As $1 trillion evaporated from Chinese stocks last week, some investors realized they hadn’t paid enough attention to the country’s most important man: President Xi Jinping.
Traders began scouring databases and other collections of Xi’s speeches to find clues about which industries might be next after his administration abruptly smashed the country’s $100 billion for-profit education sector, according to several employees at Chinese financial firms who asked not to be identified. Screenshots of key passages made the rounds: Xi denouncing “obscene” online content, education inequality and housing-price speculation in school districts.
The jitters continued this week, with Tencent Holdings Ltd. shares plunging after the Economic Information Daily — an offshoot of the official Xinhua News Agency — decried the “spiritual opium” of online gaming, sparking worries that the sector might be next on the chopping block. The selloff extended to Japanese gaming developers that have licensing deals with Tencent, China’s most valuable corporation.
“Investors and analysts have tended to dismiss party-speak, usually because it’s so impenetrable,” said Dan Wang, a technology analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Shanghai, who regularly reads the Qiushi Journal, a bi-monthly Communist Party publication. “But much of it is perfectly readable, and we should know at this point that Xi usually follows through on what he says.”
Reading the signals from Beijing has always been a crucial component of doing business in China. But the abrupt education overhaul has prompted even seasoned investors to reassess how they interpret statements from Xi and top officials in his government — a task made more difficult by the fact that many of his speeches are classified and only made available to the party elite.
Compounding the problem is Xi’s likely push for a third term ahead of a once-in-five-year meeting of party leaders next year in which key positions are up for grabs. That has rank-and-file members all eager to please Xi, who has amassed more power in China than any leader since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and 1990s.
“With power mostly centralized in his hands, Xi now can change status quo policy quickly and even without much warning,” said Victor Shih, associate professor at UC San Diego and author of “Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict and Inflation.”
“On top of quick policy changes, officials below him will want to zealously implement any new policy or ‘spirit,’ the party’s term for policy direction,” Shih added. “This zealous implementation will often take place regardless of the longer-term consequences because officials are afraid of being accused of lackluster implementation.”
The opacity in China’s political system forces investors to gauge the importance of various statements from officials and state-run media. After many market players shrugged off Xi’s criticism of out-of-school tutors back in June, this week’s Tencent selloff prompted them to dig up a Xi speech from March in which he identified “a lot of obscene and filthy stuff online” as one of a number of social problems that need to be addressed.
One element to watch is which agency makes the announcement, and over the past decade there’s been an increasing amount of joint statements that span different arms of the government and the party. China’s ban on profits for its tutoring industry was jointly issued by the general offices of top government and party bodies — the State Council and the party’s Central Committee — giving the decision more authority than any single department.
While China’s policy moves can feel ad hoc, particularly to foreign investors, the changes are quite targeted on certain sectors, said Jason Hsu, founder and chief investment officer of Rayliant Global Advisors.
“Right now, it feels like throwing the baby out of the bathwater and every industry is at risk,” he said. “If you are more aware of what the Chinese has been communicating all along, you know what they will do. Real estate, health care, retirement living — these are identified by policy makers as undermining societal harmony, and the quality of life.”
Still, authorities have sought to address misunderstandings in the market. Following the wild selloff last week, the China Securities Regulatory Commission promised more transparency and policy predictability in a Q&A posted on its website Sunday.
State media have also either tweaked articles or published commentaries to try to calm market jitters. On Tuesday, the Economic Information Daily removed the link to its piece on online gaming, while the People’s Daily newspaper — the party’s official mouthpiece — published an editorial in its overseas edition stressing the need for government, schools, families and broader society to work together to better protect children from excessive gaming.
Markets were likely to remain volatile as investors adjust. Even while it’s now “fairly obvious” which sectors Xi wants overhauled, “the timing and sequencing of Beijing’s regulatory actions will remain chaotic,” said Jude Blanchette, Freeman chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The scope and severity of the current regulatory storm looks obvious only in retrospect,” Blanchette said. “I’m not aware of anyone who read Xi’s 2018 speech on education and said, ‘He’s going to crush the for-profit education sector in three years hence.’”
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