Another in the series The Corporate Citizen and Society – the Dynamics of the Relationship
Started in Autumn 2019 – drafting interrupted – further edited in June 2020 – and posted in September 2020.
by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute
Running a multi-national business today is quite challenging, especially for firms with “footprints” of size in countries beyond the homeland.
Recently we have been watching some critical events…at times crisis situations…that senior executives are navigating.
Of course, corporate leaders are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic – and civil protests in many cities and towns related to equality issues and objections to current methods of policing. – and the economic dislocations of the virus and more.
For large multi-nationals with a presence in many different nations – sourcing there, or with local facilities in operation, or with products and services extensively used in the countries, with partnerships established with the public sector or NGOs – the challenge of being a “good corporate citizen” is ever-present. And sometimes can be daunting.
Challenges? Think about those related to continuing “freedom to operate” or “social license” or actual regulatory license to operate that may be placed in jeopardy in some way or another.
Something done, something said (or published or communicated)…with the foreign governments objecting to that “something”.– and threatening to or taking action to limit the freedom to operate.
When I began drafting this commentary last fall, tiny bits of news about the Coronavirus was just beginning to be reported out of China, with very sketchy details. By year end, It was a kind of flu. Nothing to worry about.
In the news headlines at that time (summer into fall 2019) there were more obvious challenges being presented to non-Chinese tech companies as the Hong Kong people protests continued to build momentum, and the Communist government in the mainland began to put pressure on the corporate sector (perhaps pressuring foreign companies’ media that had China news coverage).
An example of this kind of threat came to us in October 2019 involving Apple — concerning its vital relationship with the “two Chinas” – and with significant production and retail stores on the mainland — the People’s Republic of China being the #2 global market for Apple sales.
Other non-China-based companies have also being feeling the pressures as well.
Just offshore from mainland China, trouble was quite evident to the world in the former British territory of Hong Kong, which is a kind of status aparte of the mainland. (That is similar to the status of Aruba in the Caribbean Basin to parent country The Netherlands.) China has maintained a “one country-two systems” approach to Hong Kong. Until now.
China gained re-sovereignty over the Hong Kong territory in 1997 with the execution of a treaty at the end of the United Kingdom’s 99-year lease. The treaty terms were meant to assure separate governance systems for the more advanced Hong Kong economy and territory’s political system of that era.
Early in October 2019, an Apple device software application – Hkmap.live – developed by an outside firm and sold through the Apple Store, was removed from the on-line store.
The concerns: Reuters News and Associated Press reported that the Communist Party’s main newspaper (the People’s Daily) had singled out Apple for criticism for having the third party app for sale (and used on smartphones) that reportedly enabled Hong Kong protesters to track the local police activity.
The People’s Republic of China’s propaganda arm (the publication) said this was a no-no – that is, Apple making the app available — and Apple removed the app because it “violated the rules,” according to the Reuters/AP report at the time. (Reason: the app could be used to ambush police and by criminals where police were absent – the Apple rules allow for removal when the app is found to facilitate illegal activity.)
Apple had first rejected HKmap.live — then agreed to make it available — and then as the protest mounted (and mainland China responded), the app came off the App Store.
Was it the People’s Daily targeting of Apple and the app…or what the company said (“…many concerned customers in Hong Kong contacted the company…”).
An MSNBC commentator (Kif Leswing) weighed in, pointing out that Apple also removed a news stream (Quartz) because the content is illegal in China. Quartz was covering the Hong Kong democracy protests.
This is/was not a new issue: Back in 2017 several U.S. Senators presciently charged that Apple was enabling the Chinese government’s draconian moves on censorship and citizen surveillance. (Which moves, according to news reports of today, involves collecting everyone’s DNA and placing cameras everywhere to track everyone – plus developing a “social profile” for tracking the movements of citizens — and meting out punishment where officials think it is merited.)
We note here that Google also quietly removed Hong Kong protest content from the Android store — without creating Apple-type headlines.
But – for those who had downloaded the app, it continued posting locations of police patrols, so said The Los Angeles Times.
MSNBC noted that Apple more than other tech companies has a very close relationship with China (where 200 million-plus iPhones are made each year) and China is an important market as well with tens of billions in revenue in total from the “three Chinas”. (For Apple, China is the #2 market for iPhones.)
The third China: the separate nation of the Republic of China, more generally known as Taiwan, and persistently claimed by the mainland as part of its territory. “China” is a complicated subject for many company managements. And then there is Hong Kong and nearby Macao, outposts of China mainland.)
Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a memo to Apple’s 130,000 employees to explain the move. And we can assume try to calm nerves internally.
US Senator Josh Hawley (Missouri) quickly posed the question: Who is running Apple…Tim Cook or Beijing?
If We Don’t Agree — We Will Name & Share – Beware of the China Leadership
Brands targeted by China’s rulers have been subjected to campaigns (name and shame) to alert local customers of issues with a company or organization.
This could become more of a threat to non-Chinese companies as the government continues to develop the “social profile” of its citizens. And captures their imagines on street cameras. Which company’s products they buy could become a major issue in the western democracies!
Further complicating life for execs — we’ve seen the rise of internal protest inside U.S. tech companies, when employees don’t like the work being done for customers –particularly government agencies, police departments, intelligence agencies, military branches, etc.
Business-society relationships are complicated. Sports is a big business in the USA. The National Basketball Association is a powerful sports enterprise now with global reach and the ownership universe (the key decision-makers) is made up of corporations and wealthy partnerships that own local sports teams.
So – when the manager of the Houston Rockets briefly voiced support of the Hong Kong protests — the state TV in China stopped the broadcast of NBA games. Pow!
Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R_Kentucky) quickly weighed in: “The people of Hong Kong have risked much more than money to defend their freedom of expression, human rights and autonomy. I hope the NBA can learn from that courage and not abandon those values for the sake of their bottom line.” (The NBA apologized for the Twitter comment of the Houston team GM. It’s not comfortable being in the middle of intercontinental cat fight.)
Complicating matters: Majority Leader McConnell’s wife – Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao – is a Chinese-American born in Taiwan. She was Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush (and therefore an overseer of U.S. fiduciary investment policy-making at the DOL, affecting decisions of many large investors.) More complications in public and private sectors, we could say.
The Houston basketball team has been very popular in China and a star player (Yao Ming) played for the team. The U.A. Senate majority leader is a constant critic of China policies. Complicated matters for companies doing business in and with China!
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also weighed in: “We’re better than this. Human rights should not be for sale and the NBA should not be assigning Chinese communist censorship.” Remember, his father fled Communist Cuba to come to the U.S.A.
The aggravated condition of U.S.-China trade relations under the Trump Administration is also complicating things.
One, Two, Three Chinas – It’s Complicated
We should explain that the “ Two Chinas” policy of the United States government should now be considered as “three,” as the identification has traditionally meant the relationship of [mainland] Communist China and the offshore democracy of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the USA.
The Nationalist ROC has governed the island nation since the end of civil war of 1949 when many mainland refugees fled to Taiwan as the Communists came to power.
With China moving aggressively toward Hong Kong independence-of-a-sort, the Trump Administration and members of Congress are talking about possible actions to attempt to ensure some independence of the little territory.
Another dustup: Hollywood’s Dreamworks and a China production company (Pearl Studio) collaborated to create an animated feature – “Abominable” (about a young girl meeting the Abominable Snowman or “Yeti”). The film features Asian-American actor and was quickly a hit on release in America.
The film debuted in Vietnam as well – and was quickly pulled from viewing. A map of China used in the animation showed the “nine dashes” – a no-no in China’s neighboring countries.
The Nine-Dashes – Complicating Matters in the South China Sea
What are the 9 dashes, you might ask? (I’m sure that question rapidly went ’round in Dreamworks’ Hollywood offices — what the hell!.) China attempts to impose its authority over the South China Sea with a series of dashes (not firm lines) to imply control or ownership.
Which angers neighbors — Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other nations with access to the vital sea lanes. And those nations are trading partners of the U.S. — and American companies have significant presence in them.
How many people in corporate suites are tuned in to the vagaries or subtleties of China’s diplomacy!
We recommend that you read Foreign Affairs and China-scholar Robert D. Kaplan’s excellent book on all of this — red warning flags flying! — “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific.” Published in 2014 – available on Amazon.
Simply stated – “China” – it’s a complicated subject for corporate citizens.
The China – United State of America Relationship
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has said that the USA-China relationship with shape the international order for the 21st Century and the countries will have to deal with serious cultural differences (like freedom of expression and the right to protest and the freedom to trade etc.).
We saw that the investors in the USA shrugged off the Apple dustup with China over the Hong Kong protests. The share price was up $6.00 (3%) and moving toward an all-time high as the China-Hong Kong-APPL news stories appeared… this is a US$1 trillion-plus company! (Well, after the coronavirus crash of March 2020, we did have to check again and the price is back up in high $300s.)
Challenge: Being a Good Corporate Citizen When You Are a Guest
For large corporations, in general, worldwide, being a “good corporate citizen” in many lands is always a concern and a challenge as well as a competitive advantage (the brand and reputation and consumer favor as a 21st Century moat) — but things can be very complicated in the execution of citizenship on the ground.
Complicated Challenge: Some companies operate in literally all but three or four nations of the world, excluding Iran, North Korea and perhaps a few others from their operations and marketing activities.
As we first prepared to finally publish this June 2020, dusting off the earlier Fall 2019 draft, we were in the midst of a global epidemic (COVID-19), and U.S. and global civil protests — with the news coverage all but eliminating the news out of Hong Kong on some days.
But China actions focused on western business organizations are very much in focus today. Recently several large news organizations (corporate-owned, of course, and at the top, corporate board and C-suite managed) saw their in-country journalists booted out of China because the Communist leaders objected to their news coverage.
Journalists employed by The New York Times (owned by The Times Company); The Wall Street Journal (owned by News Corp); and The Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon) were told to leave mainland China and the “regulated territories” of Hong Kong and Macoa.
In September 2020 we learned that Australian journalists had fled China to avoid detention.
The leaders of the People’s Republic of China, it is said, are angered by coverage of the coronavirus (and the Communist government’s response); coverage of Hong Kong protests; and the reporting of “shadowy business dealings” of the country’s government leadership.
In addition, Time magazine (now owned by Marc Benioff, head of Salesforce) and the Voice of America – AND the expelled media organizations — were instructed to turn over information about their operations to the government minders.
U.S. Retaliation Complicates Corporate Life
This is not happening in a vacuum – in Washington, D.C., President Donald Trump designated the five China media organization operating in the USA as government functionaries of China, limiting the number of Chinese citizens who could work in the U.S. as journalists. The five are propaganda tools, the charge goes. Their activities are being restricted.
And so here in the USA the tit-for-tat is targeting China’s main news outlets –– Xinhua, CGTN, China Daily, People’s Daily, China Radio.
The Trump Administration is also moving to de-list publicly-traded Chinese corporations (traded on American stock exchanges).
In all of the dustups, as U.S. business leaders are deftly navigating the tricky shoals where the seas of statesmanship meet the rocks of ideology and pose challenges to strategy and business models.
Some of the challenges in the US-China relationships are about freedoms. Such as our First Amendment freedoms. There are no China equivalents.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set out four important freedoms for the peoples of all nations during the early days of World War II — freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. These have long been central to many elements of U.S. and western capitalism — and foreign concepts to the rulers of present-day China.
American companies have to carefully navigate the differences when they do business in China, with China, and other non-democratic nations.
An example getting news coverage this week: The Walt Disney Company, a U.S.-based global entertainment and communications company. The company has been a very able and savvy global marketer since the earliest days of Uncle Walt’s cartoon studio in sunny California. Founder Uncle Walt always innovated and marketed that innovation far and wide.
Consider that Disney has a $5 billion-plus investment in Shanghai Disneyland Resort (opened 2016) — co-owned by the Communist government — and an older Disney park in Hong Kong. China is an important market for various activities of the company, including motion pictures.
And so the anxiety we logically could expect in the Disney offices as a new dustup occurred. The company created “Hulan”, a movie about an important character (female) in China mythology, with a China-born female lead and a female director, and scenes filmed in China for accurate depiction of locations for the story.
One snippet of the 1 hour/50 minute film — the usual (traditional) roll of credits at the end named a number of governments within China as assisting. Including Xinjiang, rolling by in a long list. Where other American companies operated. And where in 2018 as the film was underway, the local government was locking up tens of thousands of Muslims in concentration camps! And so the September 2020 criticism of The Walt Disney Company — including by two dozen members of the U.S. Congress.
There’s a thorough, fair and balanced recap of all of this in The New York Times, Sunday, September 13, 2020 (“How a 1 Minute of Scenery in ‘Mulan’ Put Disney in a Bind Over China”). It’s an important read for you, I think, in the context of U.S.-China relations and for non-China-based companies operating in the country.
Thinking about “open” communication not being permitted today in China we are reminded of President Thomas Jefferson’s perspective: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” – Thomas Jefferson letter to the Marquis de Lafayette.
So true some two centuries later in our great democracy!