There was no better place to clear up some questions about Saab than in Chengdu. After all, nowhere can you find the CEOs of all major Chinese carmakers and government officials all under the same roof, or even at your dining table. There also was no better place to get entangled in the messiest web of facts and fiction. Here is some local color:
When on stage, nobody made any public announcements or mentions of Saab. Even when a lone moderator of a group discussion dared to say that “Saab certainly is a hot story,” he was ignored by Pangda’s chairman Pang Qinghua, who was one of his panelists.
Did I say no one? I lied. Representatives of BAIC, from Chairman Xu Heyi on down, never missed a chance to weave Saab into public comments. It was usually branded as “cooperation.” Once, the “cooperation” mutated to “joint venture,” but that could have been a slip of the simultaneous translator. BAIC had bought tooling of previous generation Saabs, and appears to be quite happy with what they received.
Any remarks coming from Chengdu were made, as they say, “at the sidelines of the conference.” When Chairman Pang had said “now that Saab is in bankruptcy protection, all previous pacts are invalid. It’s up to the court to decide. It can also find a new partner,” he had said it. The quote still sits on the little black recorder Reuters reporter Fang Yan had stuck in Pang’s face. There was no room for a “misunderstanding.” Both are Chinese and literally saw eye-to-eye. The later “what I meant …” correction was no correction. It was damage control.
Interestingly, Chairman Pang was the lone Chinese voice that warned against introducing new brands to a China that already is knee-deep in brands. Ever the boss of a car dealer, he warned that new brands require huge investments (also) from dealers, that customers treat unknown brands with suspicion and reservation, and that his dealerships don’t have the room to show all these new brands. Those were not the words of someone who is about to introduce another unknown brand to China. Saab has no brand equity in China.
When word spread that Youngman had (finally) sent money to Saab, it was quickly noted that nobody had said when, how much and for what. On Wednesday, Youngman had denied any comment. Conference participants were divided in their comments. Some called it downright “crazy” to send money to Saab under the circumstances. Some noted that paying a little money, even if it is paid for not completely clear intellectual property, establishes an interesting legal position that could take many years to challenge, especially in a Chinese court. Intellectual property cases already tend to be lengthy. By the time it is sorted out who bought what, who cheated whom, and who misunderstood when, that PhoeniX platform probably will be ready for cremation.
As for the NDRC decision, there was no one at the conference that would not have questioned the sanity of a person that hopes for an impending decision. People who have seen the NDRC in (in-)action suggest immediate medical care when someone thinks that the NDRC will approve the Saab deal within days, or even months. At a conference that was very serious, predictions of quick NDRC action always was good for laughs. It’s the end of October 14 in China, for when a decision of the NDRC was expected and predicted. There was none.