Multinational executives are slowly drifting back to Beijing from their summer holidays abroad. Their mood is generally glum — and not just because of the pollution that has blighted China's capital over recent months, after what had been a glorious spring.
As one recent returnee said last week, it felt "tragic" watching his three daughters' tans and sun-bleached hair fade as they were forced to play indoors day after day.
Pestered by exasperated spouses and cabin-fevered children, multinational executives will unfortunately find little escape at the office. There, they are under increasing pressure to squeeze more profits from an economy growing at its slowest annual rate in a quarter-century.
Whether they are selling fast-moving consumer goods or premium cars, companies used to double-digit revenue and profit growth in China are suddenly reporting year-on-year increases in the mid to low single digits — if not worse.
"For foreign companies that depend on China, 3 per cent sales growth just doesn't cut it," says Andrew Polk, Beijing-based economist for the Conference Board.
世界大型企业联合会(Conference Board)驻北京经济学家安德鲁•波尔克(Andrew Polk)说："对于依赖中国的外企来说，3%的销售增长是根本不够的。"
Early next month, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China will release its annual white paper on business conditions. It was the first organisation to frame the zeitgeist last year, when its president proclaimed the end of what had been a "golden age" for foreign investors.
下月初，中国欧盟商会(European Union Chamber of Commerce in China)将发布关于中国商业环境的年度白皮书。欧盟商会主席去年就曾宣告，外国投资者在中国的"黄金时代"结束了，使该商会成为首个表达此类观点的组织。
In their briefings, both the European chamber and its US counterpart now tend to accentuate the negative in China, ruing everything from persistent market barriers to heavy handed anti-monopoly investigations.
Some even believe the Chinese government's unprecedented anti-corruption campaign — and the sobering example of GlaxoSmithKline, the UK pharmaceutical company brought low by a corruption scandal at its China operations — have failed to put an end to corporate graft.
"Little has really changed," said two corruption experts, Nick Blank and Frank Hong, in a recent report based on interviews with security managers at multinationals. "In the past, employees would skim expense accounts in order to get cash for bribery payments . . . these days they are still skimming but keeping the cash for themselves."
"几乎没有发生什么真正的改变，"研究腐败问题的专家尼克•布兰克(Nick Blank)和Frank Hong在最近一份根据采访跨国公司经理结果撰写的报告中说。"过去，员工会虚报费用，以便拿到现金用于贿赂……如今，他们仍然会虚报，只是自己留下了那些现金。"
Amid such gloom, however, there is a more optimistic case to be made for China's corporate prospects. It is one that rests principally on the entrepreneurial dynamism of the country's private sector companies.
One case in point is Fincera, a Chinese transportation services company based in Shijiazhuang, the province of Hebei.
Founded in 1994, Fincera grew into a nationwide truck leasing company — a business that feels the effects of economic slowdowns sooner than most. It also faced intense competition from thousands of local "mom-and-pop" leasers, many of them essentially family operations with better connections to area drivers and very low cost bases. It was a situation not unlike that encountered by multinationals that compete against large state-owned groups.
But, as Fincera watched its margins erode, its management team had an epiphany. As a relatively large business with 550 locations and annual revenues of Rmb1.4bn ($220m), the company had access to something its truck driver clients and mom-and-pop rivals did not: state bank loans. Fincera reckoned it could make more money developing web-based financing platforms for such clients.
Fincera's reincarnation is just beginning and, even if successful, one company does not an economic revival make. But it offers two heartening lessons for multinationals.
First, there is a plethora of such market gaps in China. For example, the country has a private jet sector that has not even begun to take off. Multinational car companies are also exploring opportunities in a similarly under-developed automotive leasing industry.
Second, even when multinationals cannot rush into such vacuums themselves, many are being tapped by dynamic private companies.
Multinational executives should also remember that Beijing will soon implement pollution controls ahead of the upcoming world athletics championships and military parade for the 70th anniversary of Japan's second world war surrender. So there is still a chance their children may briefly recapture that healthy summer glow.