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Beijing has a $12 billion plan to revamp a state firm. It might not matter

  • Beijing-based telecom China Unicom will raise $11.7 billion from 14 sources that include a mix of state and private firms
  • Since 2014, Beijing has selected a handful of firms to pilot mixed ownership reform
  • It's no secret that state-owned enterprises have long contributed relatively little to economic growth

One government-run Chinese firm is raking in billions of dollars in private capital as part of Beijing's wider plans to overhaul its massive portfolio of state-owned enterprises.

Beijing-based telecom China Unicom will raise $11.7 billion from 14 sources that include a mix of state and private firms, including China Life, CRRC, Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, Suning and Didi. The new partners will subscribe for about 9 billion new shares and purchase 1.9 billion existing shares. Upon completion, the investors will own 35.2 percent of China Unicom's Shanghai-listed unit, nearly equal to the 36.6 percent stake to be held by the parent group.

Some analysts were bullish on what that investment means for the company.

"We expect the 14 partners will be able to help China Unicom to develop its business and aid in its transformation from a traditional telecom operator into an 'integrated information service provider,'" Michael Meng, an analyst at Bank of China International, wrote in a research note.

Shaping up China's inefficient state sector has long been on Beijing's to-do list. It's no secret those firms have long contributed relatively little to economic growth. Still, reforms are "easier said than done," said Jeremy Stevens, China economist for Standard Bank. That's because Beijing must balance between a number of priorities, such as "keeping people employed, maintaining macroeconomic stability and social harmony."

An office worker talks on a mobile phone in front of a China Unicom logo, California-based Apple's partner in China, in Beijing on January 5, 2012.
Liu Jin | AFP | Getty Images
An office worker talks on a mobile phone in front of a China Unicom logo, California-based Apple's partner in China, in Beijing on January 5, 2012.

As Beijing continues to drag its feet, some experts are questioning just how serious the government is about making the necessary, painful changes.

Since 2014, Beijing has selected a handful of firms to pilot mixed ownership reform. But some remain in planning phases, and others "so far have not done very much," wrote Yanmei Xie, a policy analyst at research firm Gavekal Dragonomics. "The slogan of 'mixed ownership' is now being applied to almost any kind of corporate action." For instance, Harbin Electric set up a joint venture to manufacture gas turbines, and China Eastern Airlines sold stakes to a couple of private firms.

Plus, "mixed ownership" isn't exactly a new concept: China's state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have been publicly listing for two decades.

"'Breakthroughs' in SOE reform has, so far, been to drive bureaucrats and SOE managers to busy themselves with sustaining the appearance of active reform," Xie said. "The most popular way to maintain the appearance of reform is to keep reform in a perpetual trial state."

To complicate the messaging from Beijing, major Hong Kong-listed state-owned enterprises have recently amended their articles of association to clearly state that the Chinese Communist Party is at the core of the company.

CRRC, one of Unicom's newest investors, changed its central document in June, which now includes lines like "when the board of directors decides on material issues, it shall first listen to the opinions of the party committee of the company."

China Unicom also announced late Wednesday that first-half net profit spiked 69 percent to 2.42 billion yuan, although revenue dipped 1.5 percent to 138.2 billion yuan, compared to the same period last year.

China Unicom's ADRs in New York rose 3 percent on Wednesday. It's Hong Kong-traded shares have been halted since Wednesday, and China United Network, the Shanghai-listed unit, have been suspended since March 31, pending the expected announcement on the ownership change. The company's Shanghai shares had risen 2.3 percent this year until the halt.