International forum shows resolve to engage business

Leo Zhang
Attendees discussed a variety of topics such as economic growth, public health and city governance against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leo Zhang

A special online meeting was held on June 19 among 24 top global executives at large multinational companies and almost all senior government leaders in Shanghai. During the three-hour closed-door event, attendees discussed a variety of topics such as economic growth, public health and city governance against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Usually, the IBLAC meeting — the official title of the event — is held in late October each year. Apart from being ahead of schedule, this year’s meeting was also held in a virtual manner for the first time in its three-decade history. It started at night in Shanghai, morning in Europe and almost noon in North America.

IBLAC stands for International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council for the Mayor of Shanghai. The forum was initiated in 1989 by then Shanghai Mayor Zhu Rongji, who later became China’s premier and was known for his determination to push forward reform. IBLAC has already become an international think tank for the city. Starting with 12 members from seven countries, the council has since expanded to engage nearly 50 executives from 16 nations.

Some of the world’s most powerful corporate leaders were at this year’s meeting. They included General Motors CEO Mary Barra, L’Oréal Group Chairman and CEO Jean-Paul Agon and Roche CEO Severin Schwan. The council is chaired by Michael Diekmann, chairman of the supervisory board of Allianze SE.

As the COVID-19 pandemic still rampages globally, IBLAC’s significance goes well beyond city leaders’ annual meeting with business executives.

The timing reflects the city’s strong desire to share its real growth stories in an ever-changing environment and tap global wisdom to jointly make a future-oriented development plan for the benefits of the city and global companies that have deep roots here.

Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang and Acting Mayor Gong Zheng both attended the entire meeting until midnight, sending out a clear signal that efforts to further open up and improve business environment are the city’s top priority.

Li said that the city sincerely hopes all multinational companies will stick to their decisions of investing and developing in Shanghai amid joint efforts to identify new opportunities amid changes. Gong said the city will continue to create more opportunities for investors.

Some of my friends who were present at the local venue of the meeting told me that global executives were generally upbeat about growth potential in the city and the country despite the current challenges. But more importantly, these business leaders offered real insights or even directly raised questions and concerns about further driving their local business expansion. All these actually showed their confidence and trust in Shanghai, as well as their wishes that the city could be the first in China to test pilot policies so as to clear any potential hurdles for future growth.

Shanghai is undoubtedly playing a leading role in facilitating dialogues and exchanges with multinational companies. The China International Import Expo Bureau in March announced the first batch of 143 foreign enterprises to exhibit at the third expo in November. Almost 40 percent are Fortune Global 500 enterprises, while over 50 percent are leaders in their industries.

Source of global innovation

Multinational companies are already deeply integrated in the city’s business landscape. During Shanghai’s Double Five Shopping Festival in May, a campaign to boost local consumption, L’Oreal brought more than 100 new launch events, including new products, new brands, new boutiques and new technologies.

For many multinational companies, the massive local market is no longer the only reason why they choose to increase investment and allocate more resources. China is also emerging as a source of global innovation, and Shanghai is at the forefront.

For example, eight of the top 10 global pharma companies — Novartis, Roche, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, GSK, Eli Lilly, Amgen and Pfizer — have set up R&D centers in Zhangjiang, Shanghai. Almost all of them are proactively seeking partnerships with Chinese pharma companies, universities and research institutes to bolster early-stage research and drug development for the benefits of people not only in China but also across the world.

As the pandemic lingers, some people may point to the potential threat of de-globalization, under which investment may revert to corporate headquarters. However, we should also be aware that no company would simply decide to go back to its home turf on impulse. It’s a business decision that must be carefully made by taking into consideration a combination of multiple factors, such as markets, costs, supply chain stability and future innovation potential.

China is always committed to fostering the globalization process by actively contributing to the global industry chain. Meanwhile, the country is also shoring up its own supply-demand system to prevent potential systemic risks and disruption in global supply chain amid the pandemic. Actually, some smart multinational companies have already taken actions to join hands with their Chinese counterparts in creating new products and solutions, not only for the China market, but also for Asia and the whole world.

Shanghai Party Secretary Li said at the virtual meeting that the city is committed to playing a central role in stabilizing China’s production and supply chain to serve the global market. My friends at the meeting told me that Li’s emphasis on a better business environment has impressed many global corporate leaders, who told the city leaders that they really hoped Shanghai could play an even more active role in the next round of opening-up.

We shouldn’t expect an online IBLAC meeting to address all questions and needs. But it demonstrates the city’s unwavering efforts to engage and serve multinational companies. The best way to retain and grow with them is to let them be part of the city’s future plan and growth story, and Shanghai is delivering on this mission.

The author is an adjunct research fellow at Research Center for Global Public Opinion of China, Shanghai International Studies University, and founding partner of 3am Consulting, a consultancy specializing in global communications.

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