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2020-03-23 | All chapters

Let’s Not Waste A Crisis: Message to Members from European Chamber President Joerg Wuttke

Like all of you, the European Chamber has seen its fair share of challenges stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak and the government’s response. The last two months have been taxing on us all, and we will surely encounter further hurdles to overcome throughout the foreseeable future.

But so too do we see opportunities.

The Chinese government has never been one to waste a crisis, and their answer to many of the largest calamities of the last four decades has been economic liberalisation. The answer to each of the catastrophes of the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s was to open up the country and replace the mechanisms of the command and control economy with ones acted upon and directed by market forces. The sole exception to this trend was the late 2000’s, during which the financial crisis spurred a response that has, years later, laid a heavy debt burden on the backs of today’s leaders.

Now, China is faced with yet another crisis born at the very end of the last decade with the outbreak of COVID-19. We anticipate that this is the moment to encourage China’s leaders to re-adopt their tried and true practice of seizing a crisis to advance the reform agenda.

We have seen indications that this is in its early days. Stability was the key message from President Xi’s visit to Wuhan, which set the stage for Premier Li and the Ministry of Commerce and the National Development Reform Commission to reach out to the foreign business community during the week of March 16th and engage with us. That symbolism has also translated into action. Critically, the European Chamber held a landmark online meeting with the Ministry of Commerce Vice-Minister Wang Shouwen and high-level representatives from nine other agencies to discuss and find solutions to the challenges our members are facing in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. We are now seeking to leverage this high-level will through these connections across the government to advocate for our members.

However, we must do more than merely troubleshoot the issues from the last several months, but also advance a proactive effort to help shape the form that a new round of economic liberalisation may take. China’s leadership has reinforced the importance of foreign companies in the effort to get the economy back on its feet, especially with the looming threat of a global downturn. This is our window of opportunity. 

Our working groups are already in the process of compiling their position papers, and I call on them to be daring enough to push the envelope on what European business needs to help build a more advanced and resilient position in the China market.

We must also deepen our engagement across the entire government, at all levels. Now is a critical moment to assert our role with the nine ministries and agencies that we met with in conjunction with MOFCOM. The door will only be open for so long, and I urge our working groups to get involved. Do not miss out on this unique opportunity. The Banking WG has reached out to their regulator CBIRC in a lobbying letter not to ask for more market access, but to loosen some technical regulatory constraints so that EU banks in China will be able to support significantly more their clients to rebound in the Chinese economy.

Equally vital is the need to fill the void left by our partners in the EU and its member state governments who now have their hands full with their own outbreaks. Major meetings like the Brussels High-level Economic Dialogue, the Beijing meeting with Executive Vice President Timmermans, and the EU-China Summit have already been cancelled or postponed. It is therefore our duty to enhance our advocacy and keep up the pressure to conclude a meaningful Comprehensive Agreement on Investment by the Leipzig Summit in September.

We are the masters of our own fate, and must avail ourselves of this opportune moment to advance both the bilateral front as well as China’s unilateral opening while economic reform is at the top of the agenda.

Let’s not waste a crisis.


Joerg Wuttke