Chinese officials are exploring a proposal to lift a nine-year-old ban on foreign control of its steel companies, according to people in the industry. But investors eager for a slice of the world's largest steel sector, be warned: Talks on the issue aren't likely to produce a consensus anytime soon, says one industry official.
'The idea is being explored, but the outcome may not be what people are hoping for,' said Chi Jingdong, deputy secretary-general for the China Iron and Steel Association.
In July 2005, the Chinese government moved to prohibit foreign investors from taking controlling stakes in domestic steel companies. The law effectively blocked Mittal Steel Co., which would a year later become the world's largest steelmaker, from its plan to acquire a controlling stake in Shenzhen-listed Hunan Valin Iron & Steel Co. that would be equal to the one held by the mid-sized Chinese mill's parent, Valin Group. Beijing viewed steel as a strategic sector, supplying some of its most crucial industries, and was reluctant to allow outside control -- though it still allowed minority stakes under certain conditions.
Since then, proposals to lift the ban -- largely coming from Chinese steelmakers hopeful for injections of foreign capital and know-how -- have surfaced every few years. This year, the momentum seems to be on the side of those in favor of deregulation. The National Development and Reform Commission said Thursday foreign investors are welcome to participate in infrastructure projects opened to private investment, including railways, gas pipelines, telecommunications and clean energy. These are sectors that in the past were viewed as strategic, and therefore closed to foreign participation.
A Commerce Ministry official in October had also hinted that China's similarly closed automotive sector could open its door further to a greater foreign role. Recent statements by the China Iron and Steel Association, a state-backed body that represents steelmakers, have also said Chinese mills are 'actively pursuing' a policy of 'going out' as well as 'inviting in,' ( in Chinese) meaning outbound acquisitions and inbound investments, saying that these mills would like more cooperation with foreign investors. But officials didn't elaborate on exactly how far mills would go to 'invite' foreign interest.
A sudden about-turn on the policy doesn't seem likely. Mr. Chi said there's still a sense of 'dilemma' over the proposal. In any case, China's economic slowdown has taken a toll on the steel-consuming construction sector amid government pressure to cut the steel industry due to environmental pollution -- none of which are making Chinese steel firms the most desirable targets for acquisition.
'The opening up of the steel sector -- that's a certainty,' Mr. Chi said. 'But how open it's going to be, that's still unclear.'
2005年7月，中国政府出台规定，禁止外国投资者持有中国钢铁企业的控股权。这一规定阻止了一年之后成为全球最大钢铁企业的Mittal Steel Co.收购深圳上市的中型钢铁企业湖南华菱钢铁股份有限公司(Hunan Valin Steel Co., 简称：华菱钢铁)的控股权。根据原本的计划，Mittal Steel将与华菱钢铁的母公司湖南华菱钢铁集团有限责任公司(Hunan Valin Group)各持有华菱钢铁50%的股权。在中国政府眼里，钢铁是战略性行业，一些最重要的关键行业需要用到钢铁产品，因此不愿意让外资控制国内钢铁企业，不过在某些情况下外资持有少数股权是被允许的。
去年10月份，中国商务部的一位官员暗示，中国可能会进一步放开汽车制造业的外资准入限制。中国钢铁工业协会(China Iron and Steel Association)最近也发布公告称，中国钢企正积极奉行“走出去，请进来”政策，钢企愿意加强与外资的合作。但官员们没有说明具体将允许外资参股多少。