China’s hard slog up the industrial ladder is well documented. Shifting from textiles and toys to smartphones and plane wings is one part of it. There are also plans to conquer the moon and build a tunnel connecting Asia to the US for a high-speed train. But recently Chinese leaders saw a new area in which China is lacking and should make a State priority: Finding stuff.
The global finding stuff industry is worth hundreds of billions of bits of paper; there’s due diligence, risk assessment, government spying, social media searches, private detectives and sniffer dogs. China is already specialized in some fields like finding corrupt officials and misbehaving foreign executives. It excels at spying on its own people and corporate espionage. But these are all at the low end of the industrial scale. Where the real money lies is in hunting for planes at the bottom of seas and buried corporate treasure.
Excellence in such pursuits, Beijing believes, will create a lucrative new domestic industry and project China’s power worldwide. That’s why sailors rushed to find the remains of flight MH370. It is also why CNOOC is expanding its search in the South China Sea – the company hopes to dig up the corporate debt Japanese firms offloaded when their economy tanked in the early 1990s and they still had the balls to swim in their back yard. Sinopec also signed a deal with an advanced drilling company to tap unconventional energy resources on the mainland. With so much shale located in southwest China it will provide convenient cover for President Xi to make sure he has located all the skeletons buried by arch-rival Bo Xilai in nearby Chongqing.
And what about the first visit by the head of the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office to the island in June? Just what is he going to look for there? Hopefully not asylum, nervy diplomats whisper.
There are all sorts of other reasons for China to get good at looking for stuff. The punishment of 1,000 officials in Guangdong province for allowing their wives and kids to live overseas shows that the Party is keen to portray an image of clamping down on corruption. And local governments, facing a slowdown in the economy, also want to have a better idea about how much local enterprises earn so they can tax them appropriately.
But the government faces an uphill challenge. Chinese are good at hiding things. Banks, companies and local authorities have stashed ridiculous amounts of debt anywhere they can. Still, with a report out that almost one in five urban homes was empty last year, officials might not need advanced equipment to find out where some of the nation’s biggest secrets are being stored.