Yesterday we talked about a recent story in the Chinese press blaming foreign companies for more than half of the PRC’s corruption, and singling out U.S. companies that violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in China. On reflection, we may have been unduly skeptical about China’s motives for publishing the story. So today we want to set the record straight.
To be clear, the PRC’s economic policies and the results they’ve produced are phenomenal. Last year the country attracted nearly $75 billion in foreign direct investment. Total FDI has topped $700 billion. There are now some 120,000 foreign-invested enterprises in the PRC, double the number from just 2002. The economy is still growing at over 11% a year, and in a country of more than 1.3 billion people, per capita income has reached around $5,500. Foreign businesses in China are getting bigger. McDonald’s this week said it plans to open 125 more outlets there in 2008, and Dunkin’ Donuts wants 100 new locations in Shanghai alone over the next 10 years. What’s the growth look like at street level? Our first visit to China was in 1993. Crossing main roads in Beijing was nearly impossible because of the streaming bicycles pedaled by factory workers wearing black Mao suits. The same blocks now make up some of the world’s fanciest neighborhoods — upscale condos and cafes filled with world-class fashionistas, and streets flowing with BMWs and Audis, Lamborghinis and more.
With such a staggering level of foreign activity in the economy, it’s logical that a lot of the corruption over the past ten years can be traced to foreign companies. We thought 64% — the amount noted in the aforementioned story — sounded too high. But it could be close to the mark after all. For sure, the number of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement actions and investigations related to China has ballooned over the past few years. Among the companies involved are Lucent Technologies Inc., Faro Technologies, Inc., York International Corporation, Paradigm B.V., Schnitzer Steel Industries Inc., InVision Technologies, Inc., Diagnostics Products Corporation, Alltel Corporation, BearingPoint Inc. and UTStarcom Inc. Siemens may have FCPA issues in China, and there could be others. That’s a long list in the rather limited FCPA universe. So what gives?
We’ve wondered before if some companies go into certain countries — China, Nigeria and Indonesia come to mind — expecting to find a corrupt environment. And once there — no matter what they find — they lower their compliance standards instead of raising them. Some pundits in Nigeria have talked about this syndrome and how it victimizes the local economy and the people in it. Perhaps the Chinese press is now sensitive to the same thing.
So in the spirit of the approaching Lunar New Year — the beautiful character above means “rat,” the sign next up on the Chinese calendar — we acknowledge that ten years ago China put out the welcome mat to the world’s entrepreneurs on a scale never seen before. Since then people by the billions have enjoyed the fruits, both in China and around the globe. At the same time, the Chinese government has struggled with public corruption — as most developing economies do. It has fought against it using all available weapons. [Sometimes we cringe to read about executions for bribe-taking there.] Now China is telling the international community that a big part of its corruption problem is imported from overseas — even from the United States. It’s a good reminder to foreign companies — especially those required to comply with the FCPA — that instead of being part of the problem they should be part of the solution.