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Ordering Chinese Takeout

Can far east management turn failing U.S. companies around?

When China’s third-largest oil producer, CNOOC, made an unsolicited bid for control of Unocal a few months back, this great nation found itself plunged into a long-overdue spate of soul-searching. Though the bid was ultimately withdrawn, its reverberations will be felt for many years to come, as similarly hostile takeover bids are now inevitable.


From the moment CNOOC made its bid, it was clear that the U.S. had entered  an era in which the Chinese have the verve, the gumption and the resources to begin acquiring important American companies. Frankly, I am disappointed that the bid failed. For though some may dismiss my view as the witless yammerings of a multiculturalist pawn, I did not greet CNOOC’s watershed proposal with sorrow, remorse or nostalgia for a more innocent time when the Chinese economy was a harmless joke. Instead, I am already looking forward to an Edenic dawn when our Far East rivals do succeed in acquiring some of the businesses we simply cannot make a buck on, and usher in a golden new era for all of us.


Specifically, I would like the Chinese to take over Amtrak; preferably, by a week from Thursday. For years, Amtrak has been a national embarrassment: undependable service, surly employees, spiraling overhead, truly crummy coffee. Amtrak’s farcical Acela upgrade, which was supposed to make traveling from Boston to Washington an unalloyed pleasure, has disintegrated into the biggest transportation joke since the White Star Line launched the Titanic Xpress. (And at least when it sank, the Titanic was making a vague attempt to stay on schedule.) Taxpayers hate Amtrak. The government hates Amtrak. Everybody in his right mind hates Amtrak.


This is where a Chinese company with more public relations savvy than CNOOC could build an immense reservoir of goodwill on this side of the Pacific by stepping in and overhauling our diseased transcontinental rail network. Since it is widely known that democracy-challenged societies have an enviable record of keeping the trains running on time, it can be argued that a fast, substantial injection of Chinese cash, industry and know-how could be just what is needed to fix up this national disgrace. Remember, the Chinese have largely engineered their vault onto the global stage by massive investments in infrastructure, so they have some expertise in this area. If they can’t fix Amtrak, nobody can.


Are there any other dead or dying industries that could benefit from Chinese cash and savvy?  How about the National Hockey League? Due to a lethal, potentially fatal combination of owner stupidity and player greed, the NHL fell on its own sword last year by canceling an entire season. One need only look across the pond at the way the Australian Rupert Murdoch has revolutionized both professional soccer and rugby to realize that some problems can never be solved by the locals; moribund industries sometimes need a kick in the pants from a foreign foot. Despite the recent agreement between NHL owners and players, the NHL is still on life support, with its idiotic rules, preposterous equipment regulations, anemic TV audience and bush-league image. Only the Chinese can save it.


Is there a potential downside to all this? Yes. If the Chinese prove themselves capable of salvaging businesses as cataleptic as Amtrak and the NHL, then they will truly prove themselves to be economic adversaries to be feared. Fine, we’ll just have to fear them.

But many of us are willing to pay that price; I, for one, am more than willing to cede space on the global stage to any nation ingenious enough to figure out how to make the Metroliner run on time.


And while they’re at it, the Chinese might take a gander at a couple of other industries. Since video and software piracy constitute an epidemic in China, how about figuring out a way to prevent thieves from stealing billions of dollars from American companies? Since the Japanese invented the ubiquitous, infuriating lawn blower, how about upstaging their ancient rivals across the waters by inventing a noiseless leaf blower? Last but not least, if Chinese entrepreneurs want to show the rest of the world how smart they are, how about finding someone, somewhere, who can explain Sarbanes-Oxley to the rest of us?

Actually, that could be tougher than fixing Amtrak.


About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.