The trickle of companies leaving China is becoming a flood

As news of Shell’s partial retreat became public, top US lawyer Mayer Brown was reportedly putting the finishing touches to working a plan to offload its Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing offices – the latest big law firm to revisit the realities of doing business in a country where regulation, including new anti-espionage, data privacy and cyber security laws, is becoming even tighter.

They join a swell of big Western corporations including Stanley Black and Decker, Apple, Nike, Blackrock and Samsung that have stepped back from the People’s Republic, whether because of escalating geo-political tensions with the West, concerns over human rights abuses, intellectual property theft or the dismantling of freedoms in Hong Kong.

As China’s economy has faltered, foreign investment has tumbled to a 30-year low. The spectacular collapse of property giant Evergrande, which promises to leave scores of Western creditors nursing huge losses, has done further damage to confidence among overseas investors.

Fast forward a few years into the future and it isn’t that hard to picture Elon Musk, the planet’s most prominent self-proclaimed freedom-loving arch capitalist, as the lone Western business figure still kowtowing to China’s oppressive regime long after everyone else has scarpered.

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