Semafor’s Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith, recently introduced me as “a China expert with an unwavering perspective who just completed an image roundtrip from center, to hard-right, and back to center all because he voiced accurate bilateral concerns before the rest of the mainstream was ready to.” Though I had lived personally through that bizarre in-the-eyes-of-others transformation over the past three years, it left me shocked hearing it validated by an esteemed journalist.
In today’s world, however, where someone’s perspective on China places them politically on any given day has zero relevance to the gravity of the U.S.-China relationship overall. If the rapidly disintegrating bilateral glue holding the superpowers together as strategic rivals continues to deteriorate, we will all have a big problem that will transcend both party lines and international borders. Bluntly, the fate of our nation and the world is at stake.
In 2020 I stated on the opening page of my book, “We either continue to co-exist through the bond formed by the exchange of culture and commerce, or we consciously start a cold war between the world’s two superpowers,” which continues to be my cemented belief today. However, as the world caught up to constructive criticism of the many reckless ways America has engaged with China, I worry that a dangerous current has formed in the flow of the bilateral river — one that heads rapidly towards full and destructive decoupling.
Having spent a career in media, I have focused on convincing my Hollywood brethren to see the importance of altering wrongs and amplifying rights in our interaction with China. Not once have I pushed to terminate the bilateral exchange. Instead, I have stressed that we all must work together to rebalance it. Devising practical and constructive policies and rules to level the bilateral playing field and protect the national security interests, values, and principles Americans hold dearly can be accomplished. I have no doubt, and we must.
But this pressing responsibility falls well beyond the entertainment community. Finding the Daoist balance between strategic de-risking and improved engagement involves the efforts of all American businesses, our government, and those who advise them both. That’s where recent events are even more alarming as the global consulting industry – a vital ingredient of bilateral connective tissue – has recently been under siege by Beijing. Reports of raids on the China offices of firms such as The Mintz Group to Capvision have been surfacing, and deep concerns of where this is all headed are shared by those in the consulting community, the private sector at large, and even the highest levels of the U.S. government.
On May 12, the Financial Times reported, “Forrester’s U.S. headquarters decided to cut the jobs in China in response to the recent tightening of restrictions on western consultancies scrutinizing Chinese investments and business partners for foreign clients.” If all industry peers of Forrester followed suit, the business clients of those very firms wouldn’t be far behind, and a massive domino fall of commercial Sino-disengagement would result. That wouldn’t bode well for the vital bilateral bond formed by commercial exchange, so would a true cold war be far behind?
Fortunately, even in the face of this current threat by Beijing, a solution exists for these firms to continue their crucial on-the-ground operations. For one, adapting a firewall internally to separate delicate information and communications from PRC-based colleagues will protect their safety while simultaneously securing such intelligence from Beijing’s access. Secondly, transitioning those PRC-based executives away from gathering newly restricted data and insight will further shield them from civil or criminal liabilities. And finally, on-the-ground operations moving forward can, without anxiety, continue to offer key China-on-China dialogue to understand where the winds are blowing, provide valuable opportunities to white-board macro strategies & narratives, and support important yet non-sensitive servicing of global clients.
In fact, with the headwinds coming from Washington gusting strongly into the face of Beijing’s reciprocal and somewhat belligerent countermeasures, it will be crucial for the consulting industry to work between the business community and those inside The Beltway to broker the common ground necessary to allow continued market access. For sure, threading that needle will be complicated. After all, American companies will need to execute any initiatives in a way that protects our nation’s interests first while, at the same time, making Beijing feel those activities satisfy pro-China objectives.
Additionally, consulting firms will provide valuable people-to-people engagement across both nations. Personnel tasked in Washington to understand agendas influenced by donors, constituents, and voters must work tightly with those ingratiated with the American business community, communicating directives pushed by investors, shareholders, and consumers. Using such knowledge to foster collaboration between Washington and the private sector is the only way to successfully construct rebalanced and consistent rules of engagement for China moving forward. And that playbook must then be relayed and translated to a team on the ground in China, who will formulate strategic narratives to present to Beijing with the intent to gain approval for uninterrupted market access under the newly designed parameters. Upon success, that crucial bridge supported by ongoing commercial exchange will continue to link the superpowers… a win for the world at large.
This all does pose an important question, though… For anyone with a voracious passion for avoiding war, pushing for continued capitalism, protecting national interests, rebalancing an uneven playing field, shielding personnel, fostering diplomacy, providing solutions, inspiring innovation, promoting compromise, communicating goodwill, and investing energy into creating a sound, practical bond between the world’s two superpowers, where on the political spectrum does that fall today?… Everywhere, as it’s simply defined as American.
Chris Fenton is a longtime media executive, speaker, and author of “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, and American Business.” As a member of the U.S.-Asia Institute, Council on Foreign Relations, the National Committee on U.S. China Relations, and Third Way Think Tank, he helps the private sector and Washington navigate America’s complicated relationship with China. Follow him on Twitter: @TheDragonFeeder