Chinese investment in, and ownership of, U.S. entities may be about to come under closer scrutiny.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has agreed to a request by 16 bipartisan members of Congress to review the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is supervised by the Treasury Department and reviews national security implications from foreign investments.
A letter from the lawmakers to the GAO in September (read it here) raised concerns about the telecommunications, media and agriculture sectors. In relation to Hollywood, it specifically cited Dalian Wanda Group, which owns AMC Entertainment and Legendary Entertainment and is interested in buying additional properties.
The request to review CFIUS was made, congressmen said, to determine whether authorities “have effectively kept pace with the growing scope of foreign acquisitions in strategically important sectors in the U.S.” and “especially given the rise in state-owned enterprises and state-controlled enterprises from China and Russia,” among others.
“Concerns” have been raised, the letter said, about Wanda’s “acquisition of major American movie studios, including Legendary Entertainment and Paramount Studios, and the AMC and Carmike theatre chains due to growing concerns about China’s efforts to censor topics and exert propaganda controls on American media.”
That letter was written before the sale of a portion of Paramount to Wanda effectively became moot.
The GAO is going ahead with a study of CFIUS. In a September 30 letter, obtained today by Deadline (read it here), the government watchdog office said it would “initiate an engagement in about four months.”
Charles Young, Managing Director of Public Affairs at the GAO, confirmed that the request had been accepted and told Deadline that no specific start date has been set. “That will depend on when our staff experts currently working on existing jobs becomes available,” he said.
At issue is whether U.S. statutory and administrative authorities have kept pace with the growing scope of foreign acquisitions in strategically important sectors — or, as some in the film industry have termed them, “soft power grabs.”
The signatories of the initial request say there “have not been substantial structural updates to CFIUS composition or authority since its inception, despite a rapidly changing foreign investment climate, the rise of technology and information warfare, and new state-owned or -controlled companies that are structured as independent entities but are largely directed by foreign governments.”
The group of Democratic and Republican congressmen continued, “This evolving nature of possible national security threats requires that both the Executive Branch and the Congress revisit the CFIUS process to determine whether it is fully empowered to address these concerns.” They noted worry over the degree to which foreign ownership “may pose a strategic rather than overt national security threat.”
Wanda is not a state-owned entity. However, as with most companies in China, it has a relationship with the government.
And it has been making in-roads into the U.S. Most recently — and in between the lawmakers’ September 15 letter and the GAO’s response — Wanda entered into a plan to partner with Sony on tentpoles with global appeal. It also is contemplating a deal that could give it control of dick clark productions.
One Hollywood film industry exec poured water on the idea that Wanda would exercise its muscle in the service of propaganda or furthering Chinese-specific interests via its U.S. deals. That’s not what market forces are going to demand, this person told Deadline.
“The Chinese and Wanda are all about making money,” the exec said. “Look at the kind of movies we’re making now. It’s all about tentpoles, sequels, theme parks. … If Wanda gets part of that and tries to put Chinese people in movies and it doesn’t fit, they’ll realize it’s a bad move.”
Referring to the lawmakers who requested the CFIUS review as a “bunch of xenophobic congressmen,” this person says, “The Chinese may be interested at some point to own distribution to export their movies around the world — not by slamming things down people’s throats but doing movies for a global market.”
Wanda’s chairman, Wang Jianlin, is due to speak in Los Angeles on October 17. The executive, who’s China’s richest man, is not shy about making grand proclamations.
He told Reuters in late August, “My goal is to buy Hollywood companies and bring their technology and capability to China.” He added, “If one of the Big Six (studios) would be willing to be sold to us, we would be interested.” A curious footnote here is that were Wanda to seek ownership of a studio it would surely come up against anti-trust rules which prohibit a U.S. distributor from owning a domestic exhibition chain.
Wanda holds 75% of AMC Theatres in the U.S. and is the largest exhibitor in China with 18% of PROC screens and also owns Australia’s Hoyt’s. With a completed purchase of Odeon & UCI Cinemas Group and Carmike Cinemas, Wanda will control 15% of global box office revenues and could reach its goal of controlling 20% ahead of a 2020 target, Wang has said.
A report in Shanghai Daily today said that China’s direct investment in the U.S. reached a record high of $8B in 2015. Chinese firms continued to expand overseas and accounted for 5.5% of China’s total outbound direct investment. It was the manufacturing sector, rather than entertainment, that attracted the most capital, according to a report by the Ministry of Commerce, the National Bureau of Statistics and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange. During 2015, Chinese companies carried out 97 mergers and acquisitions worth $13.1B. The country’s total non-financial ODI hit $146B in 2015, up 18.3% year-on-year.
For the record, congressmen in their initial letter to the GAO also cited ChemChina’s $43B acquisition of agricultural seed and chemical provider Syngenta as an area of concern.
The lawmakers asked the GAO to pay attention to whether existing CFIUS processes are “sufficient to safeguard the national security interests threatened by massive Chinese commercial and economic activity in the U.S.”; should “foreign acquisitions from designated countries be subject to mandatory, rather than voluntary, notification to CFIUS”; and whether the definition of national security should “be broadened to address concerns about propaganda and control of the media and ‘soft power’ institutions.”
Finally, they added, “This report will be very helpful as we continue our oversight of these issues and consider updates to CFIUS’ authorities to address these growing concerns.”