Few residents of Beilun remember the last state-owned company in the area. The old fertiliser plant went bankrupt years ago, leaving behind rich ground for the growth of private firms. Scattered across Beilun, Ningbo city's sprawling port district, are more than 120 private companies that have pulled in US$400 million in foreign investment, proving to be more attractive partners than ailing state companies. A local official explains why private companies have flourished in Ningbo and the rest of Zhejiang province for more than 20 years. 'Our policies are equally fair for state-owned enterprises and private ones. If you can make money, then make it,' Ningbo deputy party secretary Guo Zhengwei said. These are unusual words from a Communist Party bureaucrat. But Zhejiang is a step ahead of the nation's leaders, who have just urged equal treatment for private companies at a recent party plenum. Zhejiang, the cradle of private companies on the mainland, has already opened sensitive sectors of the economy, like infrastructure, education and finance. In fact, some officials say their very economic survival depends on private companies. But the mature private companies of Zhejiang are grappling with a different set of problems to those of struggling start-ups: a shortage of funds for expansion, a lack of experienced managers and political uncertainty. On the windy shores of Hangzhou Bay, Zhejiang is building the world's longest sea-crossing bridge at 36km to link the northern and southern parts of the province. When the 4 billion yuan (HK$3.76 billion) bridge is finished in 2009, it will represent not only a feat of engineering but also reform, because just more than half is funded by private capital. Seventeen private firms, including travel agency Songcheng Group and the Youngor Group clothing maker, put money into the project. Officials said local private firms pushed for stakes in the bridge, reflecting their large number and influence in the province. 'It used to be the government investing. Now the government wants to guide private investment into infrastructure projects,' said Jin Jianming, vice-chief commander of the Hangzhou Bay Bridge's engineering construction headquarters. In Taizhou, officials have approved privately funded schools and quietly allowed a private bank, one of the nation's few, to be set up. Even the city's new sports stadium was built by selling off the seats, one by one, to private sponsors. Taizhou Mayor Qu Sufen said private companies no longer needed to 'wear red hats', or disguise themselves as collectives to evade government limits. 'We need private capital to develop,' she said. Despite words of support from the government, private companies have their own problems as the mainland lurches towards a market-oriented economy. For China's biggest private car maker, the Geely Group, finding good managers and raising funds to roll out new models are among the roadblocks. Geely started as a refrigerator parts maker in 1986 before switching to the motor industry in 1997. Geely founder Li Shufu headhunted executives from other car companies and government bodies as he expanded the company. His chief executive officer, Xu Gang, was a government tax official. The switch from a company staffed with family and friends to a real corporation is a problem for many private firms. 'If I make a mistake, the chairman should seek me out. But if I am the younger brother and he is the older brother, things will be left unsaid,' Mr Xu said. Banks are no longer reluctant to lend to Geely since it has grown into a major company, but the group still needs capital to expand. In the quest for funds, Geely has set up a venture with Hong Kong investment firm Guorun Holdings and is planning domestic and overseas stock listings. Only a handful of private firms have listed on the mainland. Zhou Jinmiao, deputy manager of shoe manufacturer the Kangnai Group, said: 'It's relatively difficult and we are still studying the possibility.' Kangnai, based in the city of Wenzhou, is already one of the country's top three shoe producers. Although the company has 2,000 specialty stores and annual sales of 400 million yuan, few outside the mainland recognise the brand or its trademark - an ink drawing of the head of a Chinese man. Kangnai wants to become one of the few Chinese companies to have worldwide brand recognition, and is planning to open 120 stores and sales counters overseas by 2005, up from the present 70. But executives admit it will be tough. 'Few domestic brands have successfully gone outside China,' Mr Zhou said. Like Kangnai, Wenzhou's CHINT Group grew from a home workshop. It is now the mainland's largest producer of low-voltage electrical components with 13,000 employees and US$970 million in turnover last year. Company chairman Nan Cunhui is a representative to the National People's Congress. The company will probably be Wenzhou's biggest taxpayer this year. But Mr Nan still worries about the political status of private companies. Private companies, like others, still cannot own land, instead buying so-called 'land-use rights' for fixed periods of time to put up their massive new factories. However, the mainland is expected to give better protection to private property rights at the annual session of the legislature next March. Talk of allowing entrepreneurs to join the Communist Party has faded because of a combination of opposition from conservatives, lack of interest and uncertainty over the qualifications needed. Mr Nan, already a legislator, is cagey about whether or not he wants to join the party. 'It's not like I can just join the party if I want to,' he said. He is also cautious about attracting attention to his wealth. Ranked China's 58th richest person by Forbes magazine last year, Mr Nan will only say his personal wealth is 'not much'. He said private companies walk a fine line between managing politics and operating an enterprise aimed at making profits. 'I don't participate in politics. But you can't afford to ignore politics,' he said.