A significant number of prominent CEOs from overseas, such as Elon Musk from Tesla and David Solomon from Goldman Sachs, have been visiting China in recent months.
However, what stands out is their lack of public discussion regarding these trips, which mainly consist of meetings with government officials, local staff, and business partners. Unlike before the pandemic when media events and public engagements were frequent, they have become rare.
Even Elon Musk, known for his outspoken nature on Twitter, maintained an unusually low profile during his whirlwind trip to China last week. In 2020, Musk celebrated the delivery of the first cars produced at Tesla’s Shanghai plant with a public dance on stage.
However, this time, media were not invited to cover his visit to the plant. Although Musk mentioned his trip in two subsequent posts after leaving China, he refrained from tweeting while in the country.
David Solomon from Goldman Sachs also adopted a more low-key approach. In 2019, he contributed media interviews and partook in numerous forums.
Though, during his trip to China in March this year, his engagements were limited to closed-door meetings with regulators, China’s sovereign wealth fund, and a university.
The lack of information from Western CEOs and their companies about their visits to China can be attributed to caution amid escalating political and trade tensions between the United States and China. Senior staff at chambers of commerce and trade associations suggest that the focus of Chinese President Xi Jinping on national security, including a recent crackdown on consultancies and due diligence firms, has left foreign companies uncertain about potential legal pitfalls.
Noah Fraser, the managing director of the Canada China Business Council, states that visiting executives are now more focused on maintaining existing relationships rather than pursuing new business opportunities.
As a result, they often request no media coverage, elaborate dinners, or speaking engagements. Instead, they prefer to keep a low profile, engage in private lunches, and gather information from individuals on the ground.
Before traveling to China, U.S. CEOs have sought advice on how Beijing’s expansion of its counter-espionage law could impact their businesses.
According to the head of a U.S. trade association, CEOs also want guidance on interacting with Chinese government officials and preparing for questions once their trips become public.
They believe it is not in their best interest to speak to the media and risk being asked to comment on positions taken by the governments of Washington and Beijing.
The EU Chamber of Commerce acknowledges that companies operating in China have always exercised caution and are now adapting to changes in sensitive areas. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment, while Goldman Sachs declined to provide a statement.
China’s foreign ministry considers the numerous visits from U.S. CEOs as a vote of confidence in the Chinese economy.
The relatively low-key nature of these trips, according to the ministry, is a result of what it describes as the “wrong policy” of the U.S. government in containing China.
Regarding concerns about counter-espionage laws, the ministry asserts that it is China’s right to safeguard national security through domestic legislation.
The U.S. Department of Commerce declined to comment on the matter.
Despite President Joe Biden’s recent statement expressing his expectation of a thaw in relations with Beijing, tensions between the U.S. and China have escalated this year, with issues ranging from U.S. export restrictions on semiconductors to data security concerns.
However, after enduring three years of restrictive COVID measures that hindered entry into China, foreign CEOs appear eager to explore business opportunities once again.
Notable individuals who have travelled to China in recent months include Tim Cook from Apple, Patrick Gelsinger from Intel, Mary Barra from General Motors, Stephen Schwarzman from Blackstone, and Jamie Dimon from JPMorgan.