China Syndrome: Crackdown on foreign firms no coincidence
China's head-spinning series of announcements about investigations into foreign makers of baby formula, pharmaceuticals and food packaging is anything but a coincidence, according to several observers who claim that China is using the inquiries to boost domestic companies in the face of a serious financial slowdown.
"It's too concerted," said Daniel Gouré, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public policy research organization, about the probes, which have rocked foreign companies in those sectors. "Where you have that much smoke, there ought to be a fire," he added.
"They definitely want to bolster the domestic side," said Gouré, a national security analyst who also sees the Chinese actions as an effort to divert attention to still unresolved scandals by their domestic manufacturers in some of the same sectors even as foreign companies rack up big gains in those areas.
"I think the Chinese are being smart, saying 'If you've got a stain on you, then throw mud on someone else,' " said Gouré, who does not believe the investigations have a good-faith basis.
Last week, China said it would look into price-fixing by foreign baby-formula companies, including Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestlé's Wyeth division, Abbott Laboratories and Danone. Chinese regulators also revealed their examination of prices set by 60 foreign and domestic drugmakers, as well as an investigation into Swiss food-packaging behemoth Tetra Pak of allegedly "abusing its market dominance."
On Thursday, Chinese authorities accused executives of giant GlaxoSmithKline of an ongoing effort to bribe doctors to prescribe GSK drugs.
"This is not a coincidence—it can't be," said author Gordon Chang, a longtime critic of China who believes the country is headed for financial meltdown because of heavy debt and dramatically slower growth. "This is actually systematic. ... I believe this is all part of a concerted plan of going after foreign companies."
"I think that what China is doing is trying to basically limit the business of foreign companies," he said.
Allegations of corruption, including the GSK bribery case, are disingenuous, Chang said, because "you have a corrupt business environment in China" that for decades has watched officials tolerate bribery and other illegal acts by foreign and domestic firms alike when it suited them.
The difference now is that agencies "realize foreign companies are doing so much better" at the same time that China's political leadership has given regulators the green light to target them, he said.
"People have really seen that's it's open season on foreigners," Chang said. "In that environment ... there's no penalty in going after them."
Foreign baby-formula makers have done extremely well in China since 2008, after plastic-tainted formula made by domestic companies killed six infants, led to the hospitalization of more than 50,000 babies and sickened another 300,000.
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Gouré said the prices of foreign companies' baby formula "have skyrocketed" in China since the scandal.
"Not because there's been any collusion, but because the Chinese [consumers] don't want the domestic stuff," he said. "They were the result of market conditions." The market share of foreign companies has grown even as their prices soared, further undercutting domestic companies, he added.
Gouré said the regulatory interventions are a way to get foreigners to lower their prices and possibly to "collaborate or to share their [intellectual property]" with domestic manufacturers.
The investigations could be designed "to put pressure on foreign regulatory bodies, in Europe and particularly the U.S., to go easier on acquisition of foreign companies" by China, he said.
The country has routinely used such tactics, which it views as effective, according to Chang.
"It's worked out up to now," he said, but added that "this is one case where lying is not going to work out for China."
Disclosures this week of China's declining exports, as well as concerns that its gross domestic product growth could be either flat or negative, could lead foreign companies to resist the crackdowns for the first time, Chang said.
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"They will have to look at the risk versus reward, and this means there will be all sorts of decisions that could go from total withdrawal from the market, to partial withdrawal, to defiance of Beijing," he said. "People are going to say, 'Why can't I go to Vietnam, or Bangladesh or India, another big market, and why do I have to put up with this?' "
—By CNBC's Dan Mangan. Follow him on Twitter @_DanMangan