‘Brand America’ admired despite its economic hardships

By D’Arcy Doran, AFP

SHANGHAI — China-based accountants Lehman Brown refused to budge when lawyers acting for a certain Wall Street investment bank sent threatening letters demanding they change their name. The letters have stopped now, but the accountants are suddenly open to a name change, said Dickson Leung, a senior partner at the firm. Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and the global crisis that followed has led some in China to reassess their view of Wall Street, especially against the backdrop of their own country’s remarkable rise. “From a Chinese perspective, in the past people thought: ‘Wall Street — that’s where people make a lot of money,’” Leung said by telephone from Beijing. “Now the Chinese might be thinking: ‘Who knows? Maybe we can do better, we can create another Wall Street in China,’” he said. The accounting firm’s name — the surnames of its U.S. expatriate founders — attracted clients because it sounded “very American”, Leung said, insisting the company had not just tried to copy the famous bank’s similar moniker.

But bankruptcy carries a harsh stigma in China and now prospective clients could see it as unlucky, he admitted.

Though dented, “Brand America” remains much admired in China — but at the same time the Chinese are keenly aware the tectonic shifts in the global economy may also be their break-out chance. If the money trail is any indication, Chinese ties to the U.S. are stronger than ever. The Chinese government remains one of the biggest financers of U.S. debt and this month two Chinese banks opened their first U.S. branches to keep pace with their clients’ expansion into the United States. Despite the turmoil, trust in American consumer brands is at an all-time high due to China’s contaminated milk scandal, which led to more than 53,000 children falling ill, said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group. “They feel there is better quality control, people aren’t going to cut corners, put in bad ingredients in order to make money,” Rein said. “So on the consumer side, that ‘Made in America’ label is still very powerful.” But at the same time, confidence in U.S. financial institutions has plummeted, Rein said, citing surveys his firm conducted in 10 cities across China. “They want to take their money out of Citibank and they want to put it in Bank of China,” he said.