Climbing abroad the money-go-round comes at a price in China

The story of artist and activist Ai Weiwei illustrates the grip Beijing has on foreign multinationals

Liberal democracies have a problem when it comes to China. 

Governments talk tough about human rights and Beijing’s bullying of Hong Kong and Taiwan. But big business is more interested in climbing aboard the money-go-round than taking the moral high ground.

While the West’s multinationals are quick to preach freedom of speech and diversity at home, they tend to kowtow to China’s authoritarian regime.

The reason? Profits talk and dissidents can walk. Just ask critically-acclaimed artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

Earlier this week, he confirmed how he fell foul of global banking giant Credit Suisse in a “freedom of speech” commentary for artnet.

“In spring 2021, I [was] informed that [the bank] was terminating my account in Switzerland. They did this, they wrote, in accordance with a new policy of closing all accounts with people who have had criminal records,” Ai wrote. 

“Just a bit of homework could have shown them that I was never formally charged, let alone convicted of a crime. When the Beijing regime detained me and smeared my name, it was only applying its normal techniques of persecuting political opponents,” he said.

Artist and activist:

  • In 2011, ArtReview magazine named Ai the most powerful artist in the world.
  • That was the year the outspoken critic of the ruling Communist Party of China was detained for 81 days.
  • One of China’s most high-profile political activists, Ai was involved in designing the famed Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
  • After moving to Portugal, he set up a free speech and arts foundation in 2016.
  • It was the foundation’s account that was targeted.

What was said: “You know, these banks are very arrogant. Even if Credit Suisse reverses this decision, I am not willing to be associated with a bank which has such a strange relationship with China,” Ai told the Reuters news agency in an emailed statement, adding the foundation had been asked to move the funds before September.

Reaction to the news: Credit Suisse, which has rapidly expanded its business in China, declined to comment on Ai’s allegations, saying it does not discuss “potential or existing client relationships,” Reuters reported.

Delve deeper: Big business, big tech and big brands have been accused of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in China and the vicious crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Big picture: Howard R Gold, a columnist at MarketWatch, captured the mood perfectly more than a year ago as the Uighur Muslims crisis unfolded in China’s internment camps.

Joined at the hip: “Governments, including the Trump administration, have taken steps to condemn and punish China. But corporate America, which has spent the past two months virtue-signaling race [issues in the US] has done little, probably because many companies are joined at the hip with Beijing,” he wrote.

Corporate silence: “And there’s been radio silence from Wall Street. For years, giant financial firms have viewed deeper involvement in China as a key strategic goal. That ‘market’ of more than a billion potential clients has left them practically drooling, just as corporate chieftains did a generation ago,” Gold said.

Who’s who: “In China’s state capitalism, high officials enjoy unchecked power and wield it in an environment totally empty of democratic supervision,” artist and activist Ai stressed in his artnet commentary.

Web of wealth: “As a consequence, there has arisen an immensely complex web of private interests of the highest-ranking Party families and their minions in the bureaucracies. No item of business with a foreign country can possibly go forward without involvement with this web,” he said.

China Factor comment: Western corporations seem happy to sit down with President Xi Jinping’s gang and gorge on a Chinese banquet. But civil and human rights issues are certainly not on the menu.