HONG KONG -- If Internet stocks in the U.S. haven't crashed by the time Chinese portal
comes to market on the
(which could come in the next few months), chances are you would make money on the stock in its first few days or even months of trading. After that, investing in the Net in China depends on the permissiveness of Big Brother.
Sohu filed last week to raise $86 million, inspired by the success of unprofitable, little-viewed
, a portal whose stock has gone from 20 in July to 94 this week. Like many American Internet companies, neither makes money. That is of little concern to investors now, but is a consideration that could easily assume much greater importance.
"Over the years, the focus for investors will move from page views to one of the monetization of page views as the market moves from its infancy to adolescence," said
Credit Suisse First Boston
China Internet analyst Jay Chang in a recent report. CSFB is one of the lead underwriters for Sohu. So far the preliminary prospectus has given no indication of how much the shares will cost, nor how many will be on offer.
But with the number of Internet users in China having doubled last year to 9 million, and as that growth rate is expected to continue, fund managers will probably want a slice of Sohu.
Sohu says it averaged 6 million page views a day last month and had more than 800,000 email users. Like Chinadotcom's link with
, Sohu has famous part-owners as well, including
Dow Jones & Co.
. Not that this has attracted heaps of advertising. The total spent on Net advertising in China -- which was about $12 million last year -- may not even reach $200 million in 2003, according to consultancy
Still, other analysts figure that as long as Web fever persists, Sohu should enjoy a fine debut on the market. "Anything flies at this time," said Gurinder Kalra, technology analyst at
in Hong Kong. "What can I say?"
Anything flies for now, but since January there have been some fine reasons to think twice about the future profitability of Chinese Internet companies.
First came a government announcement of a series of new rules that could punish the release of "state secrets" on the Internet. In China, state secret means any information the government doesn't like. Not that China would enforce the rules all the time, but it's worth noting that authoritarian China's newspapers are some of the dullest in the world.
China has always been wary of the power of the Web, but became truly terrified last year, after the quasi-Buddhist
sect organized a peaceful mass protest in high-security Tianamen Square in the heart of Beijing. That sort of thing could never have been done by phone, but was reportedly accomplished via the Internet.
At the authorities' insistence, Sohu and Chinese-language site
have both had to drop nonfinancial foreign-news links from their sites. That is even more restrictive than the rules governing the Net in Singapore, a rich place that offers broadband access to all 3 million citizens. With boring content, only 14% of Singaporeans have even bothered to hook up, content to use their computers primarily for email.
That kind of thing leads to plenty of page views, but not a lot of dollars, especially in a country with a GDP less than a twentieth the size of Singapore's.
Even more ominously, last month China demanded that all companies register their encryption software with the government, to allow the authorities to decipher any Internet traffic flowing through China. Even if a lot of companies demure and refuse to comply, some already have.
Who would want to view or buy things over the Net with Big Brother watching?