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FOREIGN INVESTORS LEARNING THE HARD WAY THAT CHINESE OFFICIALS ARE LIKELY TO WELSH

SHARE FOREIGN INVESTORS LEARNING THE HARD WAY THAT CHINESE OFFICIALS ARE LIKELY TO WELSH

IT IS QUITE unfair to say a contract between a foreign investor and the Chinese government isn't worth the paper it's written on.

Such a contract is worth exactly what the paper cost - if it is cheap paper.The latest foreign entity to learn this is McDonald's, the hamburger chain. In 1992, with dreams of feeding many of China's 1.2 billion people, McDonald's opened its first restaurant on a busy Beijing shopping street.

The restaurant, just two blocks from Tiananmen Square, seats 700 customers, making it the world's largest McDonald's.

Unfortunately for the Big Mac folks, the site caught the eye of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, who is building Oriental Plaza, a $1.2 billion commercial and residential complex at the location.

Li happens to have influence with Beijing's bribe-prone municipal bureaucrats. These worthies told McDonald's to forget about its 20-year lease and get out. They said the chain could have space in Oriental Plaza (for how much?) when it is built in three years.

McDonald's protested, but not too loudly. It has six other restaurants in Beijing and plans to open 10 more next year. Wisely, it fears angering the authorities it will have to ask for permits.

This high-handed, lease-be-damned treatment is typical of Chinese communist officials. Their attitude seems to be that foreigners bringing money into the country deserve to be fleeced.

Lehman Brothers, the U.S. investment bank, is suing two Chinese state-owned trading com-pan-ies in New York and London. It charges that they lost well over $100 million in speculation and refuse to pay up.

Lehman should have known better than to let the Chinese make big trades. When Chinese companies win, they expect to get paid. When they lose, as in the Lehman cases, they allege the trades were "unauthorized."

You can sue them in a Chinese court, where a communist judge will rule in favor of the home team. Or you can sue them abroad, where they have few assets and judgments go unpaid.

A group of large German and Japanese banks were invited by Beijing to finance purchases by state-owned enterprises in the 1980s. Most of those enterprises now are broke and owe the banks $600 million. The loans have not been repaid, even though they were guaranteed.

One banker said: "The Chinese side has the attitude that if they haven't paid for so long, why pay now? They don't have any understanding of what a guarantee means."

The same sort of fiddling goes on in the vital energy field. A foreign oil company complains that every time it hits paydirt in a risky wildcat well, it gets cheated. It is not permitted to bid on leases near the discovery well.

Other firms say ruefully that the Chinese don't believe foreigners should be able to turn a decent profit. When a joint venture is successful, their local "partners" quickly impose new taxes, fees and expenses to siphon off most of the money.

The Chinese way of doing business ultimately will be self-defeating. The country needs $500 billion in foreign investment over the next decade to meet its ambitious modernization goals.

That money won't come when naive capitalists, with visions of tapping "1.2 billion consumers," finally wise up.