Take a look at the number of Chinese companies on this year’s Fortune Global 500 list and it’s hard not to come away impressed—even a bit intimidated. Ninety-eight companies are based in China, including those headquartered in Hong Kong. That puts China second only to the U.S., which has 128 companies on the list. (You can filter the companies of the Global 500 by country using Fortune’s new, searchable and sortable database.) If you compare this year’s figure to recent ones, China’s rise is even more spectacular. China had just 46 companies appearing on the list in 2010, and only 10 in 2000. The U.S. has trended in the other direction: 139 American companies made the list in 2010 and 179 in 2000.
But dig a little deeper, and China’s rise begins to look less imposing. First, the top 12 Chinese companies are all state-owned. They include massive banks and oil companies that the central government controls through the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the ruling State Council (SASAC), which appoints CEOs and makes decisions on large investments. Of the 98 Chinese companies on the list, only 22 are private.
With the government as their largest shareholders, China’s state-owned enterprises (SOE) enjoy massive state support, which fosters growth and insulates them from competition. “What would the chairman of China’s largest bank do if the chairman of PetroChina asked for a loan?” wrote Carl Walter and Fraser Howie in their history of China’s markets, Red Capitalism. “He would say, ‘Thank you very much, how much, and for how long?’” He’d probably do so from one of the extravagantly designed SOE-headquarters, many with foreign architects, that line two major thoroughfares in Beijing.
Second, the Chinese companies are anything but global brands. They enjoy monopolies or oligopolies at home, but often struggle to expand their business outside of the protected borders of their home country. “Chinese companies that wish to go global are hindered because they lack adequate knowledge of consumers in target markets and experience in building leading brands,” Boston Consulting Group partners wrote earlier this year. Size is no substitute for strength in international competition. Today, many of the Chinese brands that are most known around the world—including Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Xiaomi, none of which are state-owned—remain too small (in terms of revenue) to make the list.
The number of Chinese companies appearing on Fortune‘s list should continue growing in the coming years, because it is a government priority to rise up the rankings. At a SASAC event in 2013, the economist Hu Angang, Director of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies at Tsinghua University and a vocal proponent of the Communist Party and its state-owned companies system, said that by 2020 the number of SOEs on the Fortune Global 500 list would hit 130.
But until Chinese companies grow international brands commensurate with their size back home, they will be like B-movie actors who count 1 million Twitter followers: they will never be as impressive as their revenue numbers suggest.
Some other takeaways from the Chinese companies on this year’s Global 500 list:
-Of the 54 companies with the biggest losses last year, 16 were Chinese, the most of any country. (Japan ranked second with eight companies, while the U.S. had just four.) Chinese coal miners and oil drillers were hit especially hard in 2014 by oversupply and falling prices.
-The state-owned bank ICBC had the highest profits of any company, with $45 billion.
-The number of Chinese megafirms with women CEOs: Zero. Of the 14 women CEOs at the helm of Fortune Global 500 companies, 12 are in the U.S., two in India.
-Five of the list’s 10 biggest employers were Chinese. A sixth was Taiwanese: Hon Hai Precision Industry, known as Foxconn. Chinese companies ranked No. 1 in aggregate on the list with 18.7 million total employees vs. 16.2 million for the Global 500 firms in the U.S.
Here are snapshots of China’s 12 biggest companies–all of which rank among the world’s 75 biggest companies by revenue, and all of which are state-owned.
To see the full Fortune Global 500 list, visit http://fortune.com/global500/.