China’s consumers are “beginning to take sides” in the U.S.-China trade war, with dire implications for some of America’s biggest companies. So says the redoubtable Jim Cramer, who fretted on CNBC’s “Mad Money” Friday that Apple’s disastrous first quarter in China, along with a Goldman Sachs report downgrading Starbucks because of “a number of points of caution on China,” are harbingers of rising nationalism among Chinese consumers.
The danger, Cramer seemed to suggest, isn’t just that the world’s second-largest economy is slowing, or that Apple’s phones are overpriced, or that Starbucks is struggling to adapt to China’s digital economy. Rather, it’s that as the trade war rages, Chinese consumers are demonstrating their patriotism by shunning American products.
Sorry, Jim, but I don’t see any evidence of that. There have been Chinese boycotts of Japanese products over the sovereignty of islands in the East China Sea, and of South Korean products over deployment of a missile defense system aimed at North Korea. For the most part, both campaigns were short-lived. More recently, Dolce & Gabbana’s China business self-destructed after the fashion label produced a series of culturally insensitive ads. But I don’t buy the assertion that Chinese consumers aren’t buying to protest U.S. trade policies. In general, I have found Chinese consumers to be far more complicated, independent and self-interested than they get credit for from Western investors.
Consider the case of Canada Goose, the Toronto-based purveyor of luxury parkas. In November the company’s share price soared to a record $72 after it raised guidance on earnings amid ambitious expansion plans in China. Then, on December 1, authorities in Vancouver arrested Huawei Technology’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in response to a U.S. extradition request. Beijing decried Meng’s detention, and detained two Canadian citizens in China. Suddenly Canada Goose, whose parkas display the brand name on patches right on the shoulders, looked like a sitting duck. China’s state-run Global Times echoed calls on Chinese social media for a boycott of the brand. The company called off plans to open its first store in Beijing’s trendy Sanlitun district. By Dec. 24, Canada Goose’s shares had slumped to $42.
Then on December 28, without fanfare, the company opened the Sanlitun store anyway. Lines stretched around the block, despite sub-zero temperatures and $1,400 price tags. A headline in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said it all: “Chinese customers flock to Canada Goose’s first flagship store opening.”
More China news below.
Economy and Trade
Liu He’s talking. Vice Premier Liu He made a surprise appearance at trade talks between U.S. trade representatives and their Chinese counterparts in Beijing. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was not attending the talks, announced that Liu will likely visit the U.S. this month. A previous visit, scheduled last September, was cancelled suddenly. No concrete details emerged from the talks this week but both sides seem pleased. China’s commerce ministry said the sides had “laid foundations” for addressing “areas of common concern” while President Told reporters the U.S. was having “tremendous success.”. Reuters
The Jho Low low down. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has requested proof that China offered to bail Malaysia out of the 1MDB scandal, as the Wall Street Journal claims. The Journal reports China used Belt and Road investment projects, approved by former premier Najib Razak, to disguise the bailout and alleges Beijing also offered to spy on Hong Kong journalists investigating the story. Fugitive Jho Low, who is at the center of the 1MDB scandal, took the time to refute the Journal’s reporting, denouncing it as “half-truths, mixed in with fiction.” South China Morning Post
Not so happy New Year. The World Bank lowered its forecast for China’s economy by 0.1 percentage points, predicting a 6.2% growth rate this year, compared to an estimated 6.6% for 2018. Weaker exports are a factor for the downgrade but so is the softer global economy. The report warns “storm clouds are brewing.” South China Morning Post
Pushing yuan. China released a five-year plan for integrating southwestern Guangxi province with nearby Southeast Asia countries. China’s State Council wants to build Guangxi, which borders Vietnam, into a financial gateway for SEA. As per the plan, China will promote using yuan for trade with ASEAN countries and offer more yuan-denominated loans to the region. Reuters
Innovation and Tech
Electric dreams. Tesla broke ground on its first factory outside the U.S., which is also the first foreign-owned auto plant in China. Until last year, foreign auto manufacturers were required to establish joint ventures with local companies. Besides, Beijing seems to like Musk. Premier Li Keqiang reportedly offered the Tesla CEO permanent residency. Roughly 10,000 ‘green cards’ have been issued by China, and they are notoriously hard to get. But there’s no Twitter in China. Musk might not like it. Bloomberg
Footing the bill. Short-video apps like Tik Tok have been issued new content guidelines that ban politics, of course, but also foot-fetishes. The rules were issued by a state-backed industry group, the China Netcasting Services Association as China continues its campaign to clean up the web. It’s unclear if the guidelines are legally binding but the government has criticized Tik Tok for similar ‘immoral’ content before. Demands to self-censor could take a toll on company revenues. Wall Street Journal
Norway, Huawei. Huawei might be banned from Norway’s 5G network, despite already having a major presence in the country’s 4G network. Justice Minister Tor Mikkel Wara said Norway shares “the same concerns” as the U.S. and the U.K. over Huawei, although those two nations have very different methods for dealing with their concerns. Also in Europe, a Chinese national employed by Huawei in Poland was arrested for spying. Poland’s International Security Agency (ISA) said the arrest is only an accusation against the individual, not the Chinese telecom company. Reuters
Apple slice. Two of Apple’s major Chinese resellers, Suning and JD.com, have slashed iPhone prices by as much as 20% following Apple’s recent earnings warning. Apple CEO Tim Cook had blamed slower iPhone sales on China’s softening economy but, at the time, failed to mention the brand’s ludicrously high pricing as a factor. Financial Times
In Case You Missed It
How China could dominate science The Economist
Politics and Policy
Blame Canada, and then some. In an op-ed, China’s ambassador to Canada blamed “Western egotism and white supremacy” for the calls to release two Canadian citizens who have been detained in China following Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s arrest last month. One of Huawei Canada’s top executives resigned this week after seven years with the company. New York Times
Rocket Man, birthday boy. Kim Jong Un celebrated his 35th birthday with a getaway to Beijing, travelling in style onboard an armored train. In his fourth visit to China within a year, Kim was hosted by President Xi Jinping and joined by his wife, Ri Sol Ju, plus a delegation of top brass. Analysts suspect the visit, which coincided with U.S. trade negotiations, was to remind Washington that Beijing holds sway with Pyongyang. But it was also a chance for Kim to gauge the strength of China’s friendship with North Korea before Kim meets with President Trump for a second time – a meeting China has now greenlit. BBC
Nothing to see here. Diplomats from 12 countries with large Muslim populations visited Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has been accused of forcing ethnic Muslims into “reeducation” camps. This week China also welcomed U.N. officials to visit Xinjiang provided they “avoid interfering in domestic matters”. The Foreign Ministry also confirmed China will allow 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to renounce their Chinese citizenship and travel to Kazakhstan. The ministry did not say who would be permitted leave, nor why. TIME