Most observers are familiar with the huge increase in the flow of foreign investment to the People's Republic of China and the resulting tremendous growth spurt in the Chinese economy. This growth has strained resources and made plain the lack of trained personnel and effective financial and regulatory systems in the property markets. The China Collaborative (TCC) is a joint effort by MIT, Tsinghua University and the Chinese Ministry of Construction to carry out research and training in real estate planning, finance and development issues in the PRC.
Project leader Tom Steele, former chairman of the Center for Real Estate, has been working hard to turn the vision for the TCC into reality by raising funds from the private sector to support the program. It is primarily focused on Shanghai, which was formerly the financial and international business center of the country, and will be again in the next century under current government plans.
Several students from MIT and Tsinghua are expected to start field research this summer as part of a two-year pilot project. However, the scale of the entire undertaking is much reduced from the original concept. As Mr. Steele explained recently, a number of events in the capital markets and in China in late 1994, at the time he was beginning the fund-raising effort, conspired to make it difficult to gain financial commitments from organizations that might otherwise have been very interested in participating.
In particular, the financial services industry, which has much to gain from accurate data on Chinese property markets, was in no position to do anything discretionary. For many financial institutions, 1994 was a poor year due to huge fixed-income trading losses. In addition, Hong Kong developers and investors, many of whom are active in the PRC and had shown preliminary interest in the Collaborative, suffered a sharp decline in both the stock market and in Hong Kong property market values, making them reluctant to take on new initiatives.
The news from inside the PRC was also somewhat disconcerting. Investment results were less than stellar and longer in coming than anticipated. Westerners' lack of understanding of Chinese business practices has added to the complexity. Several well-publicized cases seem to be getting resolved and as time passes the answer will be clearer. There were also some questions about the research and training program itself. The cost is high and potential supporters want to be sure results will be of practical use. With no research currently under way, there was no concrete product to alleviate that concern.
Mr. Steele believes that the pilot program, which will be led by an MIT faculty member, will be very useful in responding to the program-based questions of possible supporters, and that the passage of time will clarify other uncertainties and economic problems. When the pilot program ends in 1996, he expects another effort to implement the full program.
"MIT is uniquely suited, and we have an opportunity to have a positive impact by helping Chinese academics, government regulators and real estate professionals understand and regulate property markets, as well as by training future managers and planning officials. But we need the full program to do so adequately," Mr. Steele said. "I hope we will be able to take advantage of this opportunity." He also sees real benefits to students and faculty at the Center for Real Estate and elsewhere at MIT and Tsinghua in being able to closely observe a market in the throes of enormous change and to study the impacts of various planning and development strategies on the operation of the market itself.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 24, 1995.