When it comes to China, many German corporations behave like Charles Prince before the great financial crisis of 2008. The then head of the Citi-Group put a lot of money on highly speculative derivatives before the market collapsed and defended himself with a frequently quoted saying: “So as long as the music is playing, we have to dance. ”His bench brought Prince to the brink of ruin.
Political relations between the United States and China have deteriorated massively in the past twelve months – and the European Union (EU) is gradually following, good or bad. There is no evidence that the increasing hardening will dissolve again. Not even after a political change in the United States. China is to blame for this. President Xi Jinping is reacting ever more aggressively to the outside and more and more repressively to the inside. However, many German companies pretend that nothing has happened in the past few months. Especially those companies that are already heavily dependent on the Chinese market do not show increased caution. This applies above all to the two sectors with the greatest commitment to the Communist People’s Republic: the auto industry and German chemistry.
The arguments you hear from this corner are very thin. China is their largest market, so there is no alternative but to do everything the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party demands from investors from abroad. But isn’t it one of the most important tasks of responsible corporate executives to continually re-evaluate risks and to prepare for possible crises instead of simply acting like Charles Prince? What are BMW, Daimler, VW, BASF and others doing to prepare for the risk of a violent break-in in China? Apparently not much.
Some arguments of the pro-China lobby in the German economy are devoid of any intellectual honesty. The head of the chemical company Lanxess provided a fine example of this in an interview with the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” last week. Matthias Zachert was quoted as saying that one should not make “no specifications” for the Chinese. In truth, we have been observing the opposite under Xi Jinping for several years: China is always making new “guidelines” for all of the world and enforcing political good behavior through a mixture of carrot and stick. Every country, every company will be punished if it does not comply with the Beijing demands. It is enough to hang up a Taiwan flag somewhere and it is just hailing “hard measures”.
In Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party shows that it does not abide by international treaties. Why should state companies stick to contracts they have with western companies when the going gets tough? China does not even shy away from taking hostages when it serves its own power interests – both people and companies. We have to learn to deal with it. It cannot be about questioning trade with China. But we do have to make ourselves less blackmailable. This applies not only to the European countries, but also to the European companies.
Bernd Ziesemer is a capital columnist. The business journalist was editor-in-chief of the Handelsblatt from 2002 to 2010. Until 2014 he was managing director of the corporate publishing division of Hoffmann and Campe. Ziesemer’s column appears regularly on Personal-Financial.com. Here you can follow him on Twitter.