The Financial Times ran a front page piece last Monday claiming that China has ordered a ban on state-owned companies using Western management consulting companies. It is alleged by senior Chinese sources that 'foreigners use their consulting companies to find out everything they want about our state companies'. Beijing's solution will be its usual kind of import-substitution strategy, the 'setting up (of) a team of Chinese domestic consultants who are particularly focused on information systems in order to seize back this power from the foreign companies'.
I'm forever hearing gripes about consultants leaking secrets and transferring knowledge between clients. But this is a far more serious charge, and the insinuation is clear. When China is accused of pursuing commerce backed by shadowy state espionage, it will throw the book right back.
Less sensational, but potentially more troubling, was a decision by a Hong Kong court last Friday rejecting Ernst & Young's plea that it could not give Hong Kong's regulator the audit working papers for a mainland company seeking to list here. Sensing danger, Ernst & Young argued its client's information was a Chinese 'state secret'.
International accountants can no longer function freely in China. Beijing's Ministry of Finance is proposing new rules that may banish foreign (and Hong Kong) auditors (including non-local personnel from the Big Four) from the mainland. Just as Hong Kong brokers complain of being restricted in China, this confrontation may 'spell doom for Hong Kong accountants…because of Beijing's discriminatory policy'.
This issue has been brewing for years. The US regulator (SEC) recently censured the Big Four for withholding 'secret' audit documents of Chinese clients listed in America. The SEC made the same argument as its counterpart here in Hong Kong: if Chinese companies wish to list overseas, then foreign agencies need inspection rights in order to ensure financial propriety and to protect investors.
At one level, this is simply a regulatory dispute, albeit a pretty nasty one. The formidable Paul Gillis at Peking University reckons things could get worse, and there are a lot of other accounting problems that China and outsiders can squabble over. But it's about far more than counting beans. This is a high level contest between financial systems and, essentially, power.
I have commented before about China's dissatisfaction with the global monetary system. China is not an obstructive power. It is, in its way, a committed member of the current economic order. It has strong support at the UN. But it is hedging too, working assiduously to create alternative financial systems to the established ones.
Last month, Beijing inaugurated the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a direct challenger to the Asian Development Bank, which is based in Manila and sponsored mainly by the US and Japan. Neither country was invited to join the AIIB. Nor was India. China's finance minister Lou Jiwei notes that Beijing's own China Development Bank already 'is far bigger than the ADB and World Bank combined'. AIIB is touted as a multilateral 'Asian-led' agency. But much, if not most, of the funding will be Chinese. As one researcher said: 'Now China has the ability to show the real money'.
After the desperately poor showing of the Western credit rating agencies in foreseeing the US sub-prime mortgage crisis, China has since promoted its own. One of them, Dagong, gleefully downgraded America's sovereign rating last year. The same thing is happening with central bank support agreements, trade agreements, and security partnerships: Beijing is creating a parallel architecture of global governance to the US-led one. Its financial otherworld is both complementary and competitive.
So why does a seemingly obscure and technical contest over ratings and accounting standards matter? Because in the realm of financial capital, the underlying coin is trust. The Big Four accountants stamp an imprimatur of financial good housekeeping. They present a respected and established version, however imperfect, of verity, and are trusted by investors. It is notable that Alibaba, shortly to list in New York, employs a Hong Kong Big Four auditor, even as virtually 100% of its operations are with the PRC. China is challenging this convention; it wants to define its own alternative domestic benchmarks of financial trust that one day may become the global gold standard. In the future, 'truth' may be as the Chinese state deems it.
Foreigners may doubt Beijing's ability to create a fundamentally different global discourse. Yet there is reason to believe that in the economic realm, its endeavour will succeed. The finance industry abides by a cynical principle called the 'golden rule': he who has the gold makes the rules. If China continues its rise in relative economic power yet is frustrated by the international ABCs (accountants, bankers and consultants), it will replace them with its own.