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Level playing field for private firms

By John Zeng (China Daily)

09:44, December 01, 2012

Recent remarks made by two senior government officials have once again stoked debate on the future of joint venture self-owned auto brands in China.

Not too many people are aware that joint venture self-owned brands were first mentioned as part of the government's industry policy. The "Adjustment and Revitalization of the Automotive Industry Plan" released by the State Council in 2009 had set a target of increasing the share of self-owned passenger vehicle brands to 40 percent and self-owned car brands to 30 percent by the end of 2011.

Close on the heels of this, the automotive industry department released its target of self-owned brands accounting for 50 percent of the passenger vehicle market, and for 40 percent of the car market by 2015.

The target looks ambitious, considering that the performance so far has not been to expectations. Since 2010, the market share of self-owned brands has not increased but rather declined, and during the first eight months of this year was just 28 percent. Had not a sales slump hit Japanese cars makers, the market share of the self-owned brands would have been much worse in September and October. It is obvious that the government departments have realized the bigger picture of falling sales, and are using "joint venture self-owned brands" to achieve year-end targets.

Foreign joint venture partners are cool to the idea of joint venture self-owned brands as they feel that it would lead to loss of technologies to their latent competitors. So in most cases, the foreign joint venture partner transfers some outdated technologies and launches some low-end models instead of making concerted R&D efforts to nurture and grow self-owned brands. Their reluctance is understandable, considering that they do want to nourish and grow the competition in their own backyard.

The Chinese side in the joint venture also shows very little interest in joint venture self-owned brands. This is in part due to the failure of acquiring technologies, and in part due to the dent in their self-owned brand caused by the joint venture one.

Although both foreign and Chinese companies are not keen on joint self-owned ventures, it still remains the prerequisite for government approval of additional capacity. Hence it comes as no surprise that auto majors are actively launching joint self-owned cars.

The automotive industry policy launched in 2009 was without doubt an important catalyst for the conception of joint venture self-owned brand. However, the Chinese automotive industry's obsession with the 50-50 joint venture "opium" policy (as termed in a statement by He Guangyuan, the former mechanical industry minister) is the real reason behind such moves.

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