Corporate governance (gongsi zhili) is a concept whose time seems definitely to have come in China. Chinese definitions of corporate governance in the abstract tend to cover the system regulating relationships among all parties with interests in a business organization, usually spelling out shareholders as a particularly important group (e.g., Liu, 1999; Yin, 1999). But Chinese corporate governance discourse in practice focuses almost exclusively on agency problems and within only two types of firms: state-owned enterprises (SOEs), particularly after their transformation into one of the corporate forms provided for under the Company Law,1 and listed companies, which must be companies limited by shares (CLS) under the Company Law. This article discusses Chinese corporate governance in this narrow sense and attempts to explain some perplexing features of its discourse, laws, and institutions (abbreviated hereinafter as ‘‘corporate governance laws and institutions’’ or CGLI).
A fundamental dilemma of Chinese CGLI stems from the state policy of maintaining a full or controlling ownership interest in enterprises in several sectors. The state wants the enterprises it owns to be run efficiently, but not solely for the purpose of wealth maximization. If the state owned simply for the purpose of maximizing the economic value of its holdings, there would be no need for a policy mandating state ownership of enterprises. If the enterprise would be worth more managed by another, the state should seek a share of that increased value by selling. A policy of wealth maximization for the state requires simply that the state acquire, maintain, or relinquish control according to whatever will realize the most wealth for the state.
Because the Chinese government clearly does not have such a policy, it follows that a necessary element of state control of an enterprise must be the use of that control for purposes other than the maximization of its wealth as a shareholder–purposes such as the maintenance of urban employment levels, direct control over sensitive industries, or politically motivated job placement.
This in turn creates several problems. First, many of these goals are not easily measured and there is no obvious way of balancing them one against the other. This creates monitoring difficulties. Second, the policy of continued state involvement sets up a conflict of interest between the state as controlling shareholder and other shareholders. In using its control for purposes other than value maximization, the state exploits minority shareholders who have no other way to benefit from their investment.
The major theme of this article is that the state wants to make SOEs operate more efficiently by subjecting them to a new and different set of rules—the rules of organization under the ‘‘modern enterprise system.’’ This is what the policy of corporatization is chiefly about. Policymakers then find, however, that they must change and adjust the rules to take account of continuing state ownership. Moreover, the need to provide for the special circumstances of state sector enterprises ends up hijacking the entire Company Law so that instead of state sector enterprises being made more efficient by being forced to follow the rules for private sector enterprises (the original ambition), potential private sector enterprises are hamstrung by having to follow rules that make sense only in a heavily stateinvested economy.
Finally, corporate governance is about more than simply getting the rules right. The necessary supporting institutions must be present as well. Yet as I will argue, their existence in China cannot always be taken for granted.
14 China Econ. Rev. 494 (2003).