The future’s orange?

Hotel entrepreneur asks Li Keqiang to do more for private businesses

Wu Hai w

Wu Hai, the outspoken hotelier

As readers of this week’s World of Weibo column will know, farewell letters have been making the news in recent weeks.

The resignation note of Henan teacher Gu Shaoping was an online hit because of its brevity. But a second missive – this one from a frustrated entrepreneur in Beijing – made headlines more because of its tone and its length.

The complaint, penned by Wu Hai, the chief executive of Crystal Orange Hotel Group, listed in excruciating detail the obstacles that private businesses face, and called upon Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to do more to remove them.

“Today I want to say something to Premier Li: if you treat enterprises properly, that’s treating people properly. If a government doesn’t treat its enterprises properly, then it’s actually not treating its people properly,” Wu warned in the letter in late March, which he then posted on his public WeChat account. By the next day the letter had garnered more than 40,000 comments and topped the rankings as the most searched item on the Chinese search engine Baidu.

Wu was hailed as brave for directly addressing Premier Li and praised for his straight-talking style, which at times was a little salty.

“Government officials are like legitimate children, SOEs are like the progeny of concubines, but private businesses are treated just like bastards,” he complained.

Wu listed limited access to capital, unclear rules, official corruption and excessive bureaucracy as a few of the obstacles for private business bosses. “Different department do things in their own way and their responsibility is not clear,” he wrote. “Perhaps they try to avoid trouble or maybe they are abusing their power. Either way it leads to a situation where regulations stand for no regulation, and enterprises don’t know what to do.”

Despite his forthright tone, the 46 year-old was careful to convey his patriotic instincts.

“I love my country very much. When the Carlyle Group paid tens of millions of dollars for shares in my company, some people suggested that I should emigrate. But I said no because while I observe the downsides in our country, I also see the advantages. I witnessed my grandpa living in a cattle shed for being a rightist, but I also see his grandchildren living a better life for working hard.”

“I’m not a government employee; I’m not a businessman relying on the government; I am not corrupt, I have nothing to fear,” he added.

Like the teacher from Henan, Wu has tried to avoid media interviews, perhaps afraid of attracting too much public attention. But he broke his silence to tell the Global Times that it was Li Keqiang who inspired him to write the open letter. Indeed, Li would probably agree with many of Wu’s complaints, and is reported to be frustrated at the slow pace of reform in parts of the public sector.

The premier has said that the expansion of private enterprise is key to his long term plan to keep the country’s economy growing at decent rates. Since coming to power two years ago, his team has removed or downgraded close to 800 business-related regulations to make it easier for entrepreneurs to get started. He has also promised that the public sector will better define the roles of its respective agencies to reduce the scope for corruption.

“The reform by reducing the power held in the hands of the government has helped tackle the downward pressure,” Li said at his annual press conference in March. “This is not nail-clipping. This is like taking a knife to one’s own flesh.”

Is the campaign really working, though? China’s State Administration for Industry and Commerce has reported a 48% surge in new business registrations since the new regulations began to take effect last year, while a survey by news portal Sina said 52% of respondents thought administrative procedures were becoming more transparent, and 48% said that bribery appeared to be on the wane.

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