James Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch's love-hate relationship with China

January 3, 2014: 1:59 PM ET

The media mogul recently announced that he was severing his investing ties to China, selling off his stake in Star China TV.

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FORTUNE -- Media mogul Rupert Murdoch's 20-year pursuit of the Chinese market came to an end on Thursday after his film and television business, 21st Century Fox Group, announced that it would sell its remaining stake in Star China TV, which operates Mandarin language channels.

This isn't much of a surprise. Despite all we hear about the potential of China's growing market, doing business in the world's second-largest economy has turned off Murdoch for many years now. The media has focused on the timing of his move, awkwardly connecting it to his recent divorce from his Chinese-born wife Wendi Deng.

However, it's clear that Murdoch's love-hate relationship with China has little, if anything, to do with his marital problems, despite what a headline from Quartz may suggest. The piece, however, offers a helpful explainer on why Murdoch pulled out of China. In 2005, Murdoch said his business in China "hit a brick wall" after the government tightened restrictions on foreign media companies looking to expand there. And five years later, 21st Century Fox (FOX) sold its controlling stake in Star China to China Media Capital.

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In an interview earlier this year with Fortune's Adam Lashinsky, Rupert Murdoch's son, James Murdoch, who is chairman and chief executive of international operations at 21st Century Fox, said it has become harder to do business in China: "It's always been hard for us in the business of ideas to do business in China. That's clear and a lot of people have those issues."

Murdoch certainly isn't the first executive to complain. In 2010, the Financial Times reported that GE (GE) CEO Jeff Immelt said that China was hostile to multinational companies, saying "I really worry about China. In the end I am not sure they want us to win, or to be successful."

Who knows how Immelt feels now, but the Murdochs' move signals that cashing in on China's unprecedented growth hasn't gotten much easier.

And it hasn't gotten that much better for domestic companies in China, either, according to the World Bank's latest annual Doing Business report, which ranks economies on the ease of doing business based on various measures, such as the time it takes to start a business. China climbed three spots to 96 out of 189 nations, but it's still at the bottom rung, just below Russia, Serbia, Jamaica, and the Maldives. China has made it easier for businesses to get credit and resolve insolvency, but the country has not made improvements on other measures, such as protecting investors and reducing the cost and time to start a business.

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Nonetheless, China is the most important economy to U.S. CEOs, according to a 2013 PwC survey. Of the 167 CEOs surveyed, 41% said China was critical to their companies' overall growth prospects over the next 12 months, although interest has waned as executives pay increased attention to the German, Canadian, and Mexican markets.

All this raises the question: Where will the Murdochs look next?

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