What do investment guru Warren Buffett, US media giant Time Warner, storied British public school Eton College, South Korea’s Samsung and global law firm Baker & McKenzie have in common?
The answer is they are all named in an expansive wish list put together by China’s southern province of Hainan, which wants them to come and invest as part of an ambitious plan to transform the sleepy sun, sea and sand tropical island into one of the biggest free-trade zones in the world.
Last weekend the Hainan government unveiled its “100-Day Campaign to Attract Businesses”, presenting a series of A-list names in the corporate world across sectors including tourism, services, finance and technology that it plans to talk to.
It said it would specifically target Fortune 500 companies, global industry leaders and well-known brands, asking them to set up headquarters, industry parks or undertake other projects in the province, according to a report by the official Xinhua news agency.
The campaign comes after Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in April that the island province, famed for its palm-fringed beaches, would become a free-trade zone by 2020, the latest in a series of preferential policies granted by Beijing stretching back to 1988 aimed at boosting its development.
But progress has been slow. Official figures showed that Hainan ranked 22nd among 31 provinces and cities in 2017 in terms of GDP, while disposable income per capita was 22,553 yuan (US$3,537), lagging behind the national average of 25,974 yuan.
It attracted less than US$10 billion in foreign investment in the five years to 2017, only 1.5 per cent of China’s total during the period. In 2017, 67 million tourists visited the island, double the number of 2012, but only 1 million were from abroad.
Analysts were sceptical on whether the province could succeed in attracting big-name foreign businesses.
“The infrastructure and investment environment are not that satisfactory yet in Hainan,” said Shen Meng, an executive director with investment bank Chanson & Co.
“Among all these grand initiatives I doubt how many of them could eventually be launched,” he said, adding that the current media buzz created by the big names on the campaign list is mostly driven by the government’s need for political achievement.
The development plan is also competing with others across China, including the Shanghai free-trade zone, initiatives to attract investment by individual cities as well as the central government’s own “Greater Bay Area” plan to forge an economic hub linking nine cities in the southern Guangdong province with Hong Kong and Macau.
Undaunted, Hainan is forging ahead. The 124-item wish list spans tourism, retirement and medical services, finance, technology, culture, renewable energy and even horse racing, and also names Morgan Stanley, Walmart, British travel company Thomas Cook, the Hong Kong and Tokyo stock exchanges and ride-hailing firm Uber alongside hundreds of domestic Chinese, US, Italian, French, Israeli and Japanese firms.
“Just like Shenzhen and Shanghai, which used to be the leaders in opening up areas of finance and technology in China, Hainan is to be the leading force in health care, elderly care and tourism,” said Zhang Ning, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country’s top think tank.
“It is also a sign for operators at the middle-to low-end of each industry that they are not welcome, instead only those high-end ones will be favoured,” he said.
Berkshire Hathaway and Eton did not reply to emails seeking comment, but Chinese conglomerate Fosun, which has a joint venture with Thomas Cook, said it was “actively communicating with the Hainan government” on possible opportunities to increase European tourism to the island.
The Hong Kong stock exchange, meanwhile, said it found Hainan’s plans “interesting” – the island’s government said it wanted to tap the bourse’s expertise in the securitisation of intellectual property, while a Baker & McKenzie spokesman said the firm was “always looking for opportunities to expand where our clients need us to be, and where that makes strategic sense”.