BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s tough competition policy is souring the mood for foreign investment, a European business lobby said on Tuesday, in the latest report to criticise Chinese regulators over a series of contentious investigations into international firms.
Since August, four foreign business lobbies have expressed alarm about China’s antitrust enforcement, an issue many had long been hesitant to address directly. The Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce said on Monday China’s actions could be in breach of World Trade Organization rules.
Foreign complaints range from worries that foreign firms are being unfairly targeted to concerns over the use of strong-arm tactics by Chinese regulators.
“The problem with the recent cases is that they are so in-transparent that it leaves a lot of speculation about the possible intention,” Joerg Wuttke, the president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, said.
“We have yet to see if it (recent anti-monopoly cases) has an impact on business investment but certainly the mood sours,” Wuttke told reporters at a briefing for the launch of the group’s annual position paper.
The EU Chamber was one of the first foreign lobbies to publicly question the motives behind China’s investigations in a statement this August.
China’s foreign direct investment inflows in January-July fell for the first time in 17 months in August, a decline that officials were quick to describe as an anomaly not connected to the recent spate of probes into foreign firms for alleged monopolistic behaviour.
Unlike the United States and Europe, which tend to release hundreds of pages of detailed rulings in antitrust disputes, China typically only announces its findings in a brief document, one or two pages long.
That, Wuttke said, adds to companies’ confusion over what constitutes a violation of China’s 2008 Anti-monopoly Law (AML), which is overseen by three agencies.
He said poor transparency constituted a “wasted opportunity to educate the market”.
China’s regulators, including the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), have gone after an array of industries, including foreign automakers and tech firms.
Last month, the NDRC fined Japanese auto parts makers a record 1.235 billion yuan (125.06 million pounds) for manipulating prices, and it is currently investigating U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm Inc (QCOM.O) in a case that could yield record fines of more than $1 billion.
China is trying to restructure its economy so that growth is driven by consumption and antitrust agencies have said they will target industries where practices could lead to “unreasonably” high consumer prices.
If that is regulators’ top priority, China has better targets, Wuttke said. “There are a lot of monopolies that consumers could pinpoint that would give them more bang for their buck,” Wuttke said, pointing to state-monopolised industries such as gasoline production.
China’s Premier Li Keqiang waded into the debate at a forum with executives, declaring that the investigations were conducted “legally, transparently and fairly,” in comments carried by state media.
“These measures are absolutely not targeting certain types of enterprises and are not selective in nature. Based on my understanding, foreign companies are only 10 percent of those impacted by antitrust investigations,” Li said.
In his remarks, some of the highest level official comments on the issue so far, Li said he was “worried” that overseas firms appeared to be afraid to raise their concerns with the government.
Chinese authorities say the law is applied to both domestic and foreign firms, with the aim of protecting consumers. The NDRC has said it has targeted domestic telecoms companies, including China Unicom and China Telecom Corp, and domestic financial institutions for anti-competitive practices.
However, critics argue that fines on Chinese companies are typically lower, and in some instances, investigations appear to have been dropped without fines being imposed, as in the China Unicom-China Telecom case.
Wuttke’s comments come a day after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a report detailing how China sought to boost domestic firms through industrial policy embedded in its anti-monopoly enforcement.
“Although the legal machinery of the AML has been used to protect competition and prevent monopolistic conduct, China has also employed it both domestically and extraterritorially to pursue objectives that have no place in a free, open and fair market-based economy,” the report said.
The U.S. Chamber cited publicly available records of Chinese legislators and regulators advocating the use of the anti-monopoly law to drive an industrial policy agenda.
Reuters reported in May that the U.S. Chamber had sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, urging Washington to get tough with Beijing on its use of competition policy.
Other business lobbies, including the U.S.-China Business Council and the American Chamber of Commerce in China, have in recent weeks issued statements and reports citing concerns over China’s antitrust regime.
Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Clarence Fernandez