A snake swallowing an elephant?

A snake swallowing an elephant?

Last week, two business news items struck a strong blow in Chinese economic circles. China Oil Aviation announced that it had lost hundreds of millions of US dollars gambling on world oil prices. Almost at the same time, stock of China’s leading computer maker, Lenovo, slumped by over 10 per cent on the Hong Kong exchange, as the market expressed pessimism about the future of its deal to take over IBM’s personal computer business.

  Several hundred years ago, Antoine de Saint Exupery drew a picture in his book "The Little Prince" that nearly everyone saw as a hat - but it was actually a snake swallowing an elephant. Saint Exupery was disappointed that no one understood his picture, yet it seems that in the first decade of the new century, the rarely appreciated picture has been revived by these two events.

  I don’t mean to associate these two domestic enterprises with the image of a little reptile. Our ambitious entrepreneurs have so eagerly desired becoming major international players competing with foreign companies that they have really taken "giant" steps in terms of multibillion-dollar investments.

  However, reality overshadowed their good intentions, at least for the president of the China Oil Aviation. He confessed that the first transactions made a profit, and some foreign banks encouraged him to continue making futures transactions. They advanced loans on very favourable terms, but the transactions ended up making huge losses the corporation could not absorb.

  Their failure resulted not only from speculative trading itself but also from overestimating their competitiveness. In the game with international oil giants, the chance of their winning the bet was really slim. They had very little experience and equally small funds.

  Before participating in any high-risk trading, it is important to teach our managers international practices and regulations as well as the wisdom of leaving the market and accepting losses early in the game.

  Ambition can be a double-edged sword. It is true that the booming economy and growing markets have given domestic corporations an edge in striking deals and competing with foreign firms. But we should realize that we are still new comers to this international playing field. While the country’s industry has been fully alert to the future opening of the domestic market and the entry of foreign giants, they are always less prepared to face the fierce competition in the outside world, especially when the rules of the game are mapped out by their foreign counterparts.

  There is a disquieting phenomenon that recently some enterprises have been too optimistic about cracking overseas markets. While they are buying well-known brand names and waiting for prestige and fat profits to result, they tend to forget the major difference between home and abroad. Besides the cultural gulf, the WTO framework and specific details can become major obstacles in achieving their original plan. During the fever of overseas listing and overseas investment and expansion, it is critical to keep an eye on this flood gate and nurture national industry cautiously.

  To our relief, Lenovo is not China Oil Aviation. Neither is it involved in speculative trading. But, it is never too early to make a stitch to save nine. If a new IBM computer encountered problems in the world market, would our customers at home be as determined to buy a Lenovo PC as before? It remains a question.

  This is not a question for the enterprises and customers only. In addition to the urge to improve supervision over trade and property, it reveals the importance of the government getting involved in regulating international business so that it can better protect its domestic companies.