Accountants have to figure out what is happening in a company, and the difference between Western and Chinese practices makes that often hard, says Paul Gillis, accounting professor at Peking University, and author of the leading website ChinaAccountingBlog to Young China Watchers.
Young China Watchers:
YCW: You have a wealth of experience as a certified public accountant (CPA) across many countries. At a high level, is there anything specific that analysts and observers should take into account when trying to understand financial statements and general business practices in China?
PG: One of the biggest challenges has been adapting Western accounting and auditing practices to Chinese business practices, where personal relationships can overshadow contracts and laws. In the West, internal controls often rely on the separation of duties on the premise that it is hard to get two employees to agree to commit a fraud. What we found in China is that the existence of 关系(guanxi) relationships between actors often overrode controls. There was a big problem with bank confirmations. A standard audit practice is for the auditor to ask the bank to confirm the bank account balances of clients. In China, it proved not very difficult for many companies to lean on the bank branch manager to confirm a false balance. Auditors needed to find other ways to audit to overcome these problems, but there were many frauds in the meantime.
YCW: A lot has been said about Beijing’s intention to open up China’s financial sector. How do you see this impacting the audit industry? Have you observed any broad trends recently as a result of the latest round of market reforms?
PG: Accounting is not directly affected by the opening up of the financial sector. Foreign accounting firms in China are structured like the firms elsewhere in the world: Local partners own the local firm. There has always been a lot of talk about allowing foreigners to own interests in local accounting firms—they already can, but the biggest obstacle is passing China’s CPA exam, which is the toughest in the world! It actually makes sense for local partners to own and operate the firms in China. They have local expertise and since most of them are now local Chinese, they better understand the cultural aspects of doing business.
YCW: A lack of transparency has always concerned investors and lenders in China, perhaps unjustifiably so. While the perception is changing, can you identify any obvious steps to be taken at the state and firm levels to speed up this process, or has all the low-hanging fruit been picked?
PG: Disclosures of public companies in China, particularly those listed abroad are pretty extensive. The greatest difficulty often lies in opaque ownership structures where it is hard to figure out who is ultimately in control.
One thing I have observed is that Chinese companies often do not do things in the most straightforward manner. For example, it is not uncommon to put the ownership of companies in the names of friends or relatives. I guess that gives people plausible deniability if problems come up, but it often scares investors and business partners who think they are trying to hide something. I think a lot of this is a legacy of earlier times when being a “capitalist roader” (走资派, zou zi pai) was a bad thing.
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