U.S.-backed China tech shows investment curb folly

August 1, 2014

By Robyn Mak

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

China’s tech companies may be Beijing’s darlings, but they have U.S. dollar funding to thank. The next generation of upstarts look likely to continue the pattern. Foreign currency funds poured $5 billion into venture capital the first half of this year – three times more than local funds raised. The economic benefits these foreign investors bring make the rules keeping them out harder to justify.

New venture capital funds raised almost $7 billion in the first half of this year, up 157 percent from the same period last year, data gatherer Zero2IPO Research estimates. It’s mostly U.S. investors leading this resurgence, accounting for three quarters of the total amount raised. Lucrative exits abroad, such as online retailer JD.com’s recent New York listing, make U.S. dollars the preferred choice for internet upstarts.

Local venture capitalists lack a deep funding pool to match Silicon Valley’s. Individuals and families, who dominate early-stage tech investment in China, make up half of the country’s private equity investors by number but just 1.4 percent by investable capital, according to Zero2IPO. An emerging crop of tech moguls-turned-venture capitalists, like smartphone-maker Xiaomi’s founder Lei Jun, may attract institutional investors, but this will take time.

Until then, China’s internet will need foreign capitalists’ help to grow. That makes it even more strange that local law is geared towards keeping them out. The country’s trio of web giants – search engine operator Baidu, social media and gaming company Tencent and e-commerce giant Alibaba – have all used variable interest entities (VIEs) that confer control without direct ownership, in order to circumvent foreign investment restrictions. Venture capitalists still openly use VIEs for new investments and funds while acknowledging their legal uncertainties.

It may be against the spirit of the rules, but China’s economy benefits. Alibaba estimates that its e-commerce, logistics and other operations supported some 11.7 million jobs as of last June. The People’s Republic has enjoyed successes to rival Google or Facebook without having to open its capital controls or wait for its markets to reform and mature. If foreigners are still happy to bend the rules in the hope of backing the next winner, China has good reason to let them.

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