The new geopolitics of global business

China and America dominate like never before


TWENTY YEARS ago this week the share price of a startup run by an obsessive called Jeff Bezos had slumped by 71% over 12 months. Amazon’s near-death experience was part of the dotcom crash that exposed Silicon Valley’s hubris and, along with the $14 bn fraud at Enron, shattered confidence in American business. China, meanwhile, was struggling to privatise its creaking state-owned firms, and there was little sign that it could create a culture of entrepreneurship. Instead the bright hope was in Europe, where a new single currency promised to catalyse a giant business-friendly integrated market.

二十年前的这一周,一家创业公司的股价同比下跌了 71%。这家公司的掌门人是一个叫贝索斯的偏执狂。亚马逊的这一濒死体验是互联网泡沫破裂的一部分,这场泡沫暴露了硅谷的狂妄自大,连同安然公司(Enron)140 亿美元的欺诈案一起粉碎了人们对美国企业的信心。同一时间,中国正在痛苦推进把风雨飘摇的国有企业私有化,丝毫看不出它能打造创业文化的迹象。相反,欧洲才是光明希望的所在,新的统一货币有望促成一个有利于商业的庞大的一体化市场。

Creative destruction often makes predictions look silly, but even by these standards the post-pandemic business world is dramatically different from what you might have expected two decades ago. Tech firms comprise a quarter of the global stockmarket and the geographic mix has become strikingly lopsided. America and, increasingly, China are ascendant, accounting for 76 of the world’s 100 most valuable firms. Europe’s tally has fallen from 41 in 2000 to 15 today.

创造性破坏常常都让预测显得很可笑,但即便考虑到这一点,疫情后的商业世界与人们在 20 年前可能的预期相比仍可谓天差地别。如今科技公司占到全球股市市值的四分之一,而地域分布已变得极不平衡。美国的优势一路上升,中国也在日益崛起,在全球市值最高的 100 家公司中这两国占了 76 家。而欧洲则从 2000 年的 41 家下滑到如今的 15 家。

This imbalance in large part reflects American and Chinese skill, and complacency in Europe and elsewhere. It raises two giant questions: why has it come about? And can it last?


In themselves, big companies are no better than small ones. Japan Inc’s status soared in the 1980 s only to collapse. Big firms can be a sign of success but also of sloth. Saudi Aramco, the world’s second-most-valuable firm, is not so much a $2 trn symbol of vigour as of a desert kingdom’s dangerous dependency on fossil fuels. Even so, the right sort of giant company is a sign of a healthy business ecology in which big, efficient firms are created and constantly swept away by competition. It is the secret to raising long-run living standards.

就公司本身而言,大企业并不优于小公司。上世纪 80 年代日本企业地位飙升,最终却还是一落千丈。大公司可以是成功的标志,也可能是怠惰的象征。沙特阿美石油公司(Aramco)市值 2 万亿美元,居全球第二,但它不是什么活力的象征,而是更多地体现了这个沙漠王国对化石燃料的危险的依赖。即便如此,恰当的巨型公司仍然反映出一种健康的商业生态——大型、高效的公司在其中诞生,又不断在竞争中被淘汰。这就是提高长期生活水平的秘诀。

One way of capturing the dominance of America and China is to compare their share of world output with their share of business activity (defined as the average of their share of global stockmarket capitalisation, public-offering proceeds, venture-capital funding,“unicorns”—or larger private startups, and the world’s biggest 100 firms). By this yardstick America accounts for 24% of global GDP, but 48% of business activity. China accounts for 18% of GDP, and 20% of business. Other countries, with 77% of the world’s people, punch well below their weight.

要了解美国和中国的支配地位,一个方法是拿它们在全球经济产出中的占比和在商业活动的占比作比较。商业活动占比的定义是一国在全球股市市值、公开融资、风险投资、较大规模的私营创业公司即「独角兽」,以及世界百强公司中的平均占比。按照这个标准,美国贡献了全球 GDP 的 24%,却占到商业活动的 48%。中国贡献了全球 GDP 的 18%,商业活动占 20%。其他国家的人口占全球的 77%,但经济产出和商业活动占比却小得多。

Part of the explanation is Europe’s squandered opportunity. Political meddling and the debt crisis in 2010-12 have stalled the continent’s economic integration. Firms there largely failed to anticipate the shift towards the intangible economy. Europe has no startups to rival Amazon or Google. But other countries have struggled, too. A decade ago Brazil, Mexico and India were poised to create a large cohort of global firms. Few have emerged.

一个解释是欧洲浪费了大好时机。政治干预以及 2010 至 2012 年的债务危机阻碍了欧洲大陆的经济一体化进程。欧洲企业大都没能预见到向虚拟经济的转变。欧洲没有出现可匹敌亚马逊或谷歌的创业公司。但是,其他地区的国家同样裹足不前。十年前,巴西、墨西哥和印度摆开架势要打造一大批全球企业,但迄今没什么大突破。

Instead, only America and China have been able to marshal the process of creative destruction. Of the 19 firms created in the past 25 years that are now worth over $100 bn, nine are in America and eight in China. Europe has none. Even as mature tech giants like Apple and Alibaba try to entrench their dominance, a new set of tech firms including Snap, PayPal, Meituan and Pinduoduo are reaching critical mass. The pandemic has seen a burst of energy in America and China and a boom in fundraising. Firms from the two countries dominate the frontier of new technologies such as fintech and electric cars.

相反,只有美国和中国成功驾驭了创造性破坏的过程。在过去 25 年里成立、目前市值超过 1000 亿美元的 19 家公司中,九家在美国,八家在中国。欧洲一家都没有。而就在苹果和阿里巴巴等成熟的科技巨头力图巩固自己的支配地位之时,Snap、PayPal、美团和拼多多等新一批科技公司也即将达到临界规模。这次疫情在美国和中国激发了创业热情,融资激增。在金融科技和电动汽车等新技术前沿,两国企业已经占据了主导。

The magic formula has many ingredients. A vast home market helps firms achieve scale quickly. Deep capital markets, networks of venture capitalists and top universities keep the startup pipeline full. There is a culture that exalts entrepreneurs. China’s tycoons boast of their“996”work ethic: 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. Elon Musk sleeps on Tesla’s factory floor. Above all politics supports creative destruction. America has long tolerated more disruption than cosy Europe. After 2000, China’s rulers let entrepreneurs run riot and laid off 8 m workers at state firms.

成功的秘诀包含了很多要素。广阔的国内市场有助于企业迅速扩大规模。深厚的资本市场、风险投资家网络以及顶尖大学带来了充足的创业公司后备力量。社会上盛行赞美企业家的文化。中国的巨头们宣扬自己的「996」工作理念:每天早上 9 点到晚上 9 点,每周工作 6 天。马斯克睡在特斯拉工厂的车间里。最重要的是,政治环境也支持创造性破坏。相比安稳舒适的欧洲,美国一直更包容颠覆的冲击。2000 年之后,中国的统治者对企业家放任自流,并让 800 万国企工人下岗。

The recent erosion of this political consensus in both countries is one reason this dominance could prove unsustainable. Americans are worried about national decline, as well as low wages and monopolies (roughly a quarter of the S&P 500 index merits antitrust scrutiny, we estimated in 2018). The Economist supports the Biden administration’s aim to promote competition and expand the social safety-net to protect workers hurt by disruption. But the danger is that America continues to drift towards protectionism, industrial policy and, on the left, punitive taxes on capital, that dampen its business VIM.

两国的这种支配地位或许不能持续,其中一个原因是上述政治共识在近年已流失。美国人担心国家的衰落,还有低工资和垄断(本刊在 2018 年估计约四分之一的标普 500 指数公司应该接受反垄断审查)。本刊支持拜登政府的目标——促进竞争,同时扩大社会安全网,保护工人免受颠覆的伤害。但危险在于美国继续滑向保护主义、产业政策并实施左翼的惩罚性资本税,这会抑制它的商业活力。

In China President Xi Jinping sees big private firms as a threat to the Communist Party’s power and social stability. The cowing of tycoons began last year with Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba, and has since spread to the bosses of three other big tech firms. As party officials seek to“guide”incumbent private firms in order to achieve policy goals, such as national self-sufficiency in some technologies, they are also more likely to protect them from freewheeling competitors.


The more America and China intervene, the more the REST of the world should worry about the lopsided geography of global business. In theory the nationality of profit-seeking firms does not matter: as long as they sell competitive products and create jobs, who cares? But if firms are swayed by governments at home, the calculus changes.


As globalisation unwinds, rows are already erupting over where multinational firms produce vaccines, set digital rules and pay taxes. European hopes of being a regulatory superpower may become a figleaf for protectionism. Others with Less clout may erect barriers. To assert its sovereignty, India has banned Chinese social media and hobbled American e-commerce firms. That is the worst of both worlds, depriving local consumers of global innovations and creating barriers that make it even harder for local firms to achieve scale.


It’s the acorns, not the oaks 重要的是果实

It would be a tragedy if only two countries in the world proved capable of sustaining a process of creative destruction at scale. But it would be even worse if they turned away from it, and other places admitted defeat and put up barricades. The best gauge of success will be if in 20 years’time the list of the world’s biggest companies looks absolutely nothing like today’s.

如果世界上只有两个国家有能力保持大规模的创造性破坏,那将是一场悲剧。但如果它们自己也改弦易辙,而其他国家又甘认失败、竖起路障,结果还会更加糟糕。20 年后,全球最大企业的名单是否会与今天截然不同,这才是检验成功的最佳标准

Published since September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”


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