Responsa: The Influence of Business on Government

Hutong West
Shivering in SoCal
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In response to my article “Standards of Influence,” an old friend and fellow China PR executive raised his hand to offer a gentle objection. While agreeing with the premise, he suggested that if commercial interest disclose their efforts, won’t the public sector put up resistance to their input, as it would be seen as bowing to foreign interests. He further suggested that there might be circumstances when it would be best to allow such processes to take place behind close doors.

This is a fair point, and needs to be addressed.

The combination of popular sentiment, social media watchdogs, and the Party’s desire to short-circuit the cycle of corruption is fostering greater transparency in China around the influence that companies (especially multinationals) try to exert on political decisions. Companies caught trying to change the rules in their favor are finding their operations subject to greater official scrutiny, and officials who appear to have taken part in such discussions are being investigated (or worse) with greater regularity. The potential downsides of the process are starting to outweigh the potential benefits.

This does not mean businesses cannot or should not have a voice in public decision making. Indeed, the wise regulator seeks the open input of a wide range of stakeholders, and businesses owe it to their own stakeholders to stand up and be counted. But when that voice is cloaked, the slope to malfeasance and corruption steepens and is carpeted with bacon grease. Sunlight ensures that the role of commerce in the process serves the public good as well as the private interest.

This means that those of us who operate at the nexus between industry and government in China cannot rely on the time-tested tools of government influence. We must chart a new path that is radically transparent yet equally (if not more) effective. That is a very narrow bridge to walk, and will require a great deal of imagination even in those cases where there is a high congruence between the needs of the nation and the desires of the merchant.

Yet it is critical for us to do so – and not only in China. Around the world there is a growing distaste for (and pushback against) the role that commercial interests play in the formulation of policy. Indeed, China has a deep ideological bias against such interactions. To continue to act as if these sentiments are irrelevant is aught more than denial.

Certainly, there will always be situations where it is better for all – including the public at large – for government discussions with industry to take place behind closed doors. But we should take for granted that in most cases, secrecy does not serve the public, and companies should thus shy from such approaches. If the mounting social and environmental costs of China’s development offer proof of nothing else, it is for the virtue of public scrutiny.

For a company to have real influence in policy in the future, it must first carry the burden of proof that the policies it is advocating are in the service of the public interest. Public relations people should encourage this: not only does this eliminate for companies the risk of later disclosure and the implication of impropriety, it also serves as prima facie proof of good corporate citizenship.