JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon, Lithuania, tennis stars are all testing China on free speech

Mr Jamie Dimon questioned the sustainability of China's rise and spoke on the complications of free speech in the country.
Mr Jamie Dimon questioned the sustainability of China's rise and spoke on the complications of free speech in the country.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Jamie Dimon knew right away that Beijing would not like his joke about the Communist Party's downfall, noting immediately afterwards: "I can't say that in China."

In many ways, that was the point. The quip capped extended remarks on Tuesday (Nov 23) from JPMorgan Chase's chief executive in which he questioned the sustainability of China's rise and spoke about the complications of free speech in the country.

"If they start to tell you what you can say here, because you do business in China, that's a problem," Mr Dimon said at an event in Boston.

His expression of regret less than 24 hours later, however, shows the power China wields in getting foreigners to regulate their speech if they want to do business in the world's second-biggest economy.

In Mr Dimon's case, Beijing did not even need to have state-backed bodies criticise him - as the party did earlier this year to Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) over forced labour in Xinjiang - for him to walk back the comments.

But although the leader of the United States' biggest bank reversed course, similar to many companies wary of actions that could hurt their bottomline in China, the episode also highlights how some organisations and individuals have recently started to become bolder in challenging Beijing.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) and a range of stars including Serena Williams have called for China to ensure the safety of Peng Shuai after she alleged that a former top Communist Party leader pressured her for sex.

Lithuania, a nation of roughly three million people, angered China by letting Taiwan display its name on a de facto embassy.

And a Taiwan business group criticised China for targeting companies that donated to the ruling party, which backs independence.

The moves come as China's standing among Western nations deteriorates amid spats over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, a probe into the origins of Covid-19 and increasing hostility towards Taiwan, which the Communist Party considers its own despite never having ruled it.

China risks

"Companies, in particular, are realising more and more that they can't ignore political risks of doing business in China, and will have to answer to shareholders and other constituencies at home," said Ms Natasha Kassam, director of the Lowy Institute think-tank's public opinion and foreign policy programme, and a former Australian diplomat in China.

"As views towards China sour, we can see increased expectations that governments and companies will be more forthright on China's many human rights issues."

The case of Australia has further strengthened the argument for those who advocate a hard line on China. After Prime Minister Scott Morrison last year called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, China imposed punitive trade actions on its coal, barley, lobsters and wine.

Despite that, bilateral trade fell by just 1.2 per cent last year compared with the previous year. The country's resilience prompted former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to say that China's campaign to "make us more compliant" had "completely backfired", even as others warn rising iron ore prices are masking the pain.

Lithuania has been out front in Europe, deepening ties with Taiwan this month despite China halting cargo trains to the tiny Baltic state and downgrading diplomatic relations to the level of charge d'affaires.

China was only Lithuania's 12th largest trading partner last year, with US$1.8 billion (S$2.5 billion) in total trade, meaning it had far less to lose than many other European states.


 A Taiwanese flag sitting on a desk at the Taiwanese Representative Office reception in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Nov 18, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"The diplomatic downgrading can be seen as recognition from Beijing that other means of asserting pressure on Vilnius have failed," said Mr Grzegorz Stec, an analyst for the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, referring to Lithuania's capital.

The WTA criticised Beijing despite having a 10-year, roughly US$1 billion-dollar deal with China to host a tournament in Shenzhen that has not taken place due to the nation's tough quarantine policies. Even so, the organisation's chief Steve Simon declared that Ms Peng's well-being was "bigger than business".

Muted response

Each time a country or company challenges the status quo on China it makes it easier for others to recalibrate their own relationship, according to Mr Sung Wen-Ti, a lecturer in the Australian National University Taiwan studies programme.

He noted that Beijing has been restrained towards the WTA compared with other organisations that received more aggressive treatment.

"It decreases the cost of each new participant considering hopping onto the bandwagon," Mr Sung said. "Beijing cannot reasonably take on them all at the same time."

Still, many entities have sought to balance concerns in the West over human rights with the need to profit from the Chinese market, often leading to awkward results.

In 2019, after the Houston Rockets general manager tweeted a message of support for Hong Kong protesters, National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver was criticised for trying to appease both sides in his initial response.

Last year, when facing a backlash for referring to Hong Kong and Taiwan as countries, fashion brands Coach and Versace quickly sent apologies to calm consumers and correct their websites to show their respect for "the feelings of the Chinese people" and "national sovereignty".

Companies such as H&M, Nike and Adidas have sought to keep a low profile after suffering a consumer boycott in China for taking a stand on forced labour in their supply chains.

'Quite arrogant'

And earlier this week, the International Olympic Committee, which has hundreds of millions at stake in the Beijing Winter Games starting in February, endorsed the Chinese state media narrative with a statement that failed to address key concerns over Ms Peng's safety.

JPMorgan earlier this year became the first Wall Street bank to gain full ownership of a securities venture in China and has said it is investing 2.67 billion yuan (S$570 million) in China Merchants Bank's wealth management unit.

The bank's total exposure to China was US$19.7 billion as at September, mainly from lending and deposits, trading and investing, according to a regulatory filing.

One of the few posts about the comment on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform, came from Dr Shen Yi, a lecturer at Fudan University who has more than 1½ million followers.

"This guy is really quite arrogant," Dr Shen wrote. He later added: "Looks like JPMorgan doesn't want its newly acquired license."

The bank appeared to get the message.

"I regret my recent comment because it's never right to joke about or denigrate any group of people, whether it's a country, its leadership, or any part of a society and culture," Mr Dimon said in an e-mailed statement.

"Speaking in that way can take away from constructive and thoughtful dialogue in society, which is needed now more than ever."