QuickHit: Can Western companies solve the China dilemma?
This week’s QuickHit, we have Isaac Stone Fish of Strategy Risks to talk about how western companies and other companies around the world should deal with China and compromises that you need to do for that. He also shares the status of Hong Kong as a gateway to China. How about the environmental and human rights violations of China and how the US companies can make sure they are running an ethical business? And what is the status of non-profit organizations in China, especially those that are environment and human rights focuses?
Strategy Risks quantifies corporate exposure to Beijing. This was started because Isaac got frustrated at the way that ESG environmental, social and corporate governance providers were ranking Chinese companies and US companies that had exposures to China. Isaac thought it would be fun and interesting and hopefully very useful to have a different way of measuring and quantifying this exposure.
Isaac grew up in Syracuse, a nice little place but basically about as far away from the center of anything as possible. He started going to China when he was 16 for something different. He started in Western China and ended up living in Beijing for about six years. He also worked in journalism mostly, it was the Asia foreign policy. Spent a few years doing a mix of public affairs, commentating, bloviating, writing, and then started Strategy Risks roughly six months ago.
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This QuickHit episode was recorded on February 3, 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this Normalization of China QuickHit episode are those of the guests and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Complete Intelligence. Any content provided by our guests are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any political party, religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.
TN: It’s really interesting looking at ESG and public markets and I think we’ve seen over the past few years a lot of tensions between China and the U.S. They’ve been there for 10 years but they really took shape over the last few years. If you’re a publicly traded company today in the U.S. or traded on a U.S. exchange, what are the things that you need to really think about with regard to China? What are the biggest risks and biggest considerations that you’re talking to your clients about?
ISF: One thing that people overlook is the risks of their China strategy. Not in China itself but globally and especially in the United States. The rules for engagement in China are so different for these corporations in China than they are in the United States. And the U.S. is drawing some pretty thick regulatory lines especially around Xinjiang, the region of northwest China where there are roughly a million Muslims in concentration camps. That a lot of times, these major corporations, their China offices will ignore or overlook or not put nearly enough attention on.
The messages that we’re communicating and the things that luckily are starting to bubble up into these board rooms is the understanding that to have a China strategy, you need to have a global strategy that is very aware both of what Beijing wants but also what the Biden administration and many American people want.
TN: For the last 15, 20 years it almost seems like companies have had a global strategy and then they’ve had this China strategy off to the side because it was such a big market, growing so fast. It seems to me like you’re talking almost about the normalization of China in terms of performance expectations, social expectations, those sorts of things. Is that right? Is that kind of what you’re implying?
ISF: One of the smartest ways of the Chinese communist party, which has ruled China since 1949, were the smartest things they have done is made it seem like their country was a normal country. And there’s nothing aberrant about China or the Chinese people. But there’s something quite apparent about the Chinese Communist Party.
And the rules for playing in China are quite different than they are in basically everywhere else. What we’re starting to see is the realization that companies need to do something to limit the influence of Beijing on their corporate headquarters, on their products and on their decision making.
TN: But can you do that actually? Because if you’re saying an automotive company and most of your revenues come from China, and the Chinese government says something, it seems really hard. And companies have been awkward about doing that for the past say 10, 15 years. Really changing how you help companies treat them like any other country? I think what you raised about what the CCP has done since 1949 is amazing. It’s great perspective. But can the CCP understand that they’re being normalized as well?
ISF: The CCP are doing this as an active strategy in as much as such a complex institution has a single strategy. They’re certainly trying to make people think that they are normal in our sort of western liberalism definition of that. Most of the companies that we talk about in this space, the U.S. is a far more important market for them than China. NBA is a great example.
China is its growth market. The USA is its most important market and what companies are starting to realize is that what happens to them in China and what touches China doesn’t just touch on their business in China but affects their business in the United States as well.
What we do at Strategy Risks is less working with the companies like the NBA that are having these problems, but work with other people in the financial chains, institutional investors, pension funds, endowments and explain to them the different risks and exposures that they’ll have with the companies in their portfolio and some of the problems they might have with being overweight in certain companies about Chinese or American that are complicit in Chinese human rights abuses.
TN: From a portfolio investor’a perspective, until very recently, you could park a whole lot of money in Hong Kong and then dip into China as needed. But it seems that that’s becoming less of an easy strategy since the crackdown in Hong Kong last year. Is that the case or is Hong Kong still in a pretty good place to take advantage of mainland stuff?
ISF: From a pure markets perspective, Hong Kong is still an excellent place for that. What’s really changed is the safety and the rule of law and the feeling of security for people doing deals in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is still an excellent window into China and we’re seeing Shenzhen and Shanghai supplanting a lot of what Hong Kong is doing in Seoul to agree. But the issue with Hong Kong is much more for the people there as opposed to the people who are using it as a conduit.
TN: That’s really interesting what you say about Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Seoul because I’ve been seeing that take shape over the last five or six years and it’s interesting that it’s getting a lot of traction.
With Xinjiang and with other things happening socially in China, what about things like non-profits? Issues that they have to raise in China? How can you operate a non-profit in China and stay true to your mission if it’s kind of awkward with Beijing or with the CCP, which are one and the same?
ISF: Most times, you can’t. What’s been happening is that a huge amount of western nonprofits have, sometimes it’s this evangelical view and sometimes it’s just well this is a very important country filled with a lot of lovely people and we want to come here and do good. But they find that knowingly or unknowingly, their message and their mission gets corrupted because they need to work with their government partners. And sometimes, their mission is totally at odds with the mission of the party. And so, they have to make sacrifices that I would say perverts what they’re doing.
We see this perhaps most intently in both the very human rights focused nonprofits and in the environmental focused non-profits. A lot of whom have found themselves being very praiseworthy of what Beijing is doing even though China’s far and away the worst polluter and the worst carbon emitter. They take signs coming from top leaders that Beijing is committed to making these changes even though the changes often don’t get made. But they are finding themselves in a position where in order to be there, they have to sacrifice some of their credibility. A very heartening sign I’m seeing is people saying, maybe I don’t actually need to be in China in order to do something that’s positive for the world.
TN: Do you see a path to China having that type of environment in 5, 10, 20 years time? Or do you think we’re kind of on this this really is it slower than that?
ISF: It’s such an important question and I wish I had some good way to answer it. In China, as Chinese officials love to say, has 5,000 years of history. The Communist Party has been in power for what, one and a half percent of that time. At some point, in the near future, the party will no longer rule China. Will that be next year? Will that be 30 years? Will that be 200 years? It’s so hard to say, but it’s certainly not inevitable.