US businesses in China: We feel less welcome here

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American businesses feel increasingly less welcome in China, according to a new survey, following a recent string of investigations into foreign companies that has raised concerns about rising protectionism.

Of the 477 American companies polled in the 2015 China Business Climate Survey Report conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce(AmCham) and Bain & Company, 47 percent said they felt less welcome in China than before, up from 44 percent last year.

Survey respondents represent a broad set of industries, from resources to IT, with a presence across the country.

MNCs being 'singled out'

Last year, several high-profile international companies including Microsoft, GlaxoSmithKline, Qualcomm, Audi and McDonald's were the targets of aggressive probes around health and safety, anti-trust and anti-bribery.

This raised questions over whether foreign companies are being singled out by Chinese regulators.

Fifty-seven percent of respondents believe foreign firms were specifically targeted in recent enforcement campaigns, and more than 50 percent said such campaigns are having a negative impact on their intent to invest further in China.

Analysts say it is difficult to draw conclusions over whether multinationals are being investigated more than local companies because it's hard to obtain an accurate count of the local companies being probed.

"Tracking publicly reported cases – a very incomplete measure – suggests that, on the sheer number of investigations alone, Chinese companies are being targeted more than MNCs; however, such investigations can be small and are over quite quickly," wrote Control Risks – global risk and strategic consulting firm – in a note published in October 2014.

What's clear, however, is that under China's aggressive regulatory environment, MNCs are more exposed and likely to become targets, said Control Risks.

Other challenges

Alongside regulatory concerns, rising labor costs and a shortage of qualified employees and management were also identified as top challenges.

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The majority of respondents said their main challenge with attracting and retaining the right talent in China is high expectations around salaries and benefits.

When it comes to recruiting senior talent to work in China, air quality presented an issue for 53 percent of the respondents, up from 19 percent five years ago.

Less corruption

While the business landscape for multinationals has gotten tougher, there's one aspect of the operating environment that has improved considerably: corruption.

Corruption fell off the list of top ten challenges in this year's survey, after being identified as the sixth largest issue last year.

"While members have shown increased concern over perceived anti-foreign sentiment, the recent pronouncements for strengthening rule of law and providing greater transparency, and the decline in reported challenges from corruption are positive signs for our members," AmCham said.