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TCL chairman accuses US regulators of anti-China bias

Protectionism has hit electronic group's dealmaking, says Li

View of an office building of TCL Group in Shenzhen.   © Getty Images

BEIJING -- The head of Chinese consumer electronics maker TCL accused the U.S. Tuesday of bias against approving deals involving Chinese businesses, which he says has significantly slowed his company's global technology acquisitions.

Li Dongsheng, founder and chairman of the world's third-largest manufacturer of TV sets, said Chinese companies have been targeted by American regulators for political reasons, and that it takes much longer for TCL's tech deals to be approved under the Donald Trump administration. The company is also known for making phones for Alcatel and BlackBerry.

"I understand that local governments need to protect their local industries, but the way the U.S. government treated Chinese companies was unfair and absurd," Li told reporters on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, where he is a member.

Li's comments came a day after Trump blocked what would be the largest tech merger ever by barring chipmaker Broadcom's $117 billion takeover bid for its U.S. rival Qualcomm on grounds of national security. While Broadcom is based in Singapore, U.S. regulators said the deal would let Chinese telecom giants like Huawei Technologies take a dominant position in the semiconductor industry. The theory is that Broadcom would reduce its investments in new technologies after the merger, which would weaken American companies' position in competition with Chinese rivals.

Li said it took just two to three months to get a deal approved by U.S. regulators under previous administrations, but now the process had been prolonged to at least six months under Trump's "America First" agenda. "The success rates are not high either," he said. He was frustrated by "opaque standards" adopted by the U.S. regulators, who did not provide clear reasons for their rejections -- except citing potential threats to national security.

TCL Chairman Li Dongsheng attends a forum in Hong Kong on April 21, 2017.   © AP

Instead, Li prefers European regulators as they treat Chinese companies equally with others. He did welcome Trump's move to block the Broadcom-Qualcomm union, however, as TCL is a major consumer of microchips.

"More competition is good for the industry ... and TCL's business," he said, noting the already high market concentration in the semiconductor industry.

Despite the hurdles in the U.S., Li said TCL will continue its global expansion with plans to set up plants in India, Russia and Africa in the coming years. He expects its overseas revenue, which accounted for 49% of the total in 2017, to surpass domestic business for the first time this year.

To raise funds for its rapid business expansion, Li said TCL is looking into spinning off subsidiaries into separate listings, citing difficulties raising investor money amid Chinese authorities' tightening financial supervisions.

Li also said the group will shed more than 10,000 manufacturing and sales jobs this year, partly prompted by the spread of automation. It employs about 80,000 people globally. Last year, the group already reduced worker numbers by more than 10,000, Li revealed. But he said the overall number of employees would not change a lot from last year, because TCL will hire more people in its new Wuhan and Shenzhen plants and in its research and development division.

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