China's Corporate Friends in High (and Low) Places

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This article was first published as China's Corporate Friends in High (and Low) Places" in PR Watch, Volume 4, No. 1, First Quarter 1997. It original article was authored by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

China's Corporate Friends in High (and Low) Places

Ideology is one thing. Money is another.

Quietly, behind the scenes, a coalition of some of the leading corporations in the United States has been working for years to ensure that China's Communist-led government retains most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status--in turn facilitating corporate access to Chinese markets and goods made by low-wage Chinese workers.

Details regarding the structure and tactics of this "industry grassroots initiative" were revealed by Scott Parven of Aetna Insurance at the Public Affairs Council's "National Grassroots Conference."

"Of course we don't usually talk publicly about our internal political strategy and tactics, but we're all among friends here, aren't we?" Parven said, smiling conspiratorially as he distributed a map and other coalition documents during his presentation, which was titled "Expanding Credibility Through Coalitions and Ally Development."

China, of course, has been widely criticized for practices that include human rights violations, the use of slave labor and child labor, unfair trading practices, and, recently, allegations of illegal campaign contributions to US politicians.

With nary a word about any of these practices, Parven proudly described how skillful lobbying by a coalition of America's largest corporations has maintained a "business as usual" relationship between American transnational corporations and China's "emerging market" dictatorship.

The corporations listed on Parven's map include Boeing, Nike, IBM, TRW, Allied Signal, Motorola, ConAgra, Rockwell, Dresser, Eastman Chemical, GM, UTC, Ford, AIG, AMP, and American Standard.

State by state, each corporate member of the coalition has taken on the "responsibility" of lining up pro-China votes. In Texas, for example, Dresser Industries and Motorola claimed credit in 1996 for delivering 29 of Texas' 31 votes in the House of Representatives.

Parven pointed out that the pro-China business coalition was an outgrowth of previous lobbying efforts by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-China Trade Commission. The difference this time was that corporations divvied up duties so each company could focus on serving up votes from a state where that company had sizeable operations and corresponding political clout.

According to Parven, this tag-team approach made the corporations more "accountable"--at least to each other. In Nebraska, for example, ConAgra was responsible for delivering all three of the state's congressional votes. If ConAgra had failed to deliver (it did deliver all three), everyone else in the coalition would know that ConAgra had failed to meet its "responsibility."

All in the Family

"Coalitions are serious business," Parven said. "Our opponents are well-funded and smart. . . . Coalitions exist because there are enemies out there."

"Coalition-building" was a frequent buzzword at Key West, as executives grappled with questions like the following:"Once we've learned how to mobilize our 'internal family' of employees, management, and retirees, how do we move beyond this to mobilize the 'extended family' of allies we have outside of our company?"

"These days corporate grassroots campaigns require that we knock on more and more doors--the doors of our customers, distributors, suppliers, related industries and other members of our 'extended family,' " explained Eric Rennie from ITT Hartford Insurance. "It's expensive . . It's difficult to lay the necessary groundwork."

The corporate concept of a "family" in fact bears little resemblance to what most people mean when they use that word. Tony Kramer of the Foundation for Public Affairs staff described some of the expensive, high-tech resources needed to bring the "family" together: "You need consultants . . . software vendors, coalition-building consultants, database consultants, management consultants, media consultants."

In the corporate coalition, Parven explained, "Rule number one" is "show me the money, show me the resources." Other rules include "Identify and limit the free riders. . . . Stay on the message. . . . Message development is like a sniper. Once you hit with one, move on to the next."

Last but not least, Parven advised, "Keep internal coalition documents secret. Remember," he warned, "This is a war."

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