Woo's Great Leap Westward

WHARF Holdings chairman, Mr Peter Woo Kwong-ching, has added the south western province of Sichuan to his grand vision for the industrial transformation of China's interior.

Wharf has already committed itself to a major cable television project in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, and is now actively looking at other projects.

Mr Woo said Wharf was looking at developing a portfolio of investments in Sichuan that will match ''our capabilities''.

''We are looking at a number of projects close to our core businesses, and projects that are perhaps not quite core but have potential,'' he said.

Why Sichuan? ''It is one of the most fertile regions in China, agriculturally very rich and has a population of over 100 million people,'' he explained.

Sichuan has a market potential that ''simply cannot be ignored''.

''If you do,'' he said, ''someone else will move in.'' Sichuan is just another extension to Mr Woo's Hongkong Plus Plus concept, which envisages the opening up of China's heartland to the outside world using Wuhan as the focal point with Shanghai, Hongkong and Tianjin the main coastal outlets for the interior.

While Sichuan was predominantly agricultural, it had an untapped consumer market, said Mr Woo.

When Wharf recently committed itself to a $44 million joint venture cable television project in Chengdu, it raised a number of eyebrows.

But as Mr Woo pointed out: ''It is not as though cable is new to Chengdu. They already have cable. What we are offering is an alternative to a market of some 20 million people.

Wharf's Hongkong partner, the locally listed MKI Corporation, together with the Sichuan Province Cable TV Enterprise Development Co have formed a joint venture known as Sichuan Allday TV Development Limited Corporation.

Ringed by mountains, Sichuan has only three railway lines linking it to the outside world - the northern link to Baoji and Xian in Shaanxi province and to the south two links wind their way from Chengdu to Kunming in Yunnan and from Chongqing to Guiyang in Guizhou.

To the south runs the Yangtze River which snakes its way through the southern part of the province through to Wuhan and on to Shanghai.

Mr Woo said he did not see the Yangtze providing an alternative transport route to Wuhan, saying that ships of 2,000 tonnes can only be used between Chongqing and Wuhan while ships of 10,000 tonnes and more can sail from Wuhan to Shanghai.

''Frankly, you cannot move a lot of cargo on a 2,000 tonne ship,'' Mr Woo said.

He believed the real thrust of Wharf's investment in Sichuan would be in Chengdu.

''Chengdu,'' he said, ''has many opportunities for investors . . . trouble is no one knows about it. Here you have a province with the same land mass as say Indonesia and the population of Japan. That is a market which no one can simply overlook.

''It was the same story with Wuhan. No one, either in Hongkong nor the world for that matter, gave Wuhan a second thought until we showed an interest.

''Now we have people calling every day . . . businessmen wanting to know how to invest in Wuhan.

''We see our role as simply packaging particular projects which we have an interest in and taking that package overseas looking for potential joint venture partners.'' For political and economic reasons the Chinese authorities are anxious to expand the industrial growth from the coastal regions into the interior. The Yangtze River virtually cuts China in two and Wuhan sits on the river mid-way between Shanghai to the east and the agriculturally rich province of Sichuan in the west.

Mr Woo takes his vision one step further to include a north-south component with Wuhan connecting Beijing and Tianjin in the north and Guangzhou and Hongkong to the south.

''My strategy for the 1990s is a do-something strategy,'' Mr Woo said.

''One doesn't have to throw one's full body into China . . . simply put a toe in and test the water. That is all I am saying.'' And that is exactly what he has done with the cable venture in Chengdu. Of the $44 million project, Wharf's commitment is $9 million.

''But how can you ignore a market of over 100 million people? But seriously, our real market in Chengdu is 20 million . . . Hongkong has six. I think it speaks for itself.'' Mr Woo denied any direct link between Wharf Cable and the Chengdu project saying: ''It is true, we do have people who can help and can offer advice but Wharf Cable is very focused on Hongkong. The two projects, however, are very separate.

''Besides the operation at Chengdu is very simple compared to the cable operation in Hongkong. For example, the equipment used in Chengdu can be bought off the shelf and is very cheap and does not need to concentrate the efforts of our expertise at WharfCable.'' Cable will be just one of Mr Woo's projects in Sichuan. ''The seeds have now been planted,'' Mr Woo says confidently.