Can we trust China? Fallout from the murder of a Briton

The death of Neil Heywood and the purge of Bo Xilai have frayed the nerves of Western investors in China. Will the fear abate, or is this just the beginning? Ben Chu examines the case

The body of a foreign businessman is found in an anonymous hotel room in a busy city of a distant land. Officials say that the cause of death was a heart attack. The body is swiftly cremated, without an autopsy.

Then allegations explode out of nowhere that the man was murdered on the orders of the wife of one of the country's rising political stars. The scandal is subsequently used as a political bludgeon to bring down that particular ambitious politician, as a simmering factional battle at the highest levels of the regime bursts into the open.

The Neil Heywood/Bo Xilai affair is hardly a good advert for a country hoping to encourage more foreign investment. Business people generally do not relish working in countries where outsiders can be caught in the crossfire of domestic factional battles.

But this is China, the world's fastest-growing economy, the emerging superpower of the 21st century, the success story that every investor and corporation on the planet dare not miss out on.

Not even allegations of the murder of a Westerner – of the sort that would have expats scurrying for the airport if they emerged in some other places – can put off foreign investors. Just last week Ford announced plans to spend $760m (£472m) building a new factory in Hangzhou. Everyone still wants to climb aboard the China juggernaut as it motors its way into a glorious future.

Or do they? Henry Tillman runs Grisons Peak, a London-based merchant banking firm, which specialises in analysing investment flows into and out of China. He expects the political uncertainty generated by the purge of Mr Heywood's former patron, Bo Xilai, from his position as party secretary of the megacity of Chongqing on 15 March, will indeed undermine investment flows, at least in the short term.

"I anticipate instability for the next few months, both inbound and outbound. There will be increasing investor discomfort. It will take months before all this comes out," he said, referring to the ruthless manner in which the reformist camp in Beijing has extinguished Mr Bo's career.

Mr Tillman also argues that the political instability resulting from the purge of Mr Bo, who was widely tipped for promotion on to the Politburo's ruling standing committee this autumn, has already contributed to a slowing of investment flows. Beijing's commerce ministry reported last week that foreign direct investment in China in March fell on the levels of a year ago to $11.8bn. This is the fifth straight month investment by foreign firms has fallen year-on-year. And Grisons Peak's research shows that the aggregate value of mergers and acquisitions deals involving Chinese companies fell 28 per cent in the first quarter of 2012, down from $25bn to $17.3bn, as Chinese companies pulled in their horns abroad too.

"You've already seen flows go much more quiet in March and it will be more quiet in April and May," said Mr Tillman. "We don't anticipate flows returning to normal for several months, even with the government intervention in terms of money supply, which started last month."

Mr Tillman says that Chongqing, which has been growing even faster than the rest of China in recent years under Mr Bo's radical economic stewardship, is likely to be hardest hit. He points out that the Italian superbike manufacturer Ducati, which was snapped up by Audi last week, would have been a natural acquisition for one of Chongqing's giant motorcycle manufacturing firms.

"There is no way in my opinion that an Italian private equity firm would have sold Ducati to a company based in Chongqing right now," he said. "What's going to happen to these [motorcycle] companies as more things come out of this case?"

Derek Han, chairman of Blue Oak Global Holdings, a China-focused financial services company, agrees investors are likely to sit on their hands as the high-stakes political battle for China's future plays out ahead of a crucial leadership handover in October.

"Foreign investment will be a little more reluctant to make any major moves now," he said. "At the same time, within China nobody is going to make any major moves over the next couple of months, just as a matter of safety."

A Western businessman in China who asked not to be named reported that one large foreign investment deal in Chongqing fell through the day after Mr Bo was purged.

"There was no chance of making progress with their counterparts with whom they'd been talking for a considerable time," he said. "There was obviously total confusion in the ranks of officials."

Of course, there is much more going on in China at the moment than this vicious factional struggle. The ruling regime in Beijing is attempting to manage the nation's property market to a soft landing and, at the same time, shift the vast economy away from its unsustainable reliance on investment to consumption-driven growth. That too has probably undermined investor sentiment. According to China's reformist Premier, Wen Jiabao, this economic rebalancing effort is likely to reduce national growth in 2012 to 7.5 per cent. While such an expansion would have Western leaders in raptures, it would represent the lowest growth rate for China in a decade.

But assuming that the Bo case is helping to fray investor nerves, will this be just a bump in the road? Or could the alleged murder of Mr Heywood and the revelation of disharmony at the heart of the normally monolithic Communist Party have a longer-lasting negative impact on confidence?

Most business consultants operating in China dismiss Mr Heywood as a one-off, someone who got far too close to a powerful Chinese politician.

"I haven't heard about anyone being able to maintain that sort of relationship in modern China," said one. "He was a sort of a fixer," said another. "Things like fixers are a thing of the past. It's where China used to be 10 or 20 years ago. China's going more corporate, more institutional."

They also point out that Mr Heywood was an individual operating in China, rather than a representative of a Western multinational firm, meaning that the implications of his alleged murder will be limited.

And even those worried about the economic impact of the faction fighting in the immediate term expect it to fade in time.

"When the dust settles and all the lurid details are over, China's economic direction will be pretty clear. If anything that should encourage foreign investors," said Mr Han, reflecting a widespread belief that with the fall of Mr Bo, who was regarded by some as an economic leftist, the pro-Western economic reformist camp in Beijing is now in the ascendancy.

China investors have been through similar worries before. In 2010 a Chinese-Australian Rio Tinto executive, Stern Hu, was convicted of accepting bribes and stealing trade secrets. The closed trial in Shanghai that convicted Mr Hu caused some consternation at the time. But investors soon forgot the case and foreign investment resumed. The same could very well happen again.

Or then again, the faction-fighting could ratchet up to a new level. There have been rumours that Zhou Yongkang, the ninth most powerful member of the politburo and a reported defender of Mr Bo, could be next to be purged.

"While there's a knife fight in a telephone booth no one wants to stick their neck out and do anything major," said Mr Han.

The prospects for foreign investment in China could depend on how quickly that knife fight is settled.

The reformers: The men who brought down Bo

Xi jinping, Vice President

Set to replace Hu Jintao as the General Secretary of the Communist Party this autumn and become China's most senior politician. Assumed to be firmly in the economically liberal camp, but did visit Chongqing and praise Bo Xilai's stewardship last year.

Li Keqiang, Vice Premier

Expected to be next premier of the Chinese government. Li is tipped to take over from his political master, Wen Jiabao. Like Wen, Li is a market-orientated reformer who has pushed the need to promote consumption in China and to clamp down on corruption.

Wang Qishan, Vice Premier

In charge of economic, energy and financial affairs. Expected to be reshuffled upwards in the autumn. Chief negotiator with the United States. Staunch Western-friendly reformer. Described by one former UK diplomat as "a fine example of a man who can get things done".

Wen Jiabao, Premier

Delivered an indirect, but lethal, rebuke to Mr Bo last month when he said that a lack of reform could unleash a "new Cultural Revolution". Mr Bo had been promoting Maoist nostalgia in Chongqing. Technically a lame duck, but move against Mr Bo shows he has influence.

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