• COVID-19 pandemic results in significant decrease in revenues and profitability.
  • Firms still committed to the China market, despite trade and regulatory uncertainties.
  • Bilateral tensions further strained in 2020, but most companies optimistic for 2021. 

Beijing, March 9, 2021 – 2020 was a challenging year for most foreign businesses operating in China, battered by US-China tensions and the global pandemic, according to a new survey released by the American Chamber of Commerce in China (“AmCham China”). Despite significant challenges, though, the outlook among foreign businesses in China remains relatively positive, largely due to the Chinese government’s early and stringent response to the pandemic, an improving investment environment, and anticipation of a more predictable policy environment. 

The Chamber’s annual Business Climate Survey (BCS) Report found that only 56% of respondents, a record-low, were profitable last year, while 34% of member companies saw a drop in revenue, and 20% experienced financial losses. However, financial performance varied considerably by sector. Over one-third of Resources & Industrial (R&I) sector respondents say the pandemic had a positive impact on their revenues, while members from the Consumer sector saw the biggest revenue drop, driven by pandemic-related challenges. 

This is the 23rd consecutive year that AmCham China has surveyed its members on China’s business climate, with the results providing invaluable insight into the longer-term trajectory of China’s corporate environment. The BCS results contain input from around half of the Chamber’s member companies and elaborate on the impact of COVID-19, the progress of regulatory developments, such as intellectual property (IP) protection and cybersecurity, while continuing to assess the impact of US-China trade tensions. 

“With China leading in economic recovery and the new US administration in place, our members are cautiously optimistic regarding business growth in China, with nearly half of them hopeful that the bilateral relationship will improve,” said AmCham China Chairman Greg Gilligan. “Yet we remain keenly aware that certain bilateral tensions will continue to create business challenges. Notwithstanding the challenging situation, the Chamber, now in our 102nd year, remains committed to enhancing US-China commercial relations for the next 100 years and will continue to act in ways that reaffirm our role as an essential bridge between the US and China. The Phase One deal made some good progress, but there remains the need for continued market reforms, increased IP protections, and a more balanced operating environment.” 

Though growth rates hit new lows, China was the only major economy to post a GDP expansion in 2020, resulting in 26% stating their 2020 China earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) margins were higher 

than their company’s global margins (vs. 22% in 2019). Some 75% hold an optimistic two-year China business outlook in the areas of market growth and economic recovery, and 57% are optimistic regarding their profitability potential, partly due to the speed of China’s post-pandemic economic recovery. 

While 44% of respondents to our May 2020 Flash Survey on the business impacts of COVID-19 expected the outbreak to significantly reduce 2020 revenues, only 16% expressed a similar concern as the year drew to a close. That said, many pandemic-related challenges remain. International and domestic travel restrictions, sustained uncertainties impeding business decision-making, and the need to implement hiring freezes among other human resources-related strains, are cited as top pandemic-driven impacts on business operations. 

AmCham China member companies are still largely committed to the China market, although uncertainties persist due to bilateral tensions and certain regulatory developments. 61% of survey respondents both view China as a priority investment destination and are confident that the Chinese government will further open its markets to foreign investment, although this is not generally translating into higher investment levels. However, members do continue to see business opportunities in areas such as the globalization of Chinese companies and growth in domestic consumption, but also in new areas such as China’s leading-edge adoption of new digital technologies. 

Despite widespread reports of pandemic-fueled supply chain disruptions and bilateral trade tension-inspired reviews of risks and vulnerabilities, the survey results do not indicate a major shift in members’ manufacturing and sourcing outside of China. 83% of respondents continue to say their existing manufacturing and sourcing will remain in China. 

Bilateral tensions are clearly a top business challenge overall and rising labor costs, regulatory inconsistencies, increased competition from privately owned Chinese companies, and concerns about data security are also cited as top challenges. Although members continue to state that innovation remains important for driving growth in China, technology-related bilateral tensions, tightened cybersecurity regulations, and insufficient intellectual property (IP) protection are key barriers to achieving such innovation. That said, members continue to see improvement in China’s enforcement of IP rights, reporting fewer concerns over IP leakage and data security risks than in previous years. 

US-China tensions were further strained in 2020, but a rising proportion of member companies are optimistic that the relationship will improve in 2021. 98% of survey respondents stressed that positive bilateral relations are important for their business growth in China. Following three years of intensifying trade tensions, the two countries concluded the Phase One trade deal in early January 2020, raising hopes among the business community that the effort would, at a minimum, prevent the relationship from further deteriorating. Nearly a year after its signing, over half of respondents reported the Phase One trade deal has done its part to stabilize the bilateral relationship, mitigate trade frictions, and decrease the risk of tariff escalations. 

Respondents also identified a variety of steps that can be taken by both the US and Chinese governments to stabilize the bilateral relationship and improve the business environment for foreign companies in China. With respect to the Chinese government, ensuring a level playing field and “further opening the market to foreign investment with clear timelines are the top actions members would like the Chinese government to take, followed by refraining from aggressive rhetoric and tit-for-tat actions. 

Additionally, members continue to say that improvements to the regulatory environment, greater IP protections, and limitations to industrial policy would encourage higher levels of investment. Regarding the US government, respondents say that refraining from engaging in aggressive rhetoric and tit-for-tat actions is the most important action the US government can take to help foreign businesses, followed by advocating more strongly for a level playing field for US business in China, and pursuing a results-oriented framework for regularized government-to-government communication. 

The survey also found: 

  • 46% of respondents say they remain uncertain about the impact of the Foreign Investment Law (FIL)’s implementation; 28% think the FIL’s implementation has improved their business operations in China. 
  • For respondents planning to decrease China investments in 2021, market access barriers and concerns around an uncertain policy environment are primary factors. 
  • 50% say that the bilateral tariffs and tensions have no impact on their company’s business strategy. 
  • More than 50% of respondents consider adapting “work from home” as a long-term strategy. 

About AmCham China – US-China Business: The Next 100 Years 

The American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China (AmCham China) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization whose membership comprises 4,000 individuals from over 900 companies operating across China. The Chamber’s nationwide mission is to help American companies succeed in China through advocacy, information, networking, and business support services. In addition to our headquarters in Beijing, AmCham China serves Tianjin, Central China, and Northeast China through our Chapters in Tianjin, Dalian, Shenyang, and Wuhan. Across the five offices, AmCham China has more than 30 working groups, and holds more than 150 events each year. Visit the Chamber’s website at www.amchamchina.org 

For more information, please contact:
Mark Dreyer, Marketing & Communications Director, AmCham China