Elevating Engagement: Sean Stein’s Vision as AmCham China’s New Chair

As the newly elected Chair of AmCham China, Sean Stein brings a wealth of experience and a strategic vision to his leadership role. From his early days as a missionary in Haiti to his extensive tenure at the State Department and subsequent transition to the private sector, Stein’s career trajectory reflects a deep commitment to public service and international engagement. Now, at the helm of the Chamber, Stein is poised to leverage his expertise in diplomacy and advocacy to strengthen the organization’s position as a leading voice for American businesses operating in China.

Photo courtesy of Sean Stein

Could you please provide an overview of your career journey and experiences in China for those who may not be familiar with your work?

Sean Stein: When I was 19, I moved to Haiti from Idaho and Utah as a Mormon missionary, spending two years there during a chaotic time, like what we’re seeing in Haiti now. At the end of my mission, my boss, who was the head of the mission, asked about my plans, to which I had no clear answer. He suggested Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where his children had attended, and encouraged me to pursue studies there. Despite my lack of familiarity with Georgetown, I followed his advice and enrolled.

Initially, I wasn’t keen on the idea of joining the State Department. However, peer pressure led me to take the Foreign Service exam, which I passed. After graduating, I worked in consulting but soon found myself missing the public service aspect. This prompted me to transition to roles at the World Bank in Indonesia and a foundation in Cambodia, where I found fulfillment in serving the public.

Despite initially declining offers to join the State Department, I eventually relented and embarked on what I thought would be a temporary stint. However, I ended up staying for 27 years, mostly focusing on Asia, particularly Greater China and Southeast Asia. My first assignment in China was in 1999, following the accidental bombing of the embassy in Belgrade, during a period of strained relations between the US and China.

Throughout my tenure, I had various roles, including negotiating to keep the American Chamber of Commerce open in Chengdu, serving as Consul General in Shenyang, and managing the China desk and later South Asia in Washington. Unexpectedly, I was assigned to Shanghai during the Trump administration’s emphasis on economic relations with China, despite my desire to work in Vietnam.

After leaving the State Department, I joined Covington and Burling’s China public policy office, where I help multinational companies understand and navigate the complexities of doing business in China. Additionally, I spent two years as chair of AmCham Shanghai, where I realized the importance of advocating for better US-China relations from a business perspective.

Ultimately, this led me to join AmCham China, where I believe, I can contribute to fostering constructive dialogue between Beijing and Washington for the mutual benefit of both countries and the business community.

How did transitioning from the US government to the business sector influence your view of US-China relations and what insights did you gain from both sectors?

Sean Stein: It’s been a fascinating journey. During my time in the US government, I often felt a responsibility to ensure that the perspectives of businesses were heard in Washington. The business community typically possesses nuanced insights into China’s economic, political, and social landscape, which are invaluable for shaping effective policies. As Consul General, I worked to inject this business perspective into the policymaking process, believing that it could enrich our strategies towards China.

Now, being fully immersed in the business sector, I find myself in a unique position to reciprocate this exchange of insights. Armed with my understanding of how the US government operates, I can now effectively communicate the business community’s perspectives to policymakers. That’s why I’m currently in Washington, knocking on doors at the White House, the State Department, Commerce, Treasury, and elsewhere. My goal is to ensure that policymaking is informed by the insights and needs of the business community.

Conversely, I also recognize the importance of conveying these insights to the Chinese government. Before coming to Washington, I made the rounds in China, meeting with officials to share our perspectives. Ultimately, I believe that facilitating this exchange of insights between the business communities of both countries is crucial. It ensures that policymakers understand the real-world impacts of their decisions and how they’re perceived, fostering more informed and constructive US-China relations.

Given your expertise in political risk and public affairs, what strategies do you advise businesses to adopt in navigating the evolving US-China relationship?

Sean Stein: In recent years, China has doubled down on its industrial policy. When I first came to China in the early 2000s, merely being an American company was often enough to attract investment opportunities. However, the landscape has changed, with the Chinese government now prioritizing investors who align with their industrial policies. Consequently, companies that fall outside of these parameters may encounter difficulties. We work with companies to strategically position themselves to navigate this evolving relationship with China. Additionally, our surveys indicate that doing business in China is becoming increasingly challenging. Members find the environment less transparent, struggle to protect intellectual property, and face regulatory unpredictability. Our role is to help companies understand and minimize these risks while operating in this complex environment.

On the US side, expectations, and regulations for dealing with China are also becoming more complex. We assist companies in understanding and navigating these expectations. It’s noteworthy that a global study revealed that Americans expect multinational corporations (MNCs) to embody their values when operating abroad. However, when asked about American companies operating in China, there’s often ambivalence and concern. Both the Chinese and American governments, as well as their respective publics, have high expectations for how companies should behave in China. We help businesses navigate these often-contradictory expectations to ensure they can operate successfully while maintaining integrity and alignment with their values.

Stein speaks at AmCham China’s 23rd Annual Appreciation Dinner
Photo courtesy of AmCham China

As the newly elected Chair of the Board of Governors for AmCham China, what are your primary goals and priorities for the organization in 2024?

Sean Stein: There are several key priorities that I’m focusing on for AmCham China this year. Firstly, we’re intensifying our advocacy efforts in both Washington and Beijing. In China, we’re committed to supporting and encouraging the implementation of the significant reforms announced by the Chinese government in August, which aim to enhance the environment for multinational companies operating in China. Our role is not only to ensure that the Chinese government is informed about what needs to be done to implement these reforms effectively but also to hold them accountable when necessary. Oftentimes, there’s a discrepancy between rhetoric and reality, and we aim to address that.

On the US side, we’re emphasizing to policymakers in Washington the importance of a strong and vibrant business community in China for US national interests. This includes promoting economic security, global competitiveness, and national security. Amidst the era of strategic competition with China, it’s crucial to recognize that having competitive American companies operating in China is an integral part of our strategy.

Secondly, we’re placing a renewed focus on building and strengthening relations with local governments across China, particularly at the sub-municipal level. The lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of having strong ties with local authorities. Whether our members are in Wuhan, Dalian, Chengdu, or Beijing, we aim to bridge the gap and provide support, especially for smaller companies with limited government relations resources.
Another priority is to demonstrate the value that AmCham China brings to all of our members, including SMEs and other organizations. Membership declined during the pandemic, particularly among smaller members facing financial strains. We’re committed to showcasing the benefits and support that we can offer to all members, regardless of size.

Lastly, leveraging the relationship and knowledge-sharing opportunities between AmCham China and AmCham Shanghai is critical. While these organizations operate differently, there’s much to learn from each other and synergies to be gained, especially in areas like advocacy and knowledge exchange. Strengthening this relationship will ultimately benefit our members and enhance our organization’s effectiveness.

Reflecting on your recent transition from Chair of AmCham Shanghai to your new role leading AmCham China, how do you plan to apply the experiences gained in Shanghai to your leadership approach?

Sean Stein: Certainly, there are notable differences between AmCham Shanghai and AmCham China, particularly in the scale of advocacy efforts. In Shanghai, advocacy with local governments played a significant role, offering valuable assistance to members facing challenges. While the emphasis on advocacy may vary, I aim to maintain a strong focus on engaging with local governments at AmCham China.
One tremendous contribution of our former AmCham China Chair Colm Rafferty made was really getting the board to work cohesively and effectively together to advance what we are doing as an organization. I’ve witnessed the remarkable contributions of the board members at AmCham China. Their dedication, expertise, and collaboration were instrumental in driving progress for the organization. Drawing from this experience, I want to continue to foster a similarly effective and cohesive board environment.

“Navigating the dynamic landscape of the US-China relationship requires a nuanced approach.”

An election year is always significant in the US. How do you anticipate this impacting bilateral relations between the United States and China in the run-up to the November election, and what implications might they hold for businesses longer term – especially if there is a leadership change?

Sean Stein: I’ll steer clear of delving too deeply into politics, but I’ll address this from a couple of angles. Firstly, like many of our members, I commend the efforts made by both the United States and China to stabilize the relationship, particularly starting from last March and April. This included high-level visits from US officials such as the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Secretary of Commerce, as well as prominent figures from various states. These efforts demonstrated a commitment to engagement rather than decoupling, which served the interests of both nations and helped stabilize the relationship. It’s worth noting the political courage required for such initiatives and their positive impact on US interests.

The stabilization of the relationship wasn’t due to a fundamental reassessment of strategic intentions by either side. Instead, it was a pragmatic recognition of shared interests, including economic and national security concerns. Both sides realize the importance of maintaining stability, even amidst challenges leading up to the election.
Looking ahead, I believe both sides will continue to work towards maintaining stability in the relationship, at least until the election and beyond. While there may be actions taken by both parties to protect their national interests, the goal will be to avoid actions that could cause a significant breakdown in the relationship. This means that the current state of stability is likely as good as it will get for the foreseeable future.

For businesses, this means that decisions and strategies should be made with the understanding that the current level of stability may be the best scenario for some time. Waiting for significant changes in the political landscape may not be productive, as maintaining stability will remain a priority for both the US and China.

The recently released China Business Climate Survey Report (BCS) provided valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities for foreign businesses in China. Of the report’s key findings, were there any aspects that you found noteworthy or particularly impactful?

Sean Stein: I believe COVID introduced significant noise into recent statistics. However, one prevailing trend across many sectors, albeit not universal, is noteworthy. We’re observing two crucial messages. Firstly, as China’s economy matures, margins in the aggregate are increasingly aligning with other global markets. Gone are the days when investments in China yielded greater returns than those in North America or Europe, at least in many sectors. It’s now tougher to thrive in China solely based on statistics. Secondly, the business climate in China is becoming less transparent and less friendly compared to previous years. Around 2010, the Chinese government undertook efforts to enhance the business climate, resulting in incremental improvements annually across various areas. However, this positive trend has now reversed, with indicators heading in the opposite direction. Consequently, the risks associated with doing business in China have escalated, while the potential profitability has diminished. To succeed in this challenging environment, our companies must be smarter, faster, and more adaptable. It’s our responsibility at the Chamber to advocate for a better business environment and provide our members with the information and insights they need to make informed decisions promptly, thus enabling them to navigate these macroeconomic challenges more effectively.

Can you recall any notable engagements with Chinese or American officials through initiatives like the DC Doorknock and White Paper Delivery meetings? How did these interactions benefit AmCham China and its members?

Sean Stein: Back when I was managing the trade desk in Washington, I learned the power of the Doorknock and I learned the power of the BCS. Five or six weeks before the Doorknock, we would get call that a delegation was coming. Often, I learned that not from AmCham, not from the embassy, but because someone at USTR, Commerce, or someone on the Hill would call and say, “Hey, we hear AmCham’s coming, do you have their latest survey? Or do you have the latest from AmCham?” So, what I saw from my time in Washington was a clear desire to get information from AmCham China so people could prep in anticipation of our meetings. It was very much an action-forcing event that helped shape some of the discussion and thinking. I think that the landscape has changed a bit since then. In terms of how China is reviewed, there’s much more skepticism now. Now, fewer members of Congress really want to engage on the subject. That means what we do becomes all that much more important. We must work that much harder to get our message out to have the same impact that we might have had just a couple of years ago.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for AmCham China under your leadership, and how do you plan to strengthen its position as a leading advocate for the American business community in China?

Sean Stein: First, now more than ever, we need a strong voice. Our advocacy efforts will be refined, focused, and more effective. This entails finding better and more efficient ways to communicate with the Chinese government, as well as fostering consistent and productive dialogues with the US government. Secondly, we aim to improve the dissemination of information gathered from our members and government engagements. By doing so, our members can leverage this information in discussions with their headquarters and when assessing risks and opportunities in the Chinese market. If we can achieve these goals—being better advocates and providing timely and valuable information to our members—I believe it will significantly benefit our organization and its mission.


This article is from the AmCham China Quarterly Magazine (Issue 1, 2024). To access the entire publication for free, sign up on our member portal here.