China's GM fine may signal growing 'strain'

Associated Press

China has slapped a $29 million fine on General Motors Co. for antitrust violations, a possible sign of the growing tensions between the U.S. and the Asian nation.


General Motors Co.’s main joint venture has been fined 201 million yuan ($29 million) for violating anti-monopoly rules, adding to a string of penalties imposed on foreign auto brands over the past two years.

The largest U.S. automaker is accused of setting minimum prices on some vehicles in its large SAIC General Motors joint venture. The Shanghai Municipal Development & Reform Commission, which imposed the 201 million yuan fine, alleged in a statement that GM punished dealers who sold cars for less than prices set by the Detroit-based automaker.

This is the first time China has fined GM, the second-largest foreign carmaker in China by sales, but not the first time it has fined automakers for similar alleged practices.

“GM fully respects local laws and regulations wherever we operate,” Irene Shen, a GM spokeswoman, said in a text message referring to the penalty. “We will provide full support to our joint venture in China to ensure that all responsive and appropriate actions are taken with respect to this matter.”

GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra in Detroit last week declined to comment on reports an automaker was being investigated by China over anti-competitive practices and may face a fine.

Linda Lim, a strategy professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business who studies the political economy of businesses in Southeast Asia, said Friday she doesn’t think the fine on GM increases any relationship strain between the U.S. and China.

“ ‘Strain’ has been growing between Chinese authorities and foreign (not just U.S.) businesses for several years,” she wrote in an email Friday. “Alleged monopolistic behavior has been one of the issues for which U.S. companies have been fined before, as some of them have been in Europe where the EU has made similar anti-monopoly charges against U.S. companies. The fine imposed on GM is relatively small (e.g. compared to the much larger fine imposed on Qualcomm last year and to GM’s profits in the country).”

San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc., a technology company, was fined $975 million by China because the country said it violated its anti-monopoly law.

GM and its joint ventures annually earn about $2 billion in income from operations in China.

China-U.S. relations have become more tense after President-elect Donald Trump proposed tariffs on Chinese goods, questioned the One-China policy regarding Taiwan and recently accused the Asian nation of stealing an American naval drone in international waters in the South China Sea. A Communist Party newspaper in November said a “tit for tat” retaliation could follow proposals by Trump for tariffs on the world’s largest trading nation, which had $627 billion in U.S. trade in 2015.

Lim said if Trump imposes tariffs on goods made in China, China has said it will retaliate as many other nations would under the same circumstances. “Whether or not this happens depends on President-elect Trump,” she said.

Last year, China fined Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz unit $56 million for monopolistic pricing practices. In 2014, the government penalized Volkswagen AG and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV for similar practices, as well as a dozen parts makers. The auto component suppliers were fined $200 million collectively.

Since 2011, the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s main economic planner, has pressured carmakers to cut prices as part of an investigation into the auto industry. The NDRC said the probe was meant to ensure market order and protect consumers.

Chinese media have reported that penalties on American companies may be coming. The China Daily reported earlier this month that the government would soon penalize a U.S. automaker for price fixing, citing an interview with Zhang Handong, director of the NDRC’s price supervision bureau. The Global Times wrote in an editorial that orders for Boeing Co. planes could be replaced with models from Airbus Group SE, and that Apple Inc.’s iPhone sales may suffer a setback.

China is GM’s largest sales market. The automaker has 11 joint ventures in China, where it employs more than 58,000 people. GM’s joint venture with SAIC formed in June 1997. It includes eight vehicle plants and four powertrain facilities and offers more than 20 models through the Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac brands.

GM’s retail sales in China are up 8.5 percent this year through November to 3.44 million vehicles, trailing only Volkswagen among foreign automakers. Its German rival so far this year has boosted deliveries 12 percent to 3.59 million units. Last year, GM sold a record 3.61 million vehicles in China.

Shares of SAIC Motor Corp. fell 1.2 percent to 23.17 yuan in Shanghai, before the penalty was announced. They have declined 3.3 percent since Dec. 14 when Bloomberg News reported that GM’s joint venture in China was being investigated for possible antitrust violations. GM shares closed Friday flat from Thursday at $35.69 a share.

Bloomberg News and staff writer Melissa Burden contributed.