GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) may well be a watershed in the global fight against bribery and corruption. Behavior and conduct, which was illegal under Chinese law but previously tolerated and even accepted by Chinese government officials, quickly became a quagmire that the company was caught in when charges of corruption were leveled against them last year. Many westerners were skeptical about the claims made against GSK and its head of China operations, Mark Reilly. That is one of the problems in paying bribes to government officials; it is always illegal under domestic law. David Pilling, writing an article in the Financial Times (FT) entitled “Why corruption is a messy business”, said “Multinationals are discovering that there is only one thing worse than operating in a country where corruption is rampant: operating in one where corruption was once rampant – but is no longer tolerated.”
When it began, it was not it clear why China’s Communist Party Chief Xi Jinping began his anti-corruption push. Some speculated that it was an attack on western companies for more political reasons that economic reasons. Others took the opposite tack that the storm, which broke with the bribery and corruption investigation of GSK, was China’s attack on western companies to either hide or help fix problems endemic to the Chinese economic system. My take is that his campaign has a different purpose but incorporates both political and economic reasons. That purpose is that Xi has recognized something that the US government officials and most particularly the Department of Justice (DOJ) have been preaching for some time. That is, the insidiousness of corruption and its negative effects on an economic system.
Xi and China have realized that corruption is a drain on the Chinese economic system. Publications as diverse as the Brookings Institute to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) have noted that one of the reasons for the anti-corruption campaign is to restore the Chinese public’s faith in the ruling Communist Party. Bob Ward, writing in the WSJ article entitled “The Risks in China’s Push to Root Out Wrong”, said, “China’s anticorruption drive began in late 2012 as a way to cleanse the ruling Communist Party and convince ordinary Chinese that the system isn’t rigged against them. Investigators are targeting some of China’s most powerful officials and disciplining tens of thousands of lower-echelon officials who party investigators contend got used to padding their salaries.” Cheng Li and Ryan McElveen, writing online for Brookings, in an article entitled “Debunking Misconceptions About Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign”, wrote, “If there were ever any doubts that Xi could restore faith in a party that had lost trust among the Chinese public, many of those doubts have been dispelled by the steady drumbeat of dismissals of high-ranking officials since he took office.”
But the economic reasons behind the anti-corruption campaign are equally important. One of the more interesting articulations came from one disgraced former Chinese government official, who was one of the earliest senior officials to be charged with corruption. In a WSJ article by James T. Areddy, entitled “Chinese Ex-Official Admits to Corruption”, he wrote about the trial of Liu Tienan, the “former head of the National Energy Administration and senior director in the National Development Reform Commission” who had been arrested in May 2013. His trial finally came around in September 2014. At his trial he made some rather extraordinary statements. Areddy wrote that “Liu testified that reducing official power is key to curbing corruption: “The major point, which is based on my own experience, is to give the market a great deal of power to make decisions.”” But Liu did not end there, “as he explained his view that China’s state bureaucracies are too powerful and entrepreneurs are too weak. “Approvals should be developed in a system, rather by an individual’s actions. This would help prevent abuse of power for personal self-interest.””
Whether or not Liu thought those statements up on himself, a smart defense lawyer suggested he make them to reduce his sentence, or the Chinese government told him to say it as his role in the well-known show trials of the Chinese justice system; it really does not matter. That is one of the most incredible statements I have ever heard of coming out of anything close to an official Chinese statement or proceeding. Think about it; first Liu is saying that the Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the market should be governing market decisions. Next, he speaks against the arbitrary nature in China for entrepreneurs in giving approval about how businesses can expand and grow in China. This arbitrary process should be replaced with objective criteria. It is almost if Lui is channeling his inner FCPA Professor when he speaks against artificial barriers to market entry. Finally, Liu attacks the small-mindedness of bureaucratic mentality in their use of power for self-interest.
There have already been demonstrated economic benefits to China’s anti-corruption campaign. In September, Bloomberg reported that China’s fight against bribery and corruption could boost economic growth, generating an additional $70 billion for the budget, in summarizing economists’ forecasts. An article in the online publication Position and Promotions, reported that the bribery “could trigger a 0.1-0.5 percent increase in the world’s second-biggest economy, equivalent to $70 billion dollars.” This crackdown should also be welcomed by western companies, as “it could also benefit foreign companies operating on the Chinese market, who have experienced the negative effects of the omnipresent palm-greasing, according to Joerg Wuttke, president of European Chamber of Commerce in China.” He was further quoted as saying, “It takes the stress away. You’re not afraid that somebody gets an order because he found a better champagne or something like that. It’s not Singapore yet, but it’s a very positive development”.
As we close this phase of GSK’s saga, I think some time for reflection is appropriate. For the compliance practitioner there have been many specific lessons to be learned from GSK’s missteps. However I think the clearest lesson is that the only real hope that a company has into today’s world is an effective, best practices anti-corruption compliance program. Whether it is designed to help a company comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), UK Bribery Act or other anti-corruption legislation, it really does not matter. It is the only, and I mean only, chance your company will have when an issue in some far-flung part of the world splashes your company’s name across the world’s press.
But there may also be cause for celebration to those who have long preached against the evils of corruption, whether it is for economic reasons or for those who view the fight against anti-corruption as a part of the fight against terrorism. For if China is attacking domestic corruption, I believe that will lead other countries to do so as well. We are already seeing stirrings in India under new President Modi. So while GSK may well suffer going forward, the fight against global bribery and corruption may just have moved a few feet forward.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2014