The Real Reason Chinese CEOs Are Going Global

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 |  About: China Mobile Limited (CHL)
by: David Wolf

From atop Ogilvy's digital watchtower, Kaiser Kuo points us to a highly readable Clay Chandler story in Fortune introducing China Mobile's (NYSE:CHL) Wang Jianzhou as "China's Mobile Maestro."

The story is a bit of a fluff piece (Chandler comes off as a bit of a fanboy), but it is interesting beyond the content. Wang is not normally a talky person with the foreign media. For that reason, one wonders why he's suddenly making himself more accessible to the global media.

You could attribute it to a long-overdue realization that the CEO of such a company needs to have some global visibility, but I wouldn't buy it. For all of their global ambitions, China Mobile's cash-cow - and its best near-term growth prospects - are in China.

There are probably a host of reasons for Wang to raise his profile, but one of them has to be a desire to buy for China Mobile greater independence from the fickle whims of regulators in Beijing. Having a moderately high profile amongst influential audiences overseas, and having a voice among those audiences, is a route to enhanced power and influence here in Beijing. A few pieces like Chandler's, and people will start to see Wang as a cross between Craig McCaw and Jack Welch.

Of course, his old colleagues at the Ministry of Information Industries can't be happy. In the eyes of the regulators, China Mobile responds first and foremost to the direction of the government. Wang's quiet, deliberate creation of a base of influence in China and abroad inveighs against that.

And well it should. If China is serious about creating companies that are both local and global champions, the enterprises that began as the wards of their respective ministries must leave the nest, no matter angst that might cause the aparatchiks. China Mobile will never be a world-class company until its responsiveness to its customers and the capital markets is no less - if not more - than what it gives government officials.

Wang is going to need the support of cool heads, and soon. The worst kept secret in China's mobile industry is how much the country's operators and handset manufacturers hate TD-SCDMA, which was described to me by one insider as "a politician's dream and an engineer's nightmare." Worse, there is growing rumbling about another forced restructuring of the mobile phone industry that would give Wang stronger competition and may even see him compelled to shed some chunks of his own company.

If I were to make a prediction for 2008, I would say we will be seeing many more puff pieces about Chinese CEOs. The importance of China, the business media's need for a stream of stars, and the tsunami of foreign journalists coming to China in the next eight months makes that a sucker bet.

One of the best profiles I've seen so far is James Fallows' profile of Broad CEO Zhang Yue in The Atlantic last March.