In my more than two decades in China, I have seldom seen the foreign business community more angry and disillusioned than it is today. Such sentiment goes beyond the Internet censorship and cyberspying that led to Google’s Jan. 12 threat to bail out of China, or the clash of values (freedom vs. control) implied by the Google case. It is about the perception that antiforeign attitudes and policies in China have been growing and hardening since the global economic crisis pushed the U.S. and Europe into a tailspin and launched China to its very uncomfortable stardom on the world stage.
Visiting CEOs’ banquet-table chatter is now dominated by swapping tales of arrogant and insolent Chinese bureaucrats and business partners. The litany includes purposefully inconsistent and nontransparent enforcement of regulations, rampant intellectual-property theft, state penetration of multinationals through union and Communist Party organizations, blatant market impediments through rigged product standards and testing, politicized courts and agencies that almost always favor local companies, creative and selective enforcement of WTO requirements … The list goes on.
The foreign business community in China has deep respect and affection for the Chinese people and their hard-earned success. But more than a few foreign business leaders are asking themselves if they have been bamboozled by the system. Multinationals have been solid citizens in China, handing over heaps of capital, technology, training, source code, best practices and proprietary products to joint-venture partners they were forced into bed with. They have funded schools, orphanages, disaster reconstruction, overseas scholarships and all manner of poverty-alleviation programs. But now that the China market matters more to them, it appears that China couldn’t care less. Increasingly difficult China-market access is the immediate worry. But many are looking ahead and losing sleep over expectations that their onetime partners are morphing into predators — and that their own technology and know-how will be coming back at them globally in the form of cut-price products from subsidized state-owned behemoths.