For the pragmatic foreign investor barred from strategic sectors by state-imposed limitations, the best opportunities often appear through the cracks of a centrally planned economy. Watch the trends set by China’s five-year plans and it’s possible to predict many. It is a safe bet, for instance, that Internet censorship will continue to fuel alternative sources of entertainment. China is the only major economy where cinema profits grow because streaming services are inaccessible to people here, whereas elsewhere online flicks are hammering cinema revenues. Combined with President Xi’s campaign to regain Party control over universities, limited web access will also continue to fuel interest in foreign education, either abroad and through joint ventures (foreign schools cannot operate independently in China). Finally, China’s prohibition of global social media means that it’s Christmas every day for Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, China’s top search, e-commerce and social networking companies respectively.
In an old Chinese joke, tourists spot a farm where a cat is drinking milk from a valuable antique bowl. They cunningly buy the cat and ask the farmer for the dish as well. “I would never part with that,” the owner says. “It helps me sell a cat a week.” It often seems that China’s main export commodity is hope. But with the right mix of curiosity, courage and discipline, a growing number of international venturers can hope to join the minority of China investors that tangibly benefit from the opportunities presented by the single biggest thing happening in business today.