July 13, 2017
If negative views of a company increased by 26 percentage points over a decade, the chief executive officer of said company would have a major problem.
In fact, that CEO would probably be asked to leave.
Sadly, when it comes to U.S.-China relations no one seems to care, and no one has been asked to leave.
In the United States, negative views of China have increased by 26 percentage points between 2006 and 2016. And American negativity toward China has been higher than Chinese negativity toward the United States in every year since 2014.
A January 2017 Pew Research survey of Americans found that 65 percent of respondents said China is either an adversary (22 percent) or a serious problem (43 percent), while only about a third (31 percent) said China is not an issue.
And in a separate Spring 2016 survey by Pew Research, a majority (55 percent) of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of what more and more Americans see as their largest Asian rival.
This is the public affairs reality that the CEO leadership of America’s blue-chip multinational companies are facing right now.
One of their largest and most promising markets is seen domestically as the home of an adversary power that allows fertile ground for politicians supporting protectionist policies and trade halting tariffs on Capitol Hill. Actions that if successfully passed would force Beijing to respond with retaliatory trade tactics from less investment here to increased limits stifling full access to the growing Chinese consumer marketplace for American farmers and exporters.
However, in the cozy and elite world of U.S.-China commercial relations where most of the work takes place in posh hotels and big chair summits, the deterioration of the way Americans see China seems to have escaped the captains of industry. Boardrooms across the nation continue to operate as if all is smooth and satisfactory.
It is time for those that care about a productive and engaged U.S.-China commercial relationship to take these polls seriously and engage Americans in Main Street coffee shops and at picnic tables for backyard summer BBQs.
For far too long America’s corporate leadership has overly relied on a model dependent on high-level government relationships, a network of Old China Hands going back to Henry Kissinger, and support from the White House and corresponding federal agencies to manage the U.S.-China relationship.
This model to manage the U.S.-China relationship is exhausted and broken.
Without a research-based, robust, and deliberate grassroots and public affairs effort, how Americans perceive and comprehend China will continue to slip into a more negative territory.
Geopolitical tensions, cyber disputes and anti-China rhetoric in Washington drive not only negative narratives that affect U.S.-China relations, but also create real issues for American multinationals doing business in China. The saliency of the relationship has intensified; the base of those exposed to its outcomes broaden.
Americans invest for retirement in equities priced on business developments in China; states compete for Chinese investment and export opportunities; the media never miss a chance to capitalize on discord in the relationship. U.S.-China relations have become highly politicized; meaning a CEO’s business, now more than ever, is affected by decisions in Washington and how Beijing decides to respond.
Today, the array of stakeholders shaping U.S.-China relations is multidirectional. The old binary model is dated. Gone is the time where the relationship was influenced (and managed) by a handful of elites.
Outcomes in U.S.-China relationship is now shaped by events and decisions well beyond the control of any one actor or agenda. Business can no longer afford to be reactive or reliant on outsourcing their public affairs priorities vis-a-vis China and Washington to the diminishing returns of old strategies.
It is time for new thinking. U.S. companies and the CEOs who lead them need to take a more proactive approach to protecting and enhancing business interests affected by Washington and Beijing.
Without a dedicated public affairs and communications strategy, U.S. companies are likely to experience more costs than rewards in the wake of an increasingly challenged U.S.-China relationship.
As the U.S.-China relationship enters a more competitive phase, U.S. businesses will need to develop a comprehensive grassroots and public affairs strategy toward Washington and Beijing that engages Americans beyond the Beltway. Having a highfalutin think-tank panel discussions on Massachusetts Avenue is no match for the discussions around a picnic table in Toledo, Ohio.
Two important inflection points in the relationship take place next week.
First, July 16 is the 100-day deadline for the trade talks announced after the Trump-Xi “Citrus Summit” in Florida.
Second, on July 19 in Washington, the U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue meeting will take place. Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang is expected to lead the Chinese delegation, while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will share the duties on the U.S. side.
Both events provide endless opportunities for commentary and engagement from American CEOs to reshape the U.S.-China relationship and redirect the negative trends.
Let’s see if they will take advantage of these events as a means to redirect the U.S.-China relationship on a more positive trajectory. I will be at the picnic table listening.
Marc Ross is the founder of Caracal Global, an adjunct professor at George Washington University teaching a course on Globalization and American politics, and former communications director for the U.S.-China Business Council.