China becoming an open book?

Washington wins an agreement for Chinese firms listed on U.S. capital markets to be audited on high standards of transparency and honesty.

Women leave a Luckin Coffee shop in Beijing. The chain's lies about its revenue iin 2019 helped lead to a U.S.-China pact on auditing of Chinese firms on U.S. financial markets.

Despite a global spread of disinformation, democracies still rely on the ability of their people to discern the truth – and to use it wisely. That spirit lies behind an agreement, forged by the United States with China last week, to ensure that Chinese companies listed on U.S. capital markets are honest about their financial data – even if their government in Beijing remains a secretive autocracy.

The U.S. was able to wrestle China into allowing American regulators to check the audits – and auditors – of Chinese enterprises whose stock is traded on Wall Street. The first on-site investigations of U.S.-listed companies start in mid-September. In a sign of how difficult it is for Beijing to tolerate transparency, five Chinese state-owned enterprises recently withdrew from the New York Stock Exchange.

Home to the world’s deepest, most liquid capital markets, the U.S. learned the hard way that discerning investors want open books on corporations, not cooked books. The 2002 corporate scandals at Enron and WorldCom, which led to the fall of accounting firm Arthur Andersen, resulted in reforms that require the inspection of the audit firms of U.S.-listed companies. More than 50 countries have complied with the reform.

China, along with Hong Kong, were the final holdouts. In 2019, after Chinese chain Luckin Coffee Inc., which was listed on Nasdaq, was found to have lied about its revenue, the U.S. decided to demand audit access to similar Chinese firms.

More than 200 Chinese companies are listed on U.S. stock exchanges. Failure to comply with the new U.S. scrutiny would result in them being delisted, depriving China of access to critical investment and the American economy.

The U.S. worries, however, that China’s ruling Communist Party, which keeps close tabs on large Chinese companies, might try to block the U.S. auditor watchdog – the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board – from certain types of corporate information. “The proof will be in the pudding,” said Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Gary Gensler.

For years, China’s government has struggled with transparency in its official statistics. “The problem of statistical data fraud is still relatively prominent,” China’s National Bureau of Statistics admitted in March. The government has bowed to investors in the country’s financial markets with some reforms that require accurate financial data in Chinese companies. But skepticism remains high about the degree of transparency.

Democracy may be far off in China. But a democratic spirit – in which citizens seek honest data about investments – is driving Beijing toward institutional integrity, starting with truth in data.

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