A bruising keynote speech highlights one of AmCham’s vital roles

I’ve attended many conferences this year. I’ve heard a lot of speeches. One of the most interesting and hard-hitting so far was a talk recently given by Charlene Barshefsky, the top trade negotiator for the U.S. from 1997 to 2001. She spoke last month at AmCham Hong Kong’s annual China Conference, which should be a must-attend event for all our members. Be sure to go next year.

The general focus of Barshefsky’s lunch keynote was the U.S.-China trade relationship. In a forceful but balanced presentation, she mercilessly ripped into both Washington and Beijing.

Taking aim at the Trump administration, Barshefsky said she doubted that U.S. trade policy was making anyone great again. She complained about a foolish fixation on trade deficits and claimed the last time the U.S. had a trade surplus was during the Great Depression.

The U.S.-China trade war has caused longstanding damage to America’s reputation, Barshefsky argued. She worried that the U.S. will struggle to shed the perception that it’s an unreliable trade partner. Barshefsky also warned that America was at risk of becoming the supplier of last resort in China.

Next, she aimed her flamethrower at China. Barshefsky criticized Beijing for abandoning its reform-and-opening policy and reverting to a statist model operating under its own rules. China’s rise wouldn’t have been possible without significant assistance from the rest of the world, she said. The U.S. security umbrella played a critical role, keeping the peace in the region for decades so Beijing could focus more on economic development, she added.

Barshefsky said multinational companies were feeling more unwelcomed in China. She noted that one-third of all the trade actions filed by G20 countries were against China. Barshefsky also urged Beijing to rollback discriminatory policies, provide greater reciprocity and undergo economic reforms.

Many of the other speakers at the Hong Kong conference were just as blunt and critical of both Washington and Beijing. It got me thinking about how such forums were essential to the AmCham ethos and tradition. It’s part of our mission to help maintain a robust marketplace of ideas where people can exchange views and opinions about the big issues that are affecting business – political, economic, social, and cultural. Such an intellectual forum is vital to having a healthy, innovative, and prosperous business environment.

Increasingly, there seems to be greater sensitivity about how Beijing might react to such events. Some organizations have been tempted to practice self-censorship, avoiding topics they believe might be frowned upon on the other side of the Strait.

That would be a mistake – a betrayal of the sacred traditions of the free and open societies that are so important to creating an innovative environment for our businesses. The freedom to think and speak gives us a big competitive edge.

We’re also living in a time where we’re overwhelmed by the cacophony of social media, talk radio, and call-in TV shows. AmChams need to play a vital role creating a platform for thoughtful, serious, and balanced speakers who can share their deep knowledge about the big issues of the day.

This is what AmCham Taipei has always done and we’ll continue to do it.