A front page story in The New York Times today attempts to tie Mitt Romney to Chinese state repression, but it really says more about the complexities of international business than his investment strategies. The story, which is about an American company investing in a Chinese company that sells cameras to the Communist government (that sometimes uses them to monitor and harass political activists) mentions Romney's name 10 times, which looks bad, but doesn't get at the heart of what's really wrong with our relationship to China.
See if you can follow this chain: Uniview is a Chinese company that makes surveillance cameras. It used to be a division of H3C, which used to be a joint venture with 3Com and Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, but is now (along with 3Com) a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard. Uniview became its own entity last December after it was bought by an Asian equity fund that is run by Bain Capital, which counts among its investors a blind trust in the name of Ann Romney, who is the wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Got that?
In other words, Mitt Romney may be in a position to make money off the sales of surveillance cameras to the Chinese government.
Romney probably didn't know this until he read about it in today's paper. However, despite not working there since 1999, Romney's fortunes are forever tied to Bain Capital — a massive multi-layered international conglomerate that he founded and is deeply invested in, but has no control over. It would not be possible for him to know everything that goes on within its deep and complicated structure, even if he wanted to. That won't stop people from connecting its every profit-focused move to his campaign and wondering what it says about a potential future president.
So what does it say about him? Personally, not much. (Beyond the idea of having so much money that you don't where it all comes from.) Global business is a strange and complicated place, with subsidiaries upon subsidiary upon blind trust upon holding company with most roads leading down blind alleys and wrong ways. Businesses aren't set up that way so they can intentionally do evil (usually), but the complex corporate structures needed to run them do create a lot of big dark shadows where bad things can happen and no one really knows (or cares) enough to do anything about them. The levels of deniability between a given investor and a potential human rights violation are epic. Romney doesn't control the trust that doesn't control the Bain fund that doesn't control the company that doesn't control the Chinese government that can do whatever it wants with its damn cameras. That's the way everyone likes it.
The question is: can President Romney change that? One of his major talking points this year is that President Obama is not tough enough on China. But it is arrangements like this one that are precisely the reason why it's so difficult to rein in a global adversary though economic means. Bain has violated no laws or sanctions against doing business in China. Very few people in the company are probably even aware of what Uniview is or what it does. They also aren't the only Western company doing business over there or selling technologies that could potentially be used against Chinese citizens.
It may not be possible to do business in this world without somehow threatening human rights — but no one should know that better than Mitt Romney. He could take all his money out of Bain, but what about the all the other companies he might own stock in? Are we going to shut off the market completely? As Romney The Businessman proves, confronting China's human rights record and our own economy's complicity in it isn't as easy as Romney The Candidate makes it seem. It's a massively thorny problem that neither Republicans nor Democrats have done much to fix. If Obama can't stop Mitt Romney from making money in China, how can Mitt Romney?