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Paying The Price Of Chinese Business ‘Partners’

detail of a portrait of Liu Xiaobo, Nancy Pelosi looking on
A portrait of Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel Peace Center in 2010. Photo courtesy Nancy Pelosi.

Two stories juxtaposed in the news late last week show just what it means to have China as a business “partner.”

First came word that famous dissident and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died in a Chinese prison hospital, where he was suffering from liver cancer, at age 61. Both a German doctor and an American doctor recently examined Liu and pronounced him fit to travel abroad for treatment, which many Western governments urged China to allow. The Chinese government disputed the Western doctors’ findings, however, declaring Liu too ill to travel.

Beijing was never going to let Liu go, regardless of his state of health. His prompt death will surely be cited by his captors as evidence that they were right about his condition. Hardly anyone outside China will take such a claim at face value, when Liu’s death was so conveniently timed to remove a problem for the regime.

Liu had been in custody since late 2008 for his part in drafting Charter 08, a call for democratic, multi-party elections and the recognition of Chinese citizens’ human and civil rights. Not only did China refuse to let Liu accept his Nobel Prize in 2010, but the government did its utmost to ensure any Chinese invitee could not attend. It also threatened to retaliate against governments, including Norway, that it viewed as celebrating Liu’s recognition. Even before Charter 08, Liu had been an active voice for governmental reform since the Tiananmen protests of 1989. As The Wall Street Journal observed, Liu was the first Nobel Peace laureate to die in custody since 1938, when Carl von Ossietzky died in a prison hospital in Nazi Germany.

The second news item also appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The news outlet reported that Western companies face a major obstacle to introducing self-driving cars in China: The country won’t let them map its roads. Chinese mapping is done under licenses issued only to Chinese companies, 13 of them to date. Even Google Maps, ubiquitous in so much of the world, is restricted to use on desktop computers – not especially handy for turn-by-turn directions. These restrictions are in place for national security reasons, according to the government.

In contrast to the assertions about Liu’s medical condition, I am inclined to take this one at face value – just not in the way China presumably intends. Advanced weapons used by America and its allies have all the precise guidance they need; they don’t require Waze to find the places they need to go. On the other hand, if China’s citizens ever rise up against the country’s self-appointed and self-perpetuating ruling class, we can be sure that one of the government’s first counterrevolutionary steps will be to sharply restrict travel – and to turn off the mapping software that could guide everything from flash mobs to rogue soldiers driving tanks.

National security, indeed.

So, under the circumstances, will Western car companies walk away from the Chinese market? Not a chance. Robert Bosch GmbH, a German auto supplier, has already announced a partnership with Chinese mapping firms, according to the Journal. South Korea’s Hyundai Motors has also said it will work with one of China’s licensed mappers, and GM may not be far behind. Volvo may likewise follow, although that prominent brand with Swedish roots is now owned by a Chinese conglomerate. If history is any indication, few in the autonomous car industry will walk away from the huge consumer market that China represents, regardless of the draconian restrictions involved.

Like virtually every other Western industry – other than defense – over the past three decades, the makers of self-driving cars will kowtow to China’s rulers and take whatever crumbs happen to drop off the country’s economic banquet table. The shame this choice entails will only be briefly highlighted by the death in captivity of the fearless Nobel Prize laureate who devoted his entire adult life to the liberation of his nation, currently held captive by itself.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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