Stop Investing in China’s Brutality

It’s time for pension funds and others to stop supporting companies that abet Beijing’s crackdowns on China’s Uighurs and Hong Kong’s protesters.

The New York Times
Date: Dec. 5, 2019
By: Danielle Pletka and Derek Scissors

New recruits to the Chinese People’s Armed Police training in political education theory in Kashgar, Xinjiang, in January.Credit…China Stringer Network/Reuters

Last month, the United States government issued sanctions against eight Chinese companies for complicity in the crackdown on Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang. As many as a million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities have been “interned” — wrenched away from families and dumped into harsh detention camps that the government insists are merely re-education centers. In light of those sanctions, why haven’t the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and other American funds announced that they would stop investing in companies under sanctions? And why is the federal employee retirement fund poised to move retirement assets to an index fund that includes Chinese companies in 2020?

By any standard, China is led by an amoral dictatorship. In addition to the continuing horrors in Xinjiang, young people in Hong Kong fighting for freedom fear being brutalized by Chinese security forces. In the South China Sea, the People’s Liberation Navy has all but annexed a vast swath of other nations’ territory and international waters. Chinese companies, answerable to the Communist Party, probably have built surveillance into drones that Americans buy and telephones that are bought the world over. Beijing trolls your children’s apps and Chinese hackers have allegedly already breached the private financial and personal information of millions of Americans, not to mention the possibility of forays into America’s most advanced defense plans.

American financial heavyweights and pension funds have in recent years shunned fossil fuels, guns and other investments on ethical grounds. Yet when it comes to providing capital to Chinese companies — including those directly engaged in surveillance or supporting the People’s Liberation Army — many haven’t resisted investment.

Both state-owned and nominally private Chinese companies enjoy almost unfettered access to American capital markets, including listing on American exchanges and heavy investment from some of the nation’s largest pension funds. In mid-2019, China was among the top 10 countries in which the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) invested. According to the most recent data, from June 2019, CalSTRS owned 4.1 million shares of Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., which has faced sanctions from the Trump administration for manufacturing surveillance equipment that the administration alleges is being used in the Xinjiang camps (Hikvision is appealing the sanctions). The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System and the Florida state pension fund have owned shares of the same company (the New York State Common Fund liquidated its shares in Hikvision in May). These and other pension funds including New York State’s, and the enormous California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) have indirectly owned shares in iFlytek Co Ltd., another of the Chinese firms blacklisted by the U.S. government.

We reached out to the funds, seeking the current status of their investments in Chinese companies, but got little information. “We have been tracking the situation,” CalSTRS told us, and a representative for the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System said: “Our holdings in public international equities are primarily held according to their weights in passive portfolios benchmarked to the MSCI ACWI ex-U. S. index, our policy benchmark.” A company representative at CalPERS just pointed us to its Governance & Sustainability Principles. A representative for the Florida state pension fund confirmed that it still owns shares in Hikvision.

There are sound political and financial reasons to question the wisdom of exposure to Chinese public and “private” companies. It’s almost impossible to know at what moment the United States may levy sanctions against a company for complicity in the Chinese government’s malign agenda. Hikvision, Huawei, ZTE (telecommunications conglomerates that also allegedly spy for their Beijing bosses, charges that both have denied), and some others, are good examples.