Major leadership changes signal uncertainty in China's telco market

Changes in the top seats at China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom are the most significant in a decade, and may negatively impact the smaller players in the short term.

Recent leadership changes among China's top three telcos are the most significant in a decade, indicating uncertainty in the local telecom market.

The 64-year-old chairman of China Mobile, Xi Guohua, has retired, while the top honchos at China Telecom and China Unicom have swapped companies, taking over each other's former position as chairman and CEO.

Shang Bing, vice minister of the country's industry regulator Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, has replaced Xi as the new chairman of China Mobile.

The changes marked the first time in 11 years since the leads of the top telcos were replaced. China's central government is responsible for appointing leadership positions at the three state-owned companies.

While Xi's retirement was not unexpected, the "real surprise" came from the exchange of seats between Wang Xiaochu and Chang Xiaobing, said Strategy Analytics' senior analyst Guang Yang.

Wang is the new CEO of China Unicom, while Chang now heads China Telecom.

"This is the largest rotation of operators' executives since 2004. It brings some uncertainties to Chinese telecom market," Guang noted, adding that Chinese operators were facing growing pressure from OTT (over-the-top) players.

The Beijing-based analyst said the total service revenue of three operators had declined 0.9 percent in the first half of 2015, over the same period last year. The Chinese government also had been urging operators to "improve speed and reduce tariff" to support its "Internet Plus" Strategy, aimed at boosting macro economic growth.

As state-owned companies, Guang noted that the operators would have to follow the government's direction and look to reduce cost, particularly, the two smaller ones -- China Telecom and China Unicom. He added that this resulted in rumours of a possible merger.

"The swap of chairman between the two operators might be the first step to prepare the merge," he explained. "At least, the two chairmen in their new positions may be willing to strengthen the collaboration between the two operators, such as infrastructure sharing or national roaming. Through the collaboration, the two operators may be able to manage their cost more efficiently and lower the tariff faster."

The leadership changes, though, could have a negative impact on the operators' performance, at least, in the short term, the analyst said.

According to Strategy Analytics, market leader China Mobile had acquired 190 million new 4G customers in June, almost 5.5-fold more than the total 4G subscriber base of both China Telecom and China Unicom.

The seat swap would affect the respective telco's strategy and daily operations, potentially widening the gap between them and China Mobile, Guang said.

He added that further uncertainty might come as the Chinese government was mulling over reforms regarding the governance of state-owned companies, as part of efforts to improve their efficiencies and extend the government's control over these organisations.

"The change of top executive may be the first step to reform the governance mechanism of these state-owned operators," Guang noted. "The executives in new position will have fewer concerns about human relations or historic issues, [making it] easier for them to push the reform... But what the reform will exactly be is not clear yet."