May 15 12:45 PM

When in China, do as the Romans

Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The Chinese 入乡随俗 (Ru xiang sui su) means “In the countryside, do as the country folk do.” It’s strikingly close to its English-language equivalent, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

In recent years, Western businesses appear to have done a bang-up job of adhering to this adage that spans from East and West. For instance, at least one U.S.-headquartered Beijing stores I used to visit sold what appeared to be the same bootleg films I bought on the Chinese capital’s streets.

Chinese businesses often need to skirt the law to remain competitive — most typically by dealing in “transactional costs” — also known as bribes. And Western businesses, it seems, need to keep up.

But now that Beijing is pushing to weed out corruption in the public and private sectors, it appears Western business in China may need to do as Xi Jinping’s administration does.

International media reported this week that Chinese police have accused Mark Reilly, a British national and senior executive with pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline’s China operations of helping to orchestrate a scheme to pay doctors bribes to prescribe their drugs.

It’s not rare — or particular to China — to find a pharmaceutical manufacturer bribing doctors to prescribe their products or international businesspeople dealing in transactional costs. But in China — a country that at least in its public proclamations aims to remove a kind of graft that economist Andy Xie Guozhong has told Al Jazeera accounts for 10 percent of GDP — there are some important differences.

“In the U.S., there are institutional safeguards that minimize the ability for an individual to get a kickback,” said Arthur T. Dong, a Georgetown business professor and expert in China’s international commerce.

“How it’s different in China, some of these protections are less enforced or regulated. [Chinese business] places greater emphasis on the discretion of individuals.”

For Western companies, the choice is often simple.

“On the whole, these kind of adaptations to the Chinese marketplace are necessary to the extent companies want to gain traction in their sales,” Dong said.

It is rare that a foreign national gets prosecuted, though. The Chinese government realizes foreign direct investment is crucial to its economy, and Xi’s ongoing anti-graft campaign has — with the exception of select entities competing with domestic counterparts – largely stayed away from international enterprise.

The new allegations lodged against Reilly may show that foreigners, too, are increasingly under pressure to clean up their act and mold to the demands of a political climate in flux.

When in the country … as they say.

. . . .

Any views expressed on The Scrutineer are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.


Business & Finance

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter