Susan Greenberg loses her job in a good cause-offending Chinaby Susan Greenberg / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Why does china matter? In particular, why are western organisations so ready to trim their sails to get through Chinese trade winds which blow cold on any outside criticism of its record on human rights? British business figures mutter curses at Chris Patten for complicating matters with his “misplaced idealism” about democracy. The BBC is accused of censoring its own reports to safeguard satellite television access to those giant audiences. The Disney Corporation jeopardises lucrative deals by resisting Beijing pressure and proceeding with a film on the Dalai Lama-but Michael Ovitz, the executive responsible, is soon out on his ear.
I know whereof I speak. Until very recently I edited World Link, the magazine of the World Economic Forum, which runs the celebrated annual gathering in Davos. I am now job hunting again following a series of events which led to the Forum banning its own magazine from a Hong Kong summit last autumn because it was thought the cover might offend the Chinese authorities.
In this cynical world, perhaps such stories do not surprise. Most people assume that businesses will always follow the dollar, ethics be damned. Why should they behave differently in this case?
The fact is that they are behaving differently. China watchers report surprise at a growing number of cases of western bodies second guessing Beijing and censoring themselves. China is not the only example: there is plenty of money to be made from repressive oil-rich sheikhdoms, as testified by British government attempts to have Saudi dissident Muhammad al Masaari expelled. But China seems spectacularly more successful than others at getting its way.
Part of the explanation, I suspect, is a strange form of inverted cultural snobbery. China has the long-ingrained authority of self-belief that hits the soft target of western self-doubt. Hence the self-interested motives of people in power are presented as an example of “Asian values.” It is all so deliciously different, mysterious, complicated.
Even if you look at the issue on a purely business level, such a rush to please the powerful can be dangerous, in the sense that following fashions is always dangerous. Many companies fell over each other to get a foothold in the Chinese market, only to realise later that arbitrary rule can be bad for business. The World Link cover story that caused all my trouble outlined 12 such cautionary tales based on everyday experience.
Businessweek struck the same note in early February, warning that states used to calling the shots find it hard to give up the intervention habit: western car makers are still subsidising their plants in China because the government keeps setting arbitrary new rules. Sometimes it is just irksome to the company’s bottom line: at other times it has a personal cost, as when a Hong Kong journalist was jailed in China in 1994 for revealing “state secrets” about official interest rates. There’s not likely to be much transparency in that market after July.
It may be too fond a hope that business leaders would override their democratic instincts in pursuit of sales. It is more worrying that many senior executives do not seem to have those instincts in the first place. They look at Beijing with admiration: look where Russia went wrong, trying to bring in glasnost along with economic reform. China did not make that mistake!
It is always rather thrilling, therefore, when someone from these circles tries to exercise a conscience. George Soros, despite his faults, is a rare and successful example, but gets shot down from all directions for his pains. Chris Patten is another.
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the language of business has long adopted military metaphors of conquest and strategy. It is more unusual, however, when the military starts thinking about business metaphors. Looking through my files, I found a paper by Captain Jonathan Welch in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute, outlining how the international money markets could affect military policy. The essay raised the spectre of electronic economic warfare and asked, “Is there a new role for the military here, [even including] taking offensive action against an enemy’s economy?” We would all like to know what kind of reception his ideas found.
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there has also been pressure in many western countries since the end of the cold war to turn the intelligence services towards economic targets. In the US the services have tried to show some business savvy, marketing CIA country reports and selling satellite photographs for commercial use. One Californian estate agent reportedly used satellite shots to help assess property values. But as one congressman told me, business is hard to fit into the old jacket of national interests. How do you decide if a firm is American, or any other nationality, if most of its production is outsourced and/or exported? And if publicly funded spooks learn something confidential that could affect the country’s entire motor industry, whom does it tell, General Motors or Ford?