Burner Laptops and Smaller Profits: Firms Portray Their China Challenges

American companies doing business in China are less optimistic about the future than at any other time in more than two decades. Restrictions on economic data, like the extent of youth unemployment, is making investment decisions harder. Few of the many foreign executives who left China during the pandemic are returning.

These are some of the takeaways from reports released Tuesday by organizations representing close to 2,000 European and American firms.

The papers by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai and the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China portray a business environment that has become more difficult to navigate. Companies find themselves caught between a Beijing that has been outwardly solicitous of their investment but at the same time focused on its security priorities. Nearly two-thirds of European companies in China have seen business opportunities thwarted by China’s ever more complex web of regulations.

The reports also make clear that despite the troublesome landscape, China remains an enticing lure for Western corporations. Many of the companies surveyed said they were ready to increase their investments in China if geopolitical tensions eased and if government policy became more welcoming.

“China needs to choose: Are you going for self-reliance and national security, or are you going towards further opening up and engagement,” said Jens Eskelund, the president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.

Representatives of Western governments have been pressing issues of investment and access to China’s market in a series of trips to Beijing in recent months. Three top European Union officials are making separate visits in the coming week, following four senior American officials who went to China over the past three months. The most recent was Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who expressed concern about China’s limits on imports of cosmetics and many other American goods.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, center, talking to R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. Ambassador to China, in Beijing, in August.Credit…Pool photo by Andy Wong

It’s getting harder to make money in China

Much of the negative sentiment is driven by worsening relations between Beijing and Washington. There’s also China’s faltering economy, which is flagging under a troubled real estate market marked by highly indebted developers and eroding home prices.

Another reason for the gloom: Profitability in China for American companies is at a record low and executives are trimming expectations for the next three to five years.

European companies are also worried. A modest rebound in consumer spending after three years of stringent pandemic measures has not been matched by an uptick in imports, as various “de-risking” policies by China have led to a reliance on local production instead, Mr. Eskelund said.

And staffing China operations with expatriates remains a challenge. During pandemic lockdowns, many American and European companies moved the bulk of their managers home, generally replacing them with Chinese nationals. Few of the expatriates have moved back into China since the country reopened its borders last January after almost completely sealing them for 34 months, the groups said.

The pileup of difficulties is weighing on decisions about whether to put more money into the Chinese economy. Foreign direct investment plunged 87 percent from April through June, compared with the same months last year, according to Nomura, a Japanese bank. That is the lowest quarterly level since modern records began in early 1998.

When representatives from 325 American companies were asked to grade China’s performance on its willingness to open its markets to them, they gave an average grade of 6, just barely a pass on the scale of one to 10. The most bullish companies were those in pharmaceuticals, life sciences and medical device sales, as well as finance and insurance companies. Technology companies and legal services firms gave the worst grades.

American companies said transparency around policy has gotten worse, a complaint they have made in past surveys. And more than half of the companies surveyed this year felt that government policy favored their Chinese rivals.

A job fair in Chongqing, a southwest China city, in April.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Companies face more rules and security risks

While Chinese government officials have publicly pitched foreign executives to invest more, saying China was eager to do business, Beijing has also doubled down on policies emphasizing security and self-reliance that can make it harder for foreign companies to conduct business in the country.

China’s Ministry of State Security has called for a “whole of society mobilization,” urging the public to watch for what it considers foreign-backed subversion.

Following China’s recent adoption of stringent data security and counterespionage legislation, European and American companies are discouraging executives from carrying information out of China even about day-to-day corporate operations.

Multinationals have issued temporary “burner” laptops and smartphones to executives visiting China for several years, to prevent sensitive corporate information from being stolen. But this summer, some companies have begun adopting the reverse policy: They are also not allowing executives based in China to leave the country with their laptops and often their smartphones.

Eric Zheng, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, said company limits on allowing employees to carry laptops out of China to other countries in Asia make it harder to manage regional operations from Shanghai.

A further difficulty is that when executives are outside of China, the country’s data security laws no longer allow them to access certain data on company computers inside of China, said Soeren Meyer, who helps coordinate technology policy for the European chamber. American and European multinationals in sectors like finance and infrastructure have been forced by China’s new data security laws to invest in building separate systems inside China that are kept separate from their systems elsewhere.

China has issued other wide-reaching regulations in recent years that are forcing companies to change how they run their China operations.

“We see more regulations happening in more areas but then the way they are implemented or the way they are defined is often, frankly, quite vague and so companies aren’t certain now where the red lines are” said Sean Stein, chairman of the American chamber in Shanghai.

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