U.S. Employees Taking It Slow in Returning to China

Times Staff Writers

James Spear, his wife Liang and their two children took off from Ontario International Airport at 9 a.m. Monday, bound for Beijing.

Spear was returning to his job as manager of an international subsidiary of Unison Group, a San Bruno, Calif., company that advises foreign firms about doing business in China.

"He felt the Japanese hadn't pulled out many of their businessmen," said his father, James Spear Sr. "He felt for the long term he should be there." The decision has his parents, who live in Covina, worried.

Spear is one of a few American businessmen trickling back into Beijing. Two weeks ago, U.S. executives and their families abruptly packed up and fled China when the government massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators began in Tian An Men Square on June 3 and 4.

Coordinated Effort

Occidental Petroleum's staff of five is back in Beijing. Dependents of the company's 75 U.S. mine workers in China, who also were evacuated, "are now being told that they can or may go back at their convenience," said a spokesman for the Los Angeles firm. Pitman Potter, a Graham & Jones attorney, headed back to Beijing on Monday, but his wife and child stayed behind in the States.

The return of some U.S. personnel is occurring amid a coordinated effort by the Chinese government to lure foreign businesses back with assurances that things are back to normal.

"A few companies are either contemplating going back or possibly sending one person back as a scout," said Richard Brecher, investment manager at U.S.-China Business Council in Washington. "Just about everyone has been contacted by the Chinese, primarily by their Chinese partners. They are all echoing the similar 'all is well, business is normal, what are you waiting for? Just come on back.' "

Despite such assurances, most other U.S. companies are proceeding cautiously, mindful of the State Department advisory against travel to China and the warning from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that the Chinese government may use returning businessmen as fodder for propaganda purposes to show that business has not been disrupted. State-run television has featured interviews with Japanese and European businessmen who either stayed or have recently returned.

"We don't believe business is normal or could be normal," Brecher said. "We are suggesting people train a critical eye on these statements coming out of China. It takes more than good words to make a good healthy investment environment in China; it always has, now more so."

Slow and Cautious

Many U.S. companies are taking such a cautious attitude. Chrysler, for example, has tentative plans to send its Beijing Jeep staff back no earlier than July. The eight American employees and their families are scattered in Hong Kong, Australia and the United States.

"We're businessmen, not politicians, and (we) don't appreciate being used for propaganda or anything else," said Richard H. Ott, vice president for Chrysler's Beijing Jeep joint venture. "We have a business in China, it has done quite well, we have many friends in the business community."

Ott said in a telephone interview from his home in Michigan: "Nothing is firmed up yet. We've been invited by phone, by letter and by fax. We're taking a slow and deliberate entry. We're observing how things go first, to assure safety first."

The communications from Chrysler's Chinese partners, according to Ott, say "the counterrevolutionaries have been put down and business is normal in Beijing. How soon can you come back?"

He and another Chrysler official plan to return to Beijing first, before calling the rest of the staff back. "Our own desire is to make sure things are safe to go back. We also have a man stationed in Hong Kong right now, meeting with others companies in the same status we are."

The government crackdown disrupted production at the Chrysler plant for one week. Ott said it is difficult to translate that loss into dollars, but that the Chinese government is pushing to make up the lost production.

Arco's staff of five Americans is still in Hong Kong after evacuating Beijing. "We have no plans to send them in yet," a spokesman said. "As far as we know, they have no communications with our people in China asking us to come back at this time. We just want to see what develops. We don't want to expose people to any danger. We're just being cautious."

Picking Up the Pieces

Hewlett-Packard Co. in Palo Alto said it has no immediate plans to return the 20 employees that it removed from Beijing and Shanghai. "They have not returned and right now we have no plans for them returning," said Joan Tharp, a spokesman for the computer and electronics giant.

Spear's father did not like seeing his son return to Beijing so soon. "We would have liked to see them spend more time here until at least the State Department had made further comments and other American businesses were returning," said Spear's father.

Spear, 33, was worried that foreign companies would try to take away Unison's business. "He was concerned that if they didn't get back there would be other countries there to pick up the pieces," his father said. "He felt strongly that the best thing American business could do at this point is to get back to China and try and recover."

Meanwhile, McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach sent Gareth Chang, vice president for Asia/Pacific operations, to Hong Kong last weekend to help the aerospace company decide when it is safe for its 50 China-based employees to return to the mainland from Hong Kong.

"The question of when we will go back is one that is being addressed on a daily basis," said Don Hanson, a company spokesman.

He said employees now waylaid in Hong Kong are eager to return to China. "That question was asked of all employees assembled in Hong Kong, and I'm told the answer was unanimous: They want to go back."

McDonnell Douglas is building twin-engine MD-80 jets in a joint venture with Shanghai Aviation Industrial Corp.

Beckman Instruments in Fullerton said it anticipates sending its employees back to Beijing shortly. The medical equipment company ordered at least three employees to get out of China and go to Hong Kong or Singapore.

"For their safety, we brought them out temporarily," said Louis Rosso, Beckman's president. "We intend to go back in there. We're not anticipating a long-term delay."

However, Rosso said he could not issue any kind of timetable when employees would return to Beijing, where Beckman manufactures and sells medical instruments.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World