Everywhere we look we see the headlines and commentators talking about the coronavirus and its impact on tourism, trade and investment between China and the West — and China and the U.S., in particular. However, there are far-reaching effects that have not been contemplated fully beyond the intuitive assessment.
Things move slowly. China has long been known as a country with patience, which in business language translates to longer lead times in the transactional arena, sometimes exhaustive negotiations, and relationships are built over time. Many of these relationships are created in the environment of trade shows, conferences, information exchange platforms, and trade delegations. China has finely tuned this method of cross-border introductions and it is a continuous process.
Combined with this is the growth of the multinational business presence in China. Major retailers, manufacturers, pharmaceuticals, biotech, automotive and other sectors are firmly planted in China with technology and personnel. Now, with the essentially closed border with China, the rest of the world waits and watches. To the business community, this is unsettling, to say the least, because there is no accurate predictor of when a vaccine may be found or when the world threat eradicated. Even when those pronouncements are ultimately made by Beijing there is the inherent distrust of information disseminated by the Chinese government.
So what does all of this mean for cross-border business in the short and long term?
An aerial view reveals that the movement of people and technology and deal closure have simply come to a halt. When the Chinese government, or other governments, or the WHO pronounce that it is safe to travel to China again, that will not be the end of it. There has been a worldwide reaction to the scare. The tradeshow and related cancellations have occurred not only in China but throughout Asia and into Europe. Therefore, a wide swath of activities are upended across all business sectors.
The rate of new cases slowed on Wednesday. As of this writing, there have been more than 45,000 cases of Covid-19 and over 1,100 deaths. Businesses from cruise ships to luxury brands and air travel, as well as global markets like oil, have all been hit. There can be no question that it will be a slow and painful process moving back to normalcy. Professional offices remain closed indefinitely, and 90% of businesses are closed or at dramatically reduced hours. Theaters, factories and others where people congregate are closed.
"The headlines today paint Wuhan as a pariah city, in a wartime battle and in lockdown. The Chinese Chernobyl. These characterizations will not be easily shed."
We are all familiar with the recent comparisons of coronavirus with SARS, but there is no real comparison. SARS was perceived as essentially a Hong Kong-centric event and everyone wondered if that would be the death of the HK economy, coming a few years after the handover. Moreover, social media and its impact on global interaction were just launching, and China's interaction with the world economy was in its infancy.
Transparency will be the key to short term confidence which will lead to a long-term recovery. This is despite short-term pain and embarrassment. All governments can learn a lesson from this, but Beijing has yet to learn it. It may very well be that Wuhan, as ground zero for the Coronavirus, never recovers. The headlines today paint Wuhan as a pariah city, in a wartime battle and in lockdown. The Chinese Chernobyl. These characterizations will not be easily shed. Wuhan, as the capital of Hubei province, has positioned itself as a foreign investment hub and has developed trade, manufacturing and export and development zones to highlight its growth and position within China. Companies will have to assess whether or not their investments should remain in Wuhan or be moved.
Considering China's impact on the world economy, China will not be off limits to future investment forever. Instead, there will be wariness and unbridled caution for the foreseeable future. Businesses will seek alternatives to avoid commercial and liability issues.
In the best case, returning to normal is not a reasonable expectation in the short term. In the long term, China must take all steps necessary to demonstrate its commitment to transparency regarding all factors relating to the virus. In today's economy, there are many alternatives for trade and investment and China must recognize that its global trade partners need regular and repeated reassurances. Additionally, China will need to inject substantial financial incentives into the economy to balance against commercial and optical risks.
In the best of circumstances, this process will take six to nine months to see the way forward to a stable and commercially feasible reintroduction of business, confidence and renewed investment. This will require unrelenting adjustments as events require. There is no single action or vaccine that will erase the impact of the coronavirus. A group of actions are needed to restore the zeal and excitement for consumer, business, investment and tourism.
Anything less will create a lingering atmosphere of caution and distrust.
—By Malcolm S. McNeil, international co-leader and partner at the law firm Arent Fox, which represents corporate clients in China and elsewhere around the world.