China’s Message to America: We’re an Equal Now
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China’s Message to America: We’re an Equal Now

President Xi is confronting the Biden administration with a new world view.

By LINGLING WEI
Thu, Apr 15, 2021 10:27amGrey Clock 7 min

It quickly became obvious in Anchorage, Alaska, last month that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s diplomatic envoys hadn’t come carrying olive branches. Instead they brought a new world view.

As Biden administration officials expected in their first meeting with Chinese counterparts, Yang Jiechi, Mr. Xi’s top foreign-policy aide, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked them to roll back Trump-era policies targeting China. Beijing wanted to restore the kind of recurring “dialogue” Washington sees as a waste of time, say U.S. and Chinese officials briefed on the Alaska meeting.

Mr. Yang also delivered a surprise: a 16-minute lecture about America’s racial problems and democratic failings. The objective, say Chinese officials, was to make clear that Beijing sees itself as an equal of the U.S. He also warned Washington against challenging China over a mission Beijing views as sacred—the eventual reunification with Taiwan.

That is a big shift for Chinese leaders, who for decades took care not to challenge the U.S. as the world’s leader and followed the dictum Deng Xiaoping set decades ago: “Keep a low profile and bide your time.” Some senior Chinese officials privately—often sarcastically—called the U.S. Lao Da, or Big Boss.

Now Mr. Xi is reshaping the relationship. As far as he is concerned, China’s time has arrived.

“China can already look at the world on an equal level,” he told the annual legislative sessions in Beijing in early March, a remark widely interpreted in Chinese media as a declaration that China no longer looks up to the U.S.

The U.S. routinely describes China as a strategic rival, but Beijing has rarely if ever used such terms, emphasizing terms like “win-win” and cooperation.

“One of the more obvious changes in China’s attitude is that China now recognizes the existence of competition, which was never expressed in the past,” says Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s State Council and president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing think tank.

The increasingly contentious relationship has created competition for allies, with American diplomats jetting to Japan, South Korea and Western Europe, while Chinese equivalents sew up deals in Southeast Asia, Russia and Iran.

Competitive relationship

Mr. Yang’s warning in Alaska on Taiwan reunification is an ominous inkling of how a competitive relationship between the world powers could lead to conflict.

The U.S. is committed to helping Taiwan preserve its autonomy under pledges including the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, and the Biden team trumpets its plans to strengthen economic and political links to Taipei. Mr. Xi has made reunification with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province, a big part of his “China Dream” of national revival.

China’s Foreign Ministry says of Mr. Yang’s Anchorage warning: “The Chinese side pointed out that the Taiwan issue is related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and China’s core interests.” It adds that “There is no room for compromise.”

There is little sign of imminent Chinese actions to take back the island, though there have been plenty of symbolic gestures. Soon after the Alaska meetings, Mr. Xi inspected Fujian province, across the strait from Taiwan. Chinese aeroplanes in recent weeks have stepped up incursions into Taiwan’s air-defense zone.

Days after the Alaska encounter, the White House’s China coordinator, Kurt Campbell, told a private conference hosted by the University of California at San Diego that Beijing had become “impatient” at the pace of reunification, according to participants.

Adm. Phil Davidson, who heads the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier in March that China could try to take control of Taiwan by decade’s end, perhaps in as little as six years. China might act rashly, says a senior U.S. official, because of an exaggerated belief that the U.S. is a declining power.

Relations between the countries plummeted during the Trump administration. After both sides fought a two-year trade war to a wary truce, the U.S. president blamed Beijing for unleashing the coronavirus. China rejected the charges and labelled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a “doomsday clown.”

After Mr. Biden’s election, academics and officials in Beijing reached out to American contacts to try to figure out whether the new administration would change course. They were quickly discouraged.

Even before Mr. Biden took office, Chinese diplomats sought to schedule a high-level meeting between the two sides, people close to the matter say. Biden officials never approved the request and instead repeatedly talked about working with allies to confront China.

China’s concerns were reinforced in January, when Mr. Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, used his confirmation hearing to declare that China had committed genocide against Uyghur Muslims in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. China has called the charge “the lie of the century.”

The Biden team shares its predecessor’s view of China as America’s greatest military, technological and economic challenger. From the new administration’s perspective, Chinese provocations never ceased. Beijing cut off imports from Australia over its call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, skirmished with India over the countries’ Himalayan border and sought to intimidate Philippines and Vietnam ships in the South China Sea.

Beijing, as Chinese officials put it, sought to “duo hui hua yu quan,” or take back the narrative. China’s diplomats and state-media outlets aggressively denounced Western meddling in its domestic affairs and heralded China’s rise.

Before the Alaska meeting on March 18 and 19, the U.S. signaled a muscular approach. President Biden met online with the leaders of India, Australia and Japan. Mr. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the national-security adviser, flew to Tokyo and Seoul to confer with security counterparts and insisted that Messrs. Yang and Wang fly to Alaska for the U.S.-China session rather than meeting in Asia. A day before the Anchorage meeting, the U.S. expanded sanctions against two dozen Chinese officials over the repression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

Some U.S. foreign-policy experts thought the Americans went overboard, including Jeffrey Bader, a senior China official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The more you assert you’re not a declining power,” he says, “the less convincing you are.”

With cameras rolling in Anchorage, Mr. Blinken briefly criticized China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and threats against Taiwan. Mr. Yang, a member of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo, gave his blistering 16-minute rejoinder, which the Chinese officials say was meant to show China’s new world view.

After rattling off his country’s achievements under Mr. Xi, he said China wouldn’t follow “what is advocated by a small number of countries as the so-called rule-based international order.” He criticized the U.S. as having “deep-seated” human-rights problems and declared that “the U.S. itself doesn’t represent international public opinion.”

After the doors closed, say the officials briefed on the meeting, the Chinese laid out the differences between the nations in three categories. The first category was what could be dealt with fairly easily.

The second would require more negotiations. Issues involving both sides relaxing restrictions on diplomats and journalists belong to the first two groups.

The third category, largely concerning China’s sovereignty, was off limits.

On the second day, the diplomats addressed Taiwan. Control of the island has been a Communist Party goal since Mao Zedong’s forces drove Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government there in 1949.

As he turned to the West after Mao’s death, Deng made clear that reunification could wait while China focused on developing its economy. For Mr. Xi, the wait is wearing thin. As Mr. Xi heads for an unprecedented third term as China’s leader late next year, his talk of national revival has broad support. There is little that would cement his legacy more forcefully than bringing the island back into Beijing’s fold, China watchers say.

In Anchorage, the U.S. reaffirmed its adherence to the “One China” policy, under which Washington agrees not to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, but also reiterated pledges to help Taiwan economically and militarily.

“The Chinese are concerned about a slippery slope of Biden doing more and more on Taiwan,” says Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They are using their ever-expanding tool kit to put pressure on Taiwan and signal the U.S. it better be careful.”

Sharp departure

Beamed back to China, Mr. Yang’s lecturing made him a national hero. It also represented a sharp departure from the policy of cooperation with the U.S. that Deng had adopted shortly after the two countries established diplomatic ties. “As we look back, we find that all of those countries that are with the U.S. have become rich,” Deng told aides in 1979, according to official accounts, “while all of those against the U.S. have remained poor. We should be with the U.S.”

That principle guided his successors. Jiang Zemin pushed through Beijing’s negotiations with Washington to get China into the global trading system in 2001. He wooed American and other CEOs to showcase the country’s greater opening to the world. The next leader, Hu Jintao, went further in following the U.S. lead. During the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Hu signed up to a plan laid out by President George W. Bush to stimulate the Chinese economy to help lift the world from recession.

Mr. Xi started his reign on a similar path. His “China Dream” slogan nodded to the appeal of the American Dream. In late 2017, he entertained President Donald Trump at a private dinner in the Forbidden City, despite Mr. Trump’s threats to punish China.

“We have a thousand reasons to get the China-U.S. relationship right,” he regularly told Chinese underlings and foreign visitors, “and not one reason to spoil it.”

But as the Trump administration piled tariffs on Chinese imports and blacklisted major Chinese companies, which it argued were stealing U.S. intellectual property and helping to build up the Chinese military, Mr. Xi soured. From his perspective, the U.S. had become an unreliable partner, and he worked to make China less reliant on America, especially on technology.

In Beijing’s corridors of power, Mr. Trump was derisively known as “a great unifier”—America’s aggressive actions were unifying support in China for the party and Mr. Xi.

America’s chaotic pandemic response, followed by a summer of racial upheaval and the Jan. 6 Capitol storming, solidified his faith in the Chinese system’s superiority, Chinese officials say. In internal meetings, they say, he compares American democracy to “a sheet of loose sand” and declares that the one-party system allows him to get things done.

With Mr. Biden in the White House, China has continued a hard-line approach, signalling that companies not following Beijing’s rules will lose access to the Chinese market. Swedish clothing brand Hennes & Mauritz AB recently met with a strong social-media rage and consumer boycott in China over its stance against sourcing cotton from Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have restricted military personnel and employees of certain state-owned companies from using electric vehicles made by America’s Tesla Inc., citing national-security risks including concerns about the cars’ cameras. H&M declined to comment. Tesla, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, said last week that its cameras aren’t activated outside North America.

“Nobody has forced them to stay in China,” Mr. Yang said in Anchorage, regarding U.S. companies doing business in China.

Search for allies

Since the Alaska meeting, the competition has played out in a search for allies. Within a week, Mr. Blinken organized joint condemnation of China’s Xinjiang policy with Canada, the European Union and the U.K., which included the first EU human-rights sanctions on China since the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters.

Even Japan, typically wary of angering China, its largest trading partner, appears to be tying itself more tightly to the U.S. Last week ahead of a trip by Prime Minister Yoshide Suga to Washington for an April 16 summit with Mr. Biden, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi called on Beijing to improve human rights conditions for Uyghurs and stop the Hong Kong crackdown.

Mr. Wang, the foreign minister, met his Russian peer in late March, prompting the nationalist Chinese newspaper Global Times to headline, “China, Russia to break US hold on ‘world order.’ ” Then he travelled to the Middle East and signed a wide-ranging economic and security agreement with Iran.

Countries like India are trying to avoid getting caught between the two sides. Mr. Biden’s plan to hold a Summit for Democracy will sharpen the divide.

China retaliated against the EU sanctions by blacklisting European lawmakers and think tanks, although that might make the EU parliament’s ratification of a pending investment treaty with China more difficult.

“It’s a high-stakes gamble for the Chinese,” says Daniel Russel, a former Obama China official, now a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank. “But it’s not a gamble they are certain to lose.”

 

 

 



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Nike Reverses Course as Innovation Stalls and Rivals Gain Ground

Shoe giant stumbled as CEO John Donahoe pulled away from retailers and relied on old hits. Now it says it’s refocusing on cutting-edge footwear for athletes.

By INTI PACHECO
Tue, Apr 23, 2024 10 min

In late February, Nike boss John Donahoe led a virtual all-hands meeting where he delivered a message to his staff: The company wasn’t performing at its best and he held himself accountable.

Two weeks earlier, Nike had announced it would lay off more than 1,600 employees .

Now, as the CEO spoke at the meeting, critical comments started to fill the chat window on the Zoom call while more than 20,000 employees watched.

“Accountability: I do not think that word means what you think it means,” an employee wrote. “If this is cost cutting, how about a CEO salary cut?” another wrote. Soon a cascade of laughing emojis filled the screen.

Some colleagues warned others that their posts weren’t anonymous and the chat might be monitored. The attacks went on for several minutes. “I hope Phil is watching and reading this,” an employee wrote, referencing the retired Nike co-founder Phil Knight .

The virtual protest illustrated the depths of the dissatisfaction within the sneaker giant and concern for its strategy. “How did we actually get here?” wrote one product manager.

Since the pandemic, Nike has lost ground in its critical running category while it focused on pumping out old hits and preparing for an e-commerce revolution that never came. The moves, current and former employees say, have eroded a culture of innovation and edginess that made Nike one of the world’s best-known brands.

Donahoe had told The Wall Street Journal in 2020 that his No. 1 priority when taking over the company was “don’t screw it up.” Four years later, the company is unwinding key elements of the CEO’s strategy that have backfired as a growing number of upstarts nip at its heels.

Among the reversals: As Covid raged and more shopping moved online, Nike cut ties with longtime retail partners such as DSW and Urban Outfitters and tried selling more merchandise directly to consumers. It is now asking some of those stores for help clearing out its overstuffed shelves and warehouses.

“I would say we got some things right and some things wrong,” Donahoe said Thursday, in an interview at Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters.

Losing its roots

The strategic missteps have animated a debate inside the company about its identity. In its zeal to boost digital sales, some current and former employees say, Nike veered from its roots as a maker of cutting-edge footwear for serious athletes. It has opened itself to competition from newcomers such as On and Hoka, which have borrowed from the playbook that fuelled Nike’s rise—including focusing on sport over lifestyle, and taking risks on innovation.

Nike’s once torrid growth has stalled . Sales for the quarter ended Feb. 29 were flat compared with a year earlier, and shares in the company have declined 24% over the past year, compared with a 19% gain in the S&P 500.

Donahoe in the interview acknowledged the brand lost its “sharp edge” in sports and needed to boost its “disruptive innovation pipeline.” The CEO said the brand’s marketing got fragmented and that with people going back to bricks-and-mortar stores, it was clear Nike needed to invest in its retail partners.

Nike executives said in interviews that the company became too cautious after the pandemic and overly reliant on older products that were reliable sellers. They said the company has made significant changes in recent months to refocus it on putting out cutting-edge footwear.

“We were serving consumers what they know and love,” said John Hoke , Nike’s recently named chief innovation officer. “The job is to of course do that but also to show them something new, take them someplace new.”

Donahoe said Nike is going through a period of adversity and layoffs that has created uncertainty, but that the company will get through it. “Our employees have been through a lot,” he said. “Nike is actually at its best, like a great sports team, when our backs are against the wall.”

Knight, who is chairman emeritus of the board and the company’s largest shareholder, said in a statement that Donahoe has his “unwavering support.”

Donahoe said employees’ responses to the all-hands meeting reflected one of Nike’s biggest strengths: how much its staff cares about the company. “We welcome and encourage that,” Donahoe said.

Shift into digital

Donahoe took over Nike just before the pandemic, at a delicate time. Though he inherited a market leader and one of the world’s best-known brands, Nike was seeking a refresh after it dealt with complaints about its workplace culture that led to a management shake-up .

The Evanston, Ill., native had been CEO of eBay , where he doubled the e-commerce platform’s revenue during a seven-year stint that ended in 2015. After a sabbatical—during which he says he had a life-altering experience at a 10-day Buddhist silent meditation retreat—Donahoe went on to run cloud-computing company ServiceNow .

When he took the helm of Nike in early 2020, his marching orders from Mark Parker , his predecessor and current executive chairman, and Knight were clear. He was to turn the world’s biggest shoe maker into a tech company more directly connected to consumers through its own apps, which in turn collect valuable data from shoppers.

Parker said when he stepped down that Donahoe was the right candidate to lead Nike’s digital transformation.

Donahoe was just the fourth CEO in the company’s more than 50-year history. The only other outsider to get the job said he was ousted in 2006 after a short stint because he focused too much on the numbers .

Donahoe started out with a 100-day global listening tour that was cut short after a month when the pandemic hit.

Covid lockdowns fuelled a surge in online shopping. Digital channels accounted for 30% of Nike’s sales in May 2020, about three years ahead of schedule.

Donahoe saw it as an acceleration of an inevitable shift and adjusted Nike’s plans accordingly. A few months in, he redoubled the company’s bet that it could make more money by selling products directly to consumers through its stores and digital channels. He said he believed digital sales would reach 50% of the business, and Nike should transform faster to define the marketplace of the future. It was time to act.

By late 2020, Nike dropped about a third of its sales partners and sold less merchandise to clients such as Foot Locker , DSW and Macy’s . There had been a plan to phase out wholesale clients since 2017, but with digital sales growing quickly, Donahoe said there was a need for urgency.

Executives were divided over whether Nike’s own stores, which include both factory outlets and specialty shops selling higher-priced new releases, could fill the sales void left by the retailers the company was cutting out.

In meetings, finance chief Matt Friend and Nike president Heidi O’Neill supported the aggressive exit from retail that Donahoe was pushing, while others favored a slower transition, people familiar with the matter said.

Some executives felt the specialty stores in particular worked better as marketing tools and that cutting off so many retailers so fast would backfire, the people said. Donahoe and his allies prevailed.

Nike teams were tasked to come up with a new global supply-chain process. Selling directly to consumers increased the company’s liabilities, including by shifting storage and shipping costs from wholesalers to Nike. The company would also absorb the losses from discounts if the merchandise didn’t sell quickly and inventory piled up.

One of the casualties of Donahoe’s 2020 transformation was a multibillion-dollar operation dedicated to developing footwear sold for under $100. The company deprioritised more-affordable footwear that usually sold to the sales partners that Nike was leaving behind. The move left Nike skewed toward higher-priced shoes.

The first evidence of cracks in Nike’s new approach appeared early last year when Foot Locker Chief Executive Mary Dillon said during an earnings call the brand had reversed course and was sending the retailer a wider assortment of Nike products. By the summer, Macy’s and DSW were saying the same thing.

The message was clear: Nike needed help selling merchandise.

Nike veterans said cutting off wholesale clients was one of the biggest mistakes the company has ever made. After digital sales hit the 30% of the total mark early in the pandemic, they dropped back, and haven’t reached that level since—let alone the 50% target Donahoe had foreseen.

Donahoe said in the interview the goal at the time was to lean more on specific partners, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and JD Sports , which he considers to be more aligned with Nike, rather than make a dramatic shift in strategy. Nike deprioritised making lower-priced shoes because of supply-chain disruptions during the pandemic, but it is now making more of those products, he said.

“I don’t see it as a reversal of the strategy,” Donahoe said of the return to more retail chains. “I see it as an adjustment.”

Rising competition

Competitors have been using the sneaker giant’s playbook at its expense. Smaller brands like On, Hoka and New Balance have captured significant pieces of the market for both hard-core and everyday runners—and their popularity is spreading to the mainstream.

Often quoting Knight, the Nike co-founder, former employees said the principle always was to first capture the market for hard-core athletes with innovative performance gear, and the casual consumer would follow.

In early February, Hoka owner Deckers Outdoor tapped Nike alums to take over both the parent company and the shoe brand. Hoka had $1.4 billion in sales for the year through March 2023, compared with about $352 million three years earlier.

Hoka didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“When you’re the biggest, there’s always going to be people coming after you,” Donahoe said. Competitors give Nike an incentive to try to understand what consumers want and to figure out how to come up with something bold and different, he said.

Nike still dwarfs its competition . During Donahoe’s tenure, Nike sales have grown 31% to $51 billion in 2023. That is more than double the results of Adidas, its closest competitor by far. New Balance reported sales reached $6.5 billion last year, and upstart On almost hit the $2 billion mark.

The race to hit revenue targets came at a cost for Nike. Executives turned to the brand’s lucrative franchises, including Air Jordan and Dunk, and ramped up the releases. The strategy diluted the exclusivity prized by die-hard Nike sneaker shoppers.

Donahoe said in the interview that Nike ramped up production to meet demand on its SNKRS app, which fans use to buy the latest limited releases. In early 2021, Nike was meeting less than 5% of the demand for some releases on the app and consumers were frustrated, Donahoe said, adding the goal is to meet something closer to 20% of demand for the exclusive styles.

Now, sneaker resellers say they have seen release after release of Nike’s limited-edition kicks that don’t sell out on the SNKRS app, and that in the secondary market—a space that the brand closely monitors —prices are tanking.

Nike executives in March said they would pull back on franchise releases.

Donahoe said “franchise management has always been something Nike has done.”

Nike’s digital sales, a figure that includes direct and partner e-commerce sales, declined for the quarter ended Feb. 29. Friend, the finance chief, told analysts in March that Nike expects total sales to decline at least until the end of this year.

Struggle for innovation

The pursuit of sales growth from limited-edition sneaker releases led Nike to neglect its running category, long considered the core product of the company, former employees said.

This month in Paris, Nike unveiled its new product line for the Olympics, including running shoes with a new cushioning system that uses the company’s Air technology.

In interviews at the event, executives said the company had become somewhat risk-averse during the pandemic, when working remotely stifled creativity. Martin Lotti, chief design officer, said the company had spent too much time looking to its past.

“If you drive a car just by looking in the rear view mirror, that’s not a good thing,” Lotti said. “The bigger opportunity is the windshield.”

Current and former Nike executives believe the future of the company is in its app ecosystem , like the Nike Training and Running Club or its SNKRS app, and the data it can harness from them to help design and sell products. Inside the company, leaders have long tried to draw comparisons to Apple when talking about Nike’s innovation and design culture.

The sneaker giant has been acquiring smaller data analytics startups for at least a decade. Two years ago, it also bet on the NFT craze .

One of Nike’s biggest tech investments is a multibillion-dollar process to migrate multiple software programs into one single system. The new platform, known as S/4HANA, is still not operational and is three years behind schedule. The software is designed to help day-to-day operations, such as procurement and inventory management, and speed up digital sales.

As part of its accelerated focus on digital sales, Nike hired about 3,500 people to join what the company calls its global technology group, which includes consumer insights and data analytics. Executives at the time said they were investing in “demand sensing,” “insight gathering” and a new inventory system.

Former Nike employees with knowledge of the consumer insights strategy said executives misinterpreted the data in ways that overestimated demand for retro franchises.

During February’s round of layoffs executives trimmed layers of management across the company’s insights and analytics teams. A large technology innovation team, tasked with developing software to implement Apple’s new Vision Pro augmented reality system in day-to-day design tasks, and a separate artificial intelligence team were also eliminated.

Executives at Nike say it is entering a “supercycle” of innovation and that the new Air line of products enhances athlete performance.

At the Olympics preview event this month, the company took over the historic Palais Brongniart in central Paris with a three-day event to unveil its new Air line. Guests wandered through a museum-like, conveyor-belt installation highlighting Nike’s product evolutions and research and development programs. Athletes including runners Sha’Carri Richardson and Eliud Kipchoge modeled the new gear. Retired tennis great Serena Williams narrated the company’s lavish introduction video before appearing on stage.

Outside, 30-foot orange statues of Nike-sponsored athletes including LeBron James, Kylian Mbappé and Victor Wembanyama stood guard.

Donahoe’s relationship with Knight goes back to the early 1990s, when he was a Bain consultant on Nike projects. He joined the Nike board in 2014 and is one of the directors of an entity Knight created called Swoosh LLC, which holds roughly $22 billion worth of Nike shares and controls a majority of Nike’s board seats. Donahoe calls Knight his “greatest hero in business.”

The current CEO said he meets with his predecessor, Parker, every week.

Donahoe said that he and Parker share an approach to management he calls “servant leadership” that was embodied by some of his sports heroes, including basketball coaches Phil Jackson, John Thompson, Mike Krzyzewski and Tara VanDerveer.

“It’s never been about me. It’s about your players. And are you doing everything you can to allow your players to make the adjustments to win? And when you have a win it’s about the players and when you have a loss you say it’s on me, right?,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve always tried to embody, including during this period of time.”

This week, Donahoe is facing another test: the company is notifying several hundred more workers whose jobs are being cut.

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