Why Chinese property developers are targeting sites outside of China

Faced with a tough property market at home, Chinese developers are increasingly acquiring land overseas, including Australia.

From a sales revenue of ‘only’ RMB 1.2bn (equivalent to A$ 207 million) per annum in 1998, to a staggering revenue of RMB  170.9bn (A$ 29.4bn) in 2013, Vanke has surely created history in the world of property development. 

But the Chinese publicly listed company is not the only one to make a big profit. In fact, since 1998, the fast pace of property development industry in China has made a large number of billionaire and multimillionaire developers. While at the same time, the term “property developers” in China has been associated with terminologies such as “corruption”, “astronomical price”, “ridiculously huge profit”, it seems Chinese developers are among one of the most negatively seen groups in China.

Zhi Qiangren, Chairman of Hua Yuan Developments Ltd, one of China’s four largest property developers, says he is almost the third most hated person in China – after Junichiro Koizumi (former prime minister of Japan) and Chen Shui-bian (a former Taiwanese politician who was president from 2000 to 2008 and is imprisoned in 2008 for corruption and money laundering).

“And that’s purely because I am seen as the most active and publicised developer in China, where developers are known to be associated with the “dark side” of business making so much profit,” he laughs.

But is property development really a profitable business China-wide?

The answer is no, and there are good reasons – the same reasons that lead to the fact that a wave of Chinese developers are acquiring land overseas, including Australia.

The first reason is simply because it is too expensive to acquire land in China, in comparison to countries such as Australia. Chinese buyers blame Chinese developers for irregularly increasing the property prices, without realising that the Chinese local government is doing the same on land prices to developers.

“If you buy a property in China, say if it costs RMB 30,000 (A$5172) per square metre which is about average price in Beijing,” says Xian Pinglang, one of China’s most well known economists, “20,000 of this RMB 30,000 goes to paying for the land component, which means most of the profit gets pocketed by the government.” 

“In the recent years, there has been an average of RMB 1.69 trillion (equivalent to A$290 billion) of land transactions every year from land sales to developers,” says Xian, “which equates to almost 48 per cent of total fiscal revenue of the Chinese local government.”

My view is that in any country, if the land acquisition component is as high as 66 per cent of the sales revenue, any developer would struggle with making a profit.

In our dealings with Chinese developers, particularly those who recently came from China, they seem to be impressed with the price value ratio of the land, and how “clean” or straight forward a transaction could be. 

Plus, there is so much land available in Australia, comparing with China, and most land is privately owned.

The second biggest reason is exactly that – the availability of land in countries overseas, in comparison to China.

“In recent years, China’s Department of Land Resources plan to have approximately 185,000 – 200,000 hectares of land per year made available for development, but according to figures by developers, only less than 50,000 hectares were released per year,” says ZhiQiang.

In Australia, where land transactions mostly take place between private owners and buyers, more and more small to medium Chinese developers have taken the opportunity to acquire land. Most focus on inner city locations such as Melbourne, Southbank, South Yarra and St Kilda, as well as areas popular for Chinese residents such as Doncaster, Box Hill, Glen Waverley of Victoria and Hurstville, Chatswood and Epping of New South Wales. 

“Many Chinese developers are venturing into the medium density sites with developments ranging from four townhouses up to 20 apartments” comments Tim Heavyside, Director of Fletchers Real Estate.

“These properties tend to sell quickly and allow developers a speedy turnaround for their investment.  “Some of these developers have also commented on the availability of these sites being many more than currently being offered in China.”

Michael Yang is CEO of GiFang.com, Australia’s leading property portal open for high networth Chinese investors.