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For Musk and other foreign CEOs visiting China, silence is golden

SHANGHAI/BEIJING — A veritable parade of overseas CEOs including Tesla’s Elon Musk and Goldman Sachs’ David Solomon have made their way to a reopened China in the last few months.

One notable common strand: they’ve not talked much in public about their trips, which have mostly consisted of meetings with government officials, local staff and business partners. Media events and other public engagements, once frequent before the pandemic, are now rare.

Even Mr. Musk, known for his unreserved banter on Twitter, was uncharacteristically silent on a whirlwind trip last week.

In 2020, the billionaire celebrated the delivery of the first cars made at Tesla’s Shanghai plant with a dance on stage that was open to the press. This time around, the media were not invited to cover his plant visit.

And while Mr. Musk has mentioned the trip in two posts since leaving, he didn’t tweet once while in China.

Goldman’s Mr. Solomon has similarly been more low-key. In 2019, he gave media interviews and participated in several forums. But during his trip in March this year, his only known engagements were closed-door meetings with regulators, China’s sovereign wealth fund and at a university.

The lack of information from Western CEOs and their companies about the trips to China can be attributed to wariness given that US-Sino political and trade tensions have worsened to their lowest point in decades, said senior staff at chambers of commerce and trade associations.

President Xi Jinping’s increasing focus on national security — in particular a recent crackdown on consultancies and due diligence firms — has also left many foreign companies uncertain where they might step over the line of the law, they said.

Noah Fraser, managing director of the Canada China Business Council, said visiting executives are no longer chasing new business opportunities but are concentrating on maintaining existing relationships and will often stipulate no press, big dinners or speaking opportunities.

They appear to be keeping “their heads down and will have private lunches where they can learn from people on the ground what’s happening,” he said.

Before traveling to China, US chief executive officers (CEOs) have been seeking advice about how Beijing’s expansion of its counter-espionage law could affect them, according to the head of a US trade association who declined to be identified, citing the sensitive nature of doing business in China now.

The CEOs also want to know how to deal with Chinese government officials and with questions once the trip becomes public, the association head said, adding it was not in their interest to speak to media and run the risk of being asked to comment on stances taken by Washington and Beijing.

The EU Chamber of Commerce said in a statement that companies operating in China have always exercised a certain level of caution and were now adapting to changes in areas that might be deemed sensitive.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment while Goldman declined to comment.

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement the numerous visits from US CEOs were a “vote of confidence” in the Chinese economy. That their trips were relatively low-key stemmed from what it called the US government’s “wrong policy” of containing China, it said.

With respect to concerns about its counter-espionage law, it was China’s right to safeguard national security through domestic legislation, it added.

The US Department of Commerce declined to comment.

While US President Joseph R. Biden said last month he expected a thaw in frosty relations with Beijing “very shortly,” there is no denying that tensions have soared this year with flashpoints including US export curbs on semiconductors and data security concerns.

That said, after three years of harsh COVID curbs that hampered entry into China, foreign CEOs appear eager to get the lay of the land.

Those traveling here in recent months have included Apple’s Tim Cook, Intel’s Patrick Gelsinger, General Motors’ Mary Barra, Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon.

Sixty-seven foreign business leaders attended the high-profile China Development Forum this year, although that is still 20 fewer than in 2019.

“The idea is that you have to show sufficient commitment to the China market if you’re playing there,” said Christopher Johnson, president of China Strategies Group, a political risk consultancy.

At the same time, the CEOs need to do that “without setting off alarm bells with the US government, and it’s a very difficult task,” he added.

JPMorgan and Blackstone declined to comment. Apple, General Motors and Intel did not respond to requests for comment.

The few known comments by foreign CEOs whilst they were in China have been in line with Mr. Biden’s stance that he is not seeking to decouple the world’s two largest economies.

The Foreign Ministry quoted Mr. Musk as saying he was opposed to a decoupling of the US and China economies which he described as “conjoined twins.”

JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon told the JPMorgan Global China Summit last week he favored East-West “de-risking” rather than decoupling, according to a source from the event.

Daniel Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the difference between de-risking and decoupling was a subtle but important one.

It “makes clear that the issue is managing the risk of dependency on China rather than a determination to separate the world into two competing spheres,” he said. — Reuters

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