Common in China, Kickbacks Create Trouble for U.S. Companies at Home

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 22, 2005

SHANGHAI -- For multinational companies grappling with stagnant sales, China has become a magnet for investment and a huge potential market beckoning with growth. Yet the lure of China profits combined with pervasive local corruption is tempting foreign companies and managers and bringing them into conflict with U.S. anti-bribery laws.

In interviews, China-based executives, sales agents and distributors for nine U.S. multinational companies acknowledged that their firms routinely win sales by paying what could be considered bribes or kickbacks -- often in the form of extravagant entertainment and travel expenses -- to purchasing agents at government offices and state-owned businesses.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their businesses, said such payments are usually funneled through distribution companies or public-relations firms to minimize the chance of prosecution by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which enforce the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

"It's normal industry practice," said a salesperson at a unit of a major U.S.-based technology company with a substantial retail presence in China.

American business leaders often describe their China operations idealistically, suggesting that their presence here will compel Chinese competitors to adopt more ethical business practices. But in one key regard, the dynamic operates in reverse, with U.S. companies adopting Chinese-style tactics to secure sales, as they compete in a market in which Communist Party officials routinely control businesses, and purchasing agents consider kickbacks part of their salary.

Managers of U.S. companies say they are caught in a dilemma: They are answerable to shareholders on Wall Street and home offices that demand a piece of an increasingly lucrative Chinese market. Yet they are also held to account at home by the Department of Justice and the SEC.

"It's a different market, and you can face unrealistic expectations," said Kathryn L. Buer, who said she was fired last year as head of Asia-Pacific operations for Datastream Systems Inc. after she unearthed problems with how the South Carolina software company had been booking sales in China.

Buer recently settled a whistleblower lawsuit she filed against Datastream following her termination. Last month, the Nasdaq stock market delisted Datastream shares after the company failed to file earnings reports on time.

Zhu Jianhua, Datastream's interim China manager from May to July of 2004, said the company had booked revenue after signing contracts without actually delivering goods. Sales agents also used liberal entertainment funds to win business. In one instance, he said, his staff had arranged to fly a buyer to the United States for training, tacking on a tour of New York. "I stopped it," he said. "That's not right."

Datastream President C. Alex Estevez said he would not comment on personnel matters. "Datastream has a strong interest in developing business throughout Asia and the Pacific Rim, including China," Estevez said. "In doing so, we intend to use proper and legal means."

Fueling the aggressive play is the growing recognition that China -- long a graveyard for the dreams of foreign investors -- is finally yielding profit.

"Companies are seeing some of their fastest growth in China, and it's profitable growth," said Kristin J. Forbes, a former member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and now a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

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