If you wish to read about corporate ethics in China, you’ll need to navigate the ethics of the Chinese media first
For decades now, while China has been booming and business people have been chasing lucrative opportunities, the domestic Chinese business media’s scrutiny of corporate practices has been questionable at best.
It’s long been difficult to use the media as a tool for evaluating companies, holding them responsible or even find out what they’re doing. The idea of a free business press just doesn’t exist. Similarly those in Beijing who decide policy regarding business – senior Communist Party apparatchiks or supposed regulators and monitors – are equally opaque. When the deputy director of the State Council Information Office, Li Wufeng, a former official on the corruption-ridden Three Gorges Dam project, recently jumped off the roof of a very high Beijing building, China’s Communist Party-controlled press censors issued an order to local newspapers and media outlets: “No reports on accidental death of civil servants at central state organs to be discussed.” Case closed.
Don’t think the existence of some foreign correspondents in China makes much difference either. The past year has seen an unprecedented number of foreign hacks either kicked out or having their visa renewals refused. After Bloomberg News published an article in June 2012 on the family wealth of China’s president, Xi Jinping, lucrative sales of Bloomberg terminals in China slowed, as officials ordered state enterprises not to subscribe to the market data service. Accusations were made that Bloomberg was subsequently not covering controversial stories in China to avoid being blocked by the Chinese authorities. Since then several veteran correspondents have had their permission to work in China withdrawn.
So, with little comment allowed inside the country and severe limitations on business reporters from outside China, how can we trust anything that anyone says? This situation obviously has ramifications for corporate social responsibility and ethical issues. Ebullient press releases on corporate responsibility cannot be rigorously examined and any suspected transgressions are difficult to chase down.
It’s important to note that this lack of transparency can be useful to foreign companies with problems as well as domestic ones. The ongoing GSK bribery allegations in China (of which I’ve written previously) would perhaps be less murky if the press was allowed to follow the court proceedings (all held behind closed doors so far) or interview those accused (including one British and one American national) who are currently in Chinese jails awaiting trial (they have not been allowed access so far).
Now further concerns have come to light about how exactly the business news that does seep out of China is concocted. Police have apparently detained Rui Chenggang, the director and anchor of BizChina, the prime-time daily business show on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV International. Rui is a very popular host, known for his interviews with senior domestic and foreign chief executives. Rather publicly he was detained at the CCTV studios in Beijing shortly before going on air on 11 July. He is perhaps best known outside China for his rather nationalistic stance and for publicly criticising the existence of a branch of Starbucks in the Forbidden City back in 2007. The branch subsequently closed.
The story becomes murkier still with the Wall Street Journal saying that Rui held stock in a Chinese subsidiary of Edelman, the large American PR firm, while the subsidiary was providing services to his employer, CCTV.
Rui is being investigated for “economic crimes”, the Chinese government’s catch-all phrase that can include corruption, as are several other senior but less well known CCTV senior executives.
There are many questions surrounding the current anti-corruption investigation into CCTV but among them must now be just how much a foreign PR company was able to influence CCTV’s business news output and content in both Chinese and English.
China fans like to attest to China’s growing importance by citing both its expanding domestic media and the growing number of column inches the country’s economy and businesses take up in international newspapers. But readers might well ask themselves whether any of that news is fit to print or to be believed at all.
Based in Shanghai and the UK, Paul French is an independent China analyst and writer.China column chinese media media media corruption media ethics