What the Beijing Olympics hinted about the future of international business

What's happening between the U.S. and China

An Olympic sponsor.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

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The Beijing Olympics were the perfect example of the "minefield" the U.S.-China relationship has become for business, said Ana Swanson in The New York Times. Take the consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. Like the 12 other premier Olympic sponsors, P&G shelled out heavily for prominent placement in the games that ended last weekend. But it ended up spending "even more to try to prevent any negative fallout from being associated with China's repressive and authoritarian government," investing in a lobbying campaign to beat back calls for the U.S. government to stop buying products from Beijing Games sponsors. That demonstrates the dilemma of doing business in both the U.S. and China: "What is good for business in one country is increasingly a liability in the other." The backlash goes both ways; in the West, companies face the ire of human rights groups, while those that stop operating in the country's troubled Xinjiang region have been pilloried in China. Business groups say they are stuck between the laws of two countries. Human rights advocates say that's just as it should be. When you are at the Chinese Communist Party trough, says one, "you will have to turn into a pig."

Indeed, the lack of interest in human rights that Olympics sponsors have evidenced is truly telling, said Samantha Masunaga and Sarah Parvini in the Los Angeles Times. We asked every one of the 13 Olympic sponsors how they felt about sponsoring the games amid the genocide in Xinjiang. Two said that they don't comment on or get involved in political issues. One, Intel, gave us a blanket "no comment." And 10 — Airbnb, Alibaba, Allianz, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Panasonic, P&G, Samsung, Toyota, and Visa — simply didn't respond at all. Nothing is new here. "Activists rallying for Uighur and Tibetan rights protested in the streets of San Francisco ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet the Games still took place." Access to China "has become a rote excuse for businesses to avoid action," said Rui Zhong in Wired. And businesses have not just stood by and tolerated Beijing's abuses. Companies such as Coca-Cola and Nike have participated in them, actively lobbying against U.S. sanctions.

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Corporations will increasingly need to choose sides between the U.S. and China, said Eric Sayers and Ivan Kanapathy in Foreign Policy. While U.S. companies may have sponsored the Beijing Games, looking ahead they will be subject to "a raft of restrictions." China may have expected the U.S. to temper President Trump's confrontational approach, but in fact "the Biden administration has signaled its general agreement" with Trump's policies. In some cases, it has even expanded the Trump rules, for instance by expanding an investment ban "to include Chinese surveillance technology companies." While Washington was initially focused on "defensive measures," Congress is turning to "a more offensive agenda," seeking to bring control of technologies back to U.S. shores. The next trade front may be China's efforts to introduce a "digital yuan" and gain control of electronic payments — something the U.S. increasingly sees as a national security issue. A Republican-controlled House of Representatives could be even more aggressive on China, and the "traditional economic relationship between the United States and China" is set for even greater disruption.

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