WSJ: China’s Dalian Wanda Group Faces Renewed U.S. Regulatory Scrutiny
News story originally published at WSJ.com
By Erich Schwartzel and Siobhan Hughes
A top Senate Democrat is calling for increased scrutiny of China’s ambitions in Hollywood and other sectors, lending a critical new voice to a cause championed by President-elect Donald Trump.
In a letter sent Wednesday, incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the takeovers of U.S. companies by China’s Dalian Wanda Group Co. and others warrant further scrutiny to determine whether they are being orchestrated by Chinese government interests—possibly leaving U.S. companies to compete on an uneven playing field. The move increases the likelihood of a re-examination of how the U.S. allows the nation to invest in American companies.
“I am concerned that these acquisitions reflect the strategic goals of China’s government,” he told Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman in the letter, a copy of which was seen by The Wall Street Journal.
Wanda and its U.S.-based holdings have completed several entertainment acquisitions this year, and the conglomerate has a pending deal to buy Dick Clark Productions for $1 billion.
Mr. Trump, who has indicated his administration will also take a closer look at such deals, was copied on the letter.
If the president-elect follows through on promises to scrutinize such deals more closely, Mr. Schumer’s letter could signal a shift for U.S. policy toward China. For decades, some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been unhappy with the White House, both under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, whom they saw as timid about confronting China, the biggest holder of U.S. debt.
Now, a senior Democratic lawmaker and the incoming Republican U.S. president could be on the same side of the issue, potentially shaking up the landscape. Congressional backlash to foreign investments have lately focused on flashy Hollywood deals, but the outcry could have sweeping ramifications across other sectors of the economy, and produce a chilling effect for overseas investors.
“You can be certain that the new Congress in 2017 will work on legislation to further expand CFIUS oversight authority,” Mr. Schumer wrote, referring to the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which examines foreign deals seen as potential threats to national security. CFIUS reviews have traditionally concerned sectors like aerospace.
Wanda has previously responded to similar calls for scrutiny by saying the company “has and will continue to comply with all applicable U.S. law in connection with its media and entertainment investments in the United States, including without limitation making the appropriate filings with the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice.” The company declined to comment on Mr. Schumer’s letter.
Mr. Schumer’s stance aligns the Democrat on one issue with the president-elect. A document circulated by Mr. Trump’s transition team stated that the administration would ask CFIUS to review foreign transactions that couldn’t be replicated by a U.S. entity. That could cover Chinese investment far beyond Hollywood, since Chinese companies can become majority owners of U.S. assets but China doesn’t allow U.S. companies to do the same.
Mr. Schumer said the ability for Chinese companies to take a majority stake in U.S. assets, often backed by state officials and China’s sovereign-wealth funds, is unfair considering stateside companies are handicapped from doing similar deals in China. U.S. companies hoping to do business in China usually have to form a joint venture that often includes the sharing of intellectual property—an arrangement that Mr. Schumer called a “pay to play system.”
“While China’s government has aggressively pursued policies that encourage strategic acquisition in the U.S., U.S. companies continue to face steep barriers to market access in China,” he wrote. Mr. Schumer said Chinese acquisitions across multiple sectors—information technology, transportation, manufacturing and agriculture, among others—are often supported by Chinese government subsidies designed to encourage global expansion.
Like several politicians before him, Mr. Schumer set his sights on Wanda, whose chairman, Wang Jianlin, is China’s richest man, according to Forbes. In a speech in Los Angeles in October, Mr. Wang said he isn’t motivated by government agendas. “I am a businessman,” he said.
Wanda’s acquisitions in Hollywood have raised concerns among politicians and some entertainment executives that they are “soft power” plays designed to spread Chinese culture and messaging through American media. The country is the second-largest movie market in the world behind North America, but it imposes a quota of 34 movies that can be imported from all countries to its theaters each year.
In the past several years, Wanda has become the world’s largest movie-theater operator through its $2.6 billion acquisition of AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., expanded into film production with the $3.5 billion purchase of Legendary Entertainment and its Dick Clark deal signaled an expansion into television. Wanda has become known in Hollywood for an insatiable interest in acquiring more assets, and Mr. Wang has publicly indicated his hopes to own one of Hollywood’s major studios.
Congressional scrutiny of China’s media acquisitions has been ramping up since September, when 16 members of the House of Representatives asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether CFIUS’s authority has kept up with the expanding scope of foreign investment in the U.S.