It was 2012 when I was first asked to make a bribe in China, just shy of a year after moving there. On the counsel of a business licence consultant, I was “advised” to offer remuneration to a mid-ranking member of the local Communist Party Neighbourhood Committee for swaying a potential decision in our favour. We wanted to open an office. It turns out she wanted some foreign whisky and a small cash reward. I politely declined. She politely ensured the office wasn’t opened.
It was a great loss of face, for her, to be sidestepped by a foreigner. My “consultant” told me I’d made a grave error: “if you don’t play by the rules in China, you won’t succeed.”
A few months later we opened. Two and a half years later I sold the business. But not without tribulation.
Two episodes stick out in my memory. The first was being chastised by local friends for having lunch with dissident artist Ai Weiwei. After posting several photos from the meeting on Weibo – Chinese Twitter – I was told not to meddle in domestic affairs, for the sake of my business. (My account was suspended soon after.) The second was facing down blackmail by my Chinese business partner. Fortunately, neither event impacted the success of my company, but they did impress upon me one thing: you don’t succeed in China through submission.
It is strange, therefore, to see our own political leaders aping this approach, firm in the belief that contention with the Chinese government on the difficult issues will lose them the opportunity to do business.
The argument, made by many a commentator during President Xi’s visit, goes something like this. Raise concerns, whether they be on democratic progress, human rights or detention of political prisoners, and you’ll “offend” our visiting Chinese guests. At least that was the warning of China’s ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming earlier this week.
Raise concerns and you’ll threaten valuable Chinese investment in British infrastructure. Like the £1bn earmarked to redevelop the Royal Docks in east London. Or plans by investment groups like SinoFortone to invest £5.2bn in UK projects.
There are two snags with this argument. One is concerned with fact, the other with experience.
Over the past 10 years, Chinese companies have invested around £18bn in the UK, according to The Heritage Foundation. That includes some $3bn in Barclays, nearly a billion pounds in Thames Water, and an 89 per cent stake in House of Fraser.
It could be argued that the UK’s change of tone with China is a recent endeavour. If so, being more critical did not prove costly. Nor has it for the US, where the Obama administration has adopted a cooler tone in its relations with the Middle Kingdom, and where Chinese companies have invested some £60bn of their cash over the last decade.
The fear could be that, for a culture where “face” is the business currency, raising concerns with Xi, his glamorous wife and entourage of state officials would abase our esteemed guests.
The problem is that face works both ways.
If omitting to mention the case, let’s say, of 16-year-old Bao Zhuoxuan, detained illegally under house arrest, gains respect from our new “golden allies”, we must ask ourselves what sort of respect this is.
The well of Chinese investment does not flow from kowtowing UK government ministers. The steel workers of Scunthorpe certainly want David Cameron to raise this difficult truth. Nor will it run dry from being a critical friend. Indeed, we may do well to learn from the Chinese idiom: respect out of fear is never genuine.
Perhaps one might take the view that the tragedy of stories like Bao’s is irrelevant to business negotiations. I suspect many in the Chinese delegation would agree. Yet if the hard truths of human rights have no connection with business interests, as Liu might argue, then logically we can discuss both.
You see, herein lies the problem with the new doctrine. It doesn’t work. And what’s more, we’re kidding ourselves to think that, by following it, we earn a fragile invented veneration from the Chinese government.
Business is business, some would have it. But what does business success count for when others can’t live freely to reap its rewards?