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With GSK, China flipped the compliance switch

GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) may well be a watershed in the global fight against bribery and corruption. Behavior and conduct, which was illegal under Chinese law but previously tolerated and even accepted by Chinese government officials, quickly became a quagmire that the company was caught in when charges of corruption were leveled against them last year.

David Pilling, writing an article in the Financial Times (FT) entitled Why corruption is a messy business, said “Multinationals are discovering that there is only one thing worse than operating in a country where corruption is rampant: operating in one where corruption was once rampant — but is no longer tolerated.”

When it began, it was not it clear why China’s Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping began his anti-corruption push. My take is that his campaign has both political and economic reasons. That purpose is that Xi has recognized something that the U.S. government officials and most particularly the Department of Justice (DOJ) have been preaching for some time. That is, the insidiousness of corruption and its negative effects on an economic system.

But the economic reasons behind the anti-corruption campaign are equally important. One of the more interesting articulations came from one disgraced former Chinese government official, who was one of the earliest senior officials to be charged with corruption. In a Wall Street Journal article by James T. Areddy, entitled Chinese Ex-Official Admits to Corruption, he wrote about the trial of Liu Tienan. At his trial he made some rather extraordinary statements. Areddy wrote that “Liu testified that reducing official power is key to curbing corruption: ‘The major point, which is based on my own experience, is to give the market a great deal of power to make decisions.'”

There have already been demonstrated economic benefits to China’s anti-corruption campaign. In September, Bloomberg reported that China’s fight against bribery and corruption could boost economic growth, generating an additional $70 billion for the budget, in summarizing economists’ forecasts. An article in the online publication Position and Promotions, reported that the bribery “could trigger a 0.1-0.5 percent increase in the world’s second-biggest economy, equivalent to $70 billion dollars.” This crackdown should also be welcomed by western companies, as “it could also benefit foreign companies operating on the Chinese market, who have experienced the negative effects of the omnipresent palm-greasing, according to Joerg Wuttke, president of European Chamber of Commerce in China.” He was further quoted as saying, “It takes the stress away. You’re not afraid that somebody gets an order because he found a better champagne or something like that. It’s not Singapore yet, but it’s a very positive development.”

As we close this phase of GSK’s saga, I think some time for reflection is appropriate. For the compliance practitioner there have been many specific lessons to be learned from GSK’s missteps. However I think the clearest lesson is that the only real hope that a company has into today’s world is an effective, best practices anti-corruption compliance program.

But there may also be cause for celebration to those who have long preached against the evils of corruption, whether it is for economic reasons or for those who view the fight against anti-corruption as a part of the fight against terrorism. For if China is attacking domestic corruption, I believe that will lead other countries to do so as well. So while GSK may well suffer going forward, the fight against global bribery and corruption may just have moved a few feet forward.


Thomas Fox is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog. He’s the founder of the Houston-based boutique law firm A popular speaker on compliance and risk-management topics, Fox is also the creator and writer of the widely followed FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog. His book Lessons Learned on Compliance and Ethics topped Amazon’s bestseller list for international law. He can be contacted here.

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