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China Says It’s Open for Business. Foreign Firms Find It’s Not That Simple.

At the conference in Guangzhou, multiple officials promoted what they called the “spirit” of the ruling Communist Party’s recent congress, which tightened Mr. Xi’s grip on the state gave his policies an exalted status in a sign of the role the party intends to play in China’s economy. The crowd in the cavernous ballroom at the Shangri-La Hotel thinned out as one official after another spoke over the course of an hour.

Surveys of China business leaders by the American Chamber of Commerce in recent years have shown that many American companies do not think the playing field is even.

“Chinese government statements reaffirming China’s commitment to providing a nondiscriminatory environment for foreign companies are always welcome, but need to be accompanied by real progress,” said Kenneth Jarrett, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

“The challenges of China’s regulatory environment — its opaqueness, unpredictability and basic problems of market access — make it difficult for U.S. companies to realize their full potential,” he added.


Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, at the World Internet Conference in China this month. He also attended the gathering in Guangzhou, where he expressed respect for China’s rule of law.

Aly Song/Reuters

Others were more blunt in their assessments.

“You can get WeChat in America, but you can’t get Facebook here in China,” Terry Branstad, the United States ambassador to China said on Wednesday, referring to the popular Chinese social media app that is used by nearly 1 billion people. Facebook, by contrast, is blocked in China, although the company is still trying to get into the country.

“We are hopeful that we can still continue to make progress, but there are still basic areas of concern,” Mr. Branstad added, referring to the growing frustration that China is demanding too many concessions from companies that want to compete in the country.

One company that has sought to make concessions in hopes of maintaining its access to the Chinese market is Apple. The company has been criticized for recently removing some apps from its China app store, including those meant to help users circumvent the country’s heavily censored internet. The company’s chief executive, Tim Cook, expressed respect for China’s rule of law at the conference on Wednesday.

“When you go into a country and participate in the market, you are subject to the laws and regulation of that country,” Mr. Cook said, underscoring the notion that some American business leaders are willing to play by China’s rules. “You don’t bring the laws and regulations that you wish were there,” he added.

Mr. Cook had come to Guangzhou from the World Internet Conference, which was organized by the Cyberspace Administration of China. His attendance at that event raised concerns that he was lending his support to the government’s heavy-handed control over the internet.


Mr. Trudeau, right, meeting with Jack Ma, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce retailer Alibaba, in Guangzhou. “If you cannot survive in China,” Mr. Ma said, “I barely think you can survive in other countries.”

Stefen Chow/Fortune Global Forum European Pressphoto Agency

Mr. Cook, responding to those concerns, said, “My view is that you show up and you participate because nothing ever changes from the sidelines.” He also said he hoped that some of the apps the company had made unavailable in China would one day be available there again.

Against this backdrop, Chinese companies are beginning to claim some of the dominant positions that their foreign counterparts once had around the world. One of the many statistics that officials here cited to support China’s growing strength on the global stage was this one: The Fortune 500 list now includes 115 Chinese companies, nearly equal to the number of American companies.

One thing is clear: The days when foreign companies thought they could come to China and make a quick profit are over.

“You cannot just be in the market to make money,” said Hans Tung, a managing partner at venture capital firm GGV Capital. “I think that if you can help the Chinese government to achieve its objective of being a model of growth, you’ll have achieved your own objective as well.”

Not everyone every business leader here was quite as diplomatic.

“People complain too much,” said Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba. Mr. Ma’s company plays a dominant role in the lives of most Chinese consumers, and it has become a darling of United States investors and almost as valuable as Amazon.

“If you cannot survive in China, I barely think you can survive in other countries,” Mr. Ma added, citing the success in China of American companies like IBM, Starbucks and Walmart.

His advice for foreign companies was simple: “Have patience and respect the rule of law.”

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