For months, foreign companies in China have been quietly enduring increased scrutiny from Chinese government anti-trust enforcers, issuing only occasional terse statements as they have been increasingly targeted by surprise raids on their offices, protracted investigations of their operations and escalating fines.
Now, tentatively but together, they appear to be pushing back.
On Wednesday, the U.S.-China Business Council, a group that lobbies on behalf of about 220 large American companies with operations in China, issued a report taking direct aim at China's recent enthusiastic application of its six-year-old anti-monopoly law and highlighting ways that it says enforcement could be improved.
"For American businesses operating in China, China's A.M.L. regime is creating more questions than answers," John Frisbie, the president of the Washington-based council, said in a news release, referring to the anti-monopoly law. "Will China use the A.M.L. to protect its domestic industry rather than promote fair competition? Is the Chinese government using the A.M.L. to force lower prices, rather than letting the 'market play the decisive role' as enshrined in China's new economic reform program?"
"The answers are not fully determined yet, but in at least some cases so far," Mr. Frisbie said, the council "sees troubling reasons for concern."
China's anti-trust clampdown has already taken aim at scores of companies, both foreign and domestic, including recently against Microsoft, Qualcomm, Daimler, Volkswagen and a dozen Japanese manufacturers of auto parts and bearings. Actions against foreign companies tend to receive greater news media attention, but the companies themselves, which generally lack the political patronage networks that their Chinese counterparts enjoy, tend to lie low, once targeted. Experts say it is unheard-of for a foreign company to speak out against anti-trust action in China, let alone to try to file an administrative appeal.
But the council's report is only the latest distress signal from the foreign business community in China. On Tuesday, the American Chamber of Commerce in China published the results of a survey of members showing that 60 percent of the respondents felt foreign business was less welcome in China and 49 percent believed foreign firms were being singled out in recent pricing or anti-corruption campaigns.
Last month, the European Chamber of Commerce in China issued a statement on recent anti-monopoly enforcement actions, citing "numerous alarming anecdotal accounts from a number of sectors that administrative intimidation tactics are being used to impel companies to accept punishments and remedies without full hearings."
"Practices such as informing companies not to challenge the investigations, bring lawyers to hearings or involve their respective governments or chambers of commerce are contrary to best practices," the European chamber's statement said.