leaders, needs to be strictly maintained,” says Sun Xin, an academic at King’s College London. “The case of Ant is just one manifestation of this underlying logic.”

The halting of Ant’s ipo was triggered by new draft regulations aimed at online micro lending. For Ant, the rules can only be interpreted as an attack on the firm’s lending platform, its biggest source of revenue. Mr Ma may regret comparing China’s banks to pawnshops in a speech in October. The comments infuriated senior officials and played a part in the hasty suspension of Ant’s ipo. But Mr Ma is not to blame for the latest onslaught of antitrust rules, although he may have sped up their arrival.

 

vie-ing for influence

The new rules, under consideration for some while, will for the first time explicitly apply monopoly controls on internet and e-commerce firms. For many years China’s antitrust laws have not exempted the groups but they have also not been targeted in monopoly cases. This has allowed a few companies to control large swathes of the digital economy. They also take aim at the structures that have allowed Chinese tech firms to raise capital overseas. Barred from allowing foreign investors to take direct stakes, for two decades virtually all capital-hungry tech groups have skirted the rules by using a “variable-interest entity” (vie) to link foreign cash to the Chinese market. The structure creates an offshore holding company into which foreigners invest. That company has a contractual agreement with an onshore firm to receive the economic benefits of the underlying assets.

The vie structure has long been tolerated by Chinese authorities, but without full legal recognition. Foreigners have virtually no recourse in China to claim rights to the assets they have invested in. Foreign funds have long been wary of the framework but most Chinese tech companies still use it to structure their overseas listings. The new antitrust rules could require companies to seek approval for such arrangements, calling into question whether vies will be permitted in the future and so the way that foreign capital will reach Chinese tech firms. The threat of withdrawing tacit approval for a vie is another way the state can intimidate firms and their owners.

Perhaps the new rules will humble the outspoken Mr Ma. He has not spoken publicly on the matter, but Ant has bent the knee and agreed to embrace the new regulations. Mr Xi has made clear that no company is too big, and no ipo too valuable, to be allowed to challenge the state. (Economist)

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Union Assurance empowers its policyholders by introducing free COVID-19 life coverage

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Union Assurance PLC being one of the largest insurance solution providers in Sri Lanka has further established their commitment towards the nation by staying true to its promise, ‘Your Life, Our Strength’. In turbulent times such as COVID-19, the company has taken initiative to persevere and adapt by responding to customers’ needs irrespective of the unanticipated circumstances presented.

The free COVID-19 cover has been reinstated to support both existing and new policyholders to ensure additional protection during these uncertain times. The cover provides a free death cover up to a maximum of LKR 1 million per policyholder. This free cover is valid for a period of one month commencing from 02nd November 2020 to 01st December 2020.
Union Assurance was also recognized as one of the first life insurance companies to offer hospital cash benefits for quarantine treatments since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka. The company therefore assures all its valued policyholders this initiative would be continued in which hospitalization per day claims directly resulting from COVID-19 will be considered from 20th October to 31st December 2020.

Amidst grave adversity Union Assurance strives to provide its unwavering commitment in offering the best in class protection coverages to its policyholders while ensuring that their families are financially empowered to face any challenge and uncertainty.

Jude Gomes, Chief Executive Officer of Union Assurance stated, “The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health, economic and social crisis and has affected people from all walks of life. We offer this timely protection cover free of charge to provide our policyholders the added peace of mind that the future of their families will be secured during these uncertain times. The specialty of this cover is that it is not just limited to our existing policyholders but is also offered to new customers and thereby giving Sri Lankans access to secure the future of their families.”

To obtain more information about this free COIVD 19 cover, call the Union Assurance 24-hour hotline on 1330, email: info@unionassurance.com; or chat with the company on www.unionassurance.com
Union Assurance is the oldest private life insurer in Sri Lanka, and is a member of the John Keells Group, Sri Lanka’s largest listed conglomerate. Union Assurance completes over three decades of success in the industry with a market capitalization of Rs. 18 Bn, a Life Fund of Rs. 38 Bn and a Capital Adequacy Ratio (CAR) of 434% as at August 2020. Set to empower the Sri Lankan Dream, Union Assurance offers Life Insurance solutions that cover education, health, protection, retirement, and investment needs of Sri Lankans. With 76 branches and an over 3000-strong workforce, Union Assurance continues to invest in people, products, and processes to remain agile and responsive to emerging changes in the Life Insurance industry.

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Seylan Bank partners with Mastercard to facilitate MasterCard Payment Gateway Services

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Seylan Bank, the Bank with a Heart, recently partnered with Mastercard to integrate MasterCard Payment Gateway Services (MPGS) – a technology platform to enable easy and secure acceptance of a wide range of digital payment methods for Seylan customers.

As the need for digitization of banking products and services grows globally, banks are continuing to evolve their Internet Payment Gateways (IPG) to introduce new technologies offering heightened customer convenience and security of digital transactions. By partnering with Mastercard and facilitating the MPGS platform, Seylan customers, merchants, and industry partners will benefit from a range of features, delivering an enhanced user experience.

Commenting on this, Chaminda Senewiratne – Head of Digital Banking Channels at Seylan Bank said “The MasterCard Payment Gateway Service will transform digital transactions, further eliminating the need for cash payments. We at Seylan Bank, are proud to partner with Mastercard, one of the world’s leading payment platforms to offer our customers the MPGS service. Our customers can now experience an elevated, secure, reliable, and fast digital payment process, making the payment gateway a desirable channel giving merchants a chance to take their businesses global and accept payments from customers through the gateway.

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AIA Wealth Planner Krishan Dassanayaka internationally honoured

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AIA Insurance’s Wealth Planner, Krishan Wasantha Dassanayaka, has been honoured by the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) with an invitation to serve on the Membership Communications Committee (MCC) as Country Chair for Sri Lanka, AIA said in a news release.

The MCC is a network of more than 400 members worldwide who are responsible for promoting MDRT and communicating information to current and aspiring members, companies, and other industry organizations and reporting the needs and concerns of members to the MDRT Executive Committee and MDRT headquarters in the USA.

It is a global and independent association that is internationally recognised as the standard of excellence in life insurance and financial services. MDRT has an overall membership of 72,000 from over 500 companies in 70 countries. Its members are required to generate a certain level of premium, commission and income, and demonstrate professional knowledge, strict ethical conduct and outstanding client service.

AIA said Dassanayake’s was an outstanding achievement both personally and professionally and one which has brought great pride to person and organization.

“With this prestigious new appointment, Krishan will work with the global MDRT team for innovative ideation, groundbreaking implementation and achieving high-quality results,” the release said.

Having joined AIA Insurance as a Wealth Planner in 2003, he has always been a top performer and source of pride to the organisation and had won a host of national awards including the Golden Eagle (2009) and Silver Eagle several times as well as being recognized by AIA as a ‘Premier Wealth Planner’ for six straight years and as a ‘Supreme Wealth Planner’ for four years running.

 

 

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