Until Chinese leaders agreed this week to reschedule Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing, they had recently shown a lot more enthusiasm for meeting Western corporate titans than US officials. It’s easy to see why. When the likes of Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon and Tesla Inc.’s Elon Musk troop to Beijing, they tend to hail the potential of the Chinese economy and decry any thought of decoupling from it. “The interests of the United States and China are intertwined like conjoined twins,” Musk said during his visit, at least according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Privately if not publicly, though, those business leaders should start delivering a far tougher message.
No doubt a battery of consultants has warned them against saying anything that could upset the Chinese leadership, for fear of damaging current investments and the potential for future deals. Recent investigations, sanctions and boycotts directed at foreign companies have clearly demonstrated how many tools the Chinese government has to punish troublesome firms — and how willing it is to use them.
At the same time, it’s unclear how much influence the CEOs’ discretion has bought them. While Chinese leaders are happy to offer high-level meetings and slash red tape in order to attract investment, they remain convinced that Western businesses cannot afford to quit China. Indeed, they are so accommodating precisely because they believe Western executives will be a reliable voice opposing the hawkish consensus that has taken hold in the US and some European capitals. Chinese media eagerly play up each high-profile visit as further evidence of the futility of decoupling.
Continued silence on the part of Western CEOs would be short-sighted. First and foremost, their companies’ interests are in grave peril due to escalating tensions between China and the West. While they can and should raise their concerns with Western policy makers, the fact remains that China has contributed as much if not more to this lamentable state of affairs. Unless Chinese leaders moderate their actions in the Taiwan Strait, dial back support for Vladimir Putin, and so on, no real rapprochement with the West will be possible.
Second, intense political repression has made it dangerous for China’s own private entrepreneurs and public intellectuals to question President Xi Jinping’s policies. Meanwhile, China continues to resist US efforts to resume high-level diplomatic and military dialogues. That means foreign business leaders are one of the few groups who can speak directly with key Chinese officials and prick their information bubble. It’s critical that the messages they deliver be frank and direct.
Third, geopolitical tensions are shifting the balance of power in favor of Western businesses. Due to its struggling economy, dependence on Western technology, and fears of full-fledged economic decoupling, China needs Western investments and markets much more than before. Whether they fully realize it yet or not, Chinese leaders cannot dismiss the opinions of Western CEOs as easily as they might have in the past.
Indeed, despite their outward display of confidence, the Chinese government cares quite a bit about what Western business leaders think. Internal publications meant for the Communist Party elite often carry summaries of their views. Such digests are meant to provide an alternative and more credible source of information than the official media. Importantly, pragmatists in the Chinese system can also cite the views in them to convey their concerns about Beijing’s wrong-headed policies, without fearing potential repercussions.
Given all that, how can Western CEOs get their views across most effectively? Above all, they must be unified in their messaging. Top US, European, Japanese, and South Korean executives should coordinate quietly and speak with the same voice, showing Chinese leaders that they cannot play one foreign company off against another.
Although the message should be delivered diplomatically and privately, its central theme should be crystal clear: China’s hardline stance toward the West is making it increasingly difficult for Western companies to maintain their commercial ties with the mainland. Only Chinese moderation can help preserve a mutually beneficial relationship with the West.
It is also worth copying Beijing’s favorite messaging tactic. Western CEOs should deliver the same message to everyone of some importance they meet in China. If repeated often enough and from enough angles, it should eventually filter up to the top leadership.
As Chinese leaders are badly in need of a reality check, Western CEOs will be doing China — and themselves — a huge favor by delivering an honest and stark message. They’ve been repeating for years that they are real friends of China’s and want to “support the Chinese people,” as Dimon told Bloomberg recently. Now is the time to prove it.