CSj talks to one of mainland China’s most respected corporate governance experts, Professor Li Weian, President of Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, about what kind of corporate governance culture will emerge in mainland China in the years ahead

With the rapid pace of development of the Chinese economy, the increasing internationalisation of businesses and the growth in the number of companies listed overseas, improving corporate governance has become key to the effective operation of mainland enterprises.

Professor Li Weian, President of Dongbei University of Finance and Economics, says that mainland China is improving fast in corporate governance, but must further enhance its governance philosophy in order to fare better under increasingly stringent market regulation. Professor Li Weian is a leading researcher in enterprise management and corporate governance in mainland China. He has been the Dean of the Business School of Nankai University and Director of the Research Centre for Corporate Governance at Nankai University, and has deep insight into the governance challenges currently faced by enterprises. He has contributed significantly to raising the standard of corporate governance in mainland China. His research is remarkable in both depth and breadth, covering areas from governance of local companies to governance in multinational companies, and from governance structures to governance mechanisms.

According to Professor Li, the development of his research has followed economic and corporate developments in the PRC. Currently his focus is on what he sees as a paradigm shift of corporate governance, that is, the shift from executive-led to market-driven governance. Some countries and regions, including Hong Kong, are more advanced in corporate governance than the mainland, which has only been catching up in recent years. In general, the company law and the governance structure of legal entities in China combine the characteristics of different models, including those in Britain and the US as well as those in the European continent, giving rise to a unique system of its own. An example is the adoption of the supervisory board system under continental law as well as the concept of the independent director, in the hope of enhancing governance by combining the strengths of both worlds.

‘There is the issue of duplication of functions here,’ says Professor Li. ‘The solution is to define the roles clearly. The board of directors and the supervisory board must be distinct in their roles, they should not take charge of the same things. We suggest enhancing the role of the independent director in the board of directors in overseeing the soundness of the decisions of the board, while the supervisory board should focus more on compliance. Then their respective roles will be clear.

‘Our concern now is not only the conflict between the two but also the independence of the monitoring role. It would be difficult for the supervisory board to exercise independent monitoring if it comprises internal staff only. We should move towards external supervision by a pluralistic board. In view of the existence of different interested parties and their interrelationship, it is of utmost importance to reduce conflicts and put in place checks and balances in the form of independent monitoring. Only by doing so will the company be able to implement its decisions effectively and enhance its values.’

Towards a new governance culture

Since 2001, Professor Li and his team have been publishing the Chinese corporate governance index. This helps asses the implementation of corporate governance principles in China and appraise corporate governance performance, contributing to the research into governance needs and to raising the standard of governance. He says that a new governance culture has emerged among PRC enterprises. In the past, they didn’t take market rules as seriously. Now they are more aware of the importance of compliance and accountability.

‘Corporate governance involves the practice of pluralism in governance and the harmonisation of different interested parties’ diverse needs. The key is how to reach a consensus. Furthermore, governance is an ongoing process. There is the misconception among some companies that restructuring for listing is a one-off exercise involving the setting up of an office, and everything will be over after the restructuring. This is not right. We must bear in mind that corporate governance is there as long as the company is running. Business failures occur even in developed countries like the US, where financial market systems are mature. Look at the Enron incident in 2003 and the demise of Lehman Brothers in 2008, and you will realise the importance of corporate governance.’

Corporate governance is necessary in any organisation, he adds. It is relevant not only to companies but also to non-profitmaking bodies, such as universities, hospitals and governments. Stock exchanges on the mainland are restructuring themselves from a membership structure to a corporate structure and are even about to apply for listing, and the issue of governance is just as relevant here. State-owned enterprises restructured themselves and became listed, and a lot of private companies emerged. Many Chinese companies have listings in mainland China, Hong Kong and the US. Although there are problems in some companies, the governance standard has generally become much higher as compared with the situation before restructuring and listing.

Improving the quality of companies

Professor Li believes that the Chinese corporate governance index demonstrates that the corporate governance of Chinese companies has been improving continuously since 2001. The index dropped slightly after the financial crisis in 2009. In general, the process of restructuring and listing raises the governance standards of state-owned enterprises. Corporate governance in privately-owned companies has also been continuously improving, especially for companies on China’s secondary and SME boards. These companies have in fact exceeded companies on the main board in terms of their corporate governance achievements. Why is that so? In general, the secondary and SME boards are relatively new and, in view of their risk level, they are subject to more stringent regulatory requirements. As a result, they tend to perform better in their compliance after becoming listed.

In developing its corporate governance principles and practices, mainland China has drawn much on Hong Kong’s experience. Professor Li agrees that the standard of corporate governance in Hong Kong is higher, but points out that the mainland is improving fast since it is refining its regulation and raising the standard of corporate practices. Although it is still some way behind Hong Kong, the gap is gradually narrowing.

‘The history of corporate governance in the PRC is short. Many companies go public in the US, Hong Kong or other overseas markets, and complying with the listing rules of these markets is a big challenge. Some listed companies have got into trouble and replaced many members of their senior management. But this is less common in unlisted companies, so this raises the question of whether the governance of listed companies has deteriorated.’

Professor Li says that this impression is misguided. Listed companies have to comply with very stringent requirements, particularly on information disclosure and accountability while companies that have not gone public do not have to comply with these rules. With the tightening up of listing requirements, the corporate governance of mainland listed enterprises has improved, not deteriorated.

Professionalisation of board secretaries

Regarding the development of the corporate secretary (or board secretary, as it is called on the mainland) profession, Professor Li says that the role of the board secretary in listed companies in China is generally taken up by managerial staff at, or above, the level of vice-president – higher than that of company secretaries in Hong Kong. Practically, corporate governance is achieved through the work of the board secretary. The board secretary is the spokesperson of the company and the gatekeeper of governance, standing at the forefront of governance. Often the board secretary has to convince the board and the chairman of the right way forward in compliance with rules and regulations, and has to maintain good communication with management, shareholders and regulatory authorities.

‘The work of the board secretary is gaining attention on the mainland, but there isn’t an organisation like the HKICS to coordinate and facilitate the operation of the profession and enhance training and professional development. I trust that this will gradually improve and board secretaries will perform their role better.

‘At present, the position of board secretary is largely seen as a step to promotion or to higher positions in other companies, it has not been developed into a position in which individuals can stay long. We should make the work of the board secretary more professional and enhance the professional recognition of the board secretary position and we should also centralise training for board secretaries.’

Professor Li points out that the board secretary is a new position arising from the need for compliance with listing requirements. It is an unfamiliar profession in mainland China and many people still don’t quite understand what the position involves. Further publicity and education is necessary and the development of the profession will take time. Already much greater importance is attached to the work of the board secretary and the position is now held by members of senior management. Going forward, Professor Li believes it will become more professional, it will no longer be a position that can be filled by anybody since the job is too complex to be carried out by someone who has simply passed an examination. Competent board secretaries must have diverse qualities, he adds. They should have expertise in compliance and law, good communication skills and sound financial knowledge. The fulfillment of the role of the board secretary is conducive to effective governance and enhancing governance standards.

The shift towards market-driven governance

One interesting trend in corporate regulation in mainland China in recent years has been the shift away from a top down approach to supervising companies. The creation of a national listed company association – the China Association for Public Companies (CAPCO) – in February this year was certainly a major development in mainland China’s new quest to encourage more self-regulation within companies.

Professor Li supports the establishment of CAPCO. He believes that CAPCO provides a bridge between listed companies, regulatory authorities and the government, and will provide the market with examples of good practices. In his opinion, CAPCO can expedite the shift away from executive-led governance in the PRC market and enhance the quality of listed companies, promoting good corporate governance culture.

‘On top of this, I think more should be done. The government is hesitant to liberalise the market, fearing that things will descend into chaos once control is relaxed. Therefore the establishment of a self-regulatory mechanism is highly significant. More should be done in this respect. As market reforms go on and the capital and securities markets develop, and with intermediary bodies functioning, the executive-led characteristics of the market will subside.

‘Talking about the general trend, executive-led governance will gradually give way to market-driven governance. But there may be fluctuations at times. During the global financial crisis, for example, the financial market was in turmoil, the US suffered from economic recession, European countries were in serious debt problems, but financial institutions in China held out. So some people became sceptical of systems that rely fully on market-driven regulation, and even found the executive interventionist policy of China desirable. In fact, PRC financial institutions survived the global financial crisis because risks had been contained by stricter internal and external governance requirements after they had restructured themselves and gone public. We can’t say that this is a result of the interventionist policy.’

Professor Li says that the executive-led governance model originally adopted in mainland China was largely centralised in nature. The current shift towards pluralistic market-driven governance brings about great changes. As China develops, it has been moving away from a planned economy. Reforms have changed the old order of things. Companies going to list overseas have to comply with listing requirements, in other words, to interface with the international market. The shift from executive-led governance to market-driven governance involves a fundamental change in governance philosophy. It also means curtailing the powers of executive departments and affects vested interests. Great efforts have to be made in order for governance reform to be successful. Finally, corporate governance relies on the rule of law, or compliance with rules and regulations. We have to move from rule of man to rule of law, implement governance step by step, do things according to the law and regulations, and eliminate companies that do not do well.

Kenneth Ko, Journalist

Professor Li Weian was interviewed during the Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Secretaries’ Corporate Governance Conference 2012, held on 5–6 October in the JW Marriott Hotel, Hong Kong. 

隨著中國經濟快速的發展步伐,企業國際化進程勢頭強 勁,在海外上市的公司數目與日俱增,改善公司治理已 成為內地企業有效運作的一大關鍵。現任東北財經大學校長李 維安教授指出,內地企業在公司治理上提升速度很快,但仍必 須進一步強化治理理念,才能在日益嚴格的市場規則監管下做 得更好。

李維安教授是研究內地企業集團管理和公司治理的代表者,歷 任南開大學商學院院長及南開大學公司治理研究中心主任,對 當前企業面臨的治理環境變化和挑戰,有著真知灼見。他多年 來在這方面的研究不遺餘力,對提升內地公司管治的標準貢獻 極大。而且,研究內容既深且廣,最初重點在於公司管治的理 論,然後往實務轉,從治理原則到治理政策,以至治理的評 價。同時,研究在傳統的公司治理基礎上不斷延伸,從國內治 理到跨國治理,從治理結構到治理機制。

李維安教授說,研究總是跟隨著內地經濟和企業的發展,而當 前的重點就是公司治理的轉型,如何從行政型的公司治理往經 濟型轉。就公司治理來說,一些國家和地區包括香港都走在內 地前面,中國的治理改革這些年才慢慢的趕上來。一般來說, 中國的《公司法》和法人治理結構,特色是把不同形式包括英 美模式和大陸模式相容並蓄,發展成自己獨特的制度。就像內 地採用了大陸法系的監事會制度,同時把獨立董事制度吸收進 來,想融合兩者的優勢來加強監督。

李維安教授說:「這里有一個功能重疊問題,解決的辦法就是 把分工分好。董事會和監事會的監督職能要明確清楚,不能都 管同樣的事。我們提倡董事會強化獨立董事的角色,主要傾向 於對董事會決策正確與否的監督,而監事會的監督更多於是否 合規合法,這樣就可以各司其職。」

「目前,我們擔心的不僅是兩者之間的摩擦,而且是監督的獨 立性問題。如果監事會都是由內部人組成的話,這很難發揮獨 立監督的作用,發展的方向是多元的外部監督。在公司管治 上,面對不同的利益體和利益關系,最重要的是通過獨立性監 督,互相制衡,減少摩擦,才能順利推行公司決策,提升公司 的價值。」

新的管治文化

從2001年起,李維安教授和其率領的團隊一直在發布「中國公 司治理指數」,該系統有利於檢查中國公司治理準則的執行情 況,為公司治理估價,進一步探究具體治理需要及改善治理水 平。他指出,內地企業通過公司管治形成新的管治文化,由原 來對市場游戲規則不太重視,不太遵從,到現在合規意識和問 責意識都加強了。

「公司治理的理念,是管治體現多元化,把不同的利益體及不 同的利益需求融合起來,關鍵是你怎麼讓大家達成共識。另 外,治理是一個過程,有些企業誤以為改製上市只是成立一個 辦公室,改製之後就完事了,這樣做很不對。大家要明白,只 要有公司運作,公司治理就存在。」

「即使像美國這樣的發達國家,擁有成熟的金融市場體系, 還是有公司出問題。像2003年的Enron事件,2008年雷曼兄弟 (Lehman Brothers)倒閉,引發全球金融危機,大家就可以理解 公司治理的重要性。」

李維安教授說,任何組織都需要治理。現在不光是公司搞治 理,非營利組織包括大學、醫院和政府也搞治理。就如內地的 證券交易所也面臨改製,要由原來的會員制發展成公司制甚至 是上市公司,這里也有治理問題。從公司管治來說,國有企業 通過改製上市,大量民營企業也發展起來,而眾多內地企業在 國內、香港及美國等地上市,雖然有一些企業出現問題,但總 體上,與改製上市之前相比,治理水平都已提升了許多。

企業質素不斷攀升

李維安教授說,「中國公司治理指數」對內地公司治理評價 顯示,從2001年開始基本上持續改善,只是2009年金融危機 以後指數稍為下滑微調。一般國有企業改製上市,治理都更 加規範,而民營企業的治理水平也不斷提升,特別是新發展 的創業板和中小企業板的公司在治理上更超越了主板的上市 公司。為什麼?總體上,創業板和中小板是新近開發的,考 慮到風險問題,對它們的監管要求相對高一些,所以上市以 後在合規方面表現好一些。

李維安教授說,「中國公司治理指數」對內地公司治理評價 顯示,從2001年開始基本上持續改善,只是2009年金融危機 以後指數稍為下滑微調。一般國有企業改製上市,治理都更 加規範,而民營企業的治理水平也不斷提升,特別是新發展 的創業板和中小企業板的公司在治理上更超越了主板的上市 公司。為什麼?總體上,創業板和中小板是新近開發的,考 慮到風險問題,對它們的監管要求相對高一些,所以上市以 後在合規方面表現好一些。

「內地搞公司治理的時間尚短,而這麼多企業到美國、香港 或其他海外市場上市,要符合當地的上市規則要求,確是很 大的考驗。有人說,一些上市公司出了問題,換了那麼多高 級管理人員,不上市的公司反而沒有這情況,就提出了這麼 一個問題,上市公司的治理是不是越搞越差?」

李維安教授指出,這些說法都錯了,因為上市公司面對很嚴 謹的要求,包括信息披露失真,都要問責,不上市的企業不 需要遵守這些規則。所以,在越趨嚴謹的上市要求下,內地 企業的管治並沒有往下倒,而是往上提升。

內地董秘發展要專業化

談到公司秘書即內地所稱的董事會秘書這個專業的發展,他 說,內地董秘一般在上市公司都是由副總以上職級的管理人 才擔任,地位一般比香港的為高。實際上,就是把公司治理 通過他的工作落實,董秘是公司的發言人,也是治理的看門 人,站在治理的第一線。董秘往往要說服董事會和董事長如 何做到合規的要求,也要和管理層、股東以及監管部門維持 良好溝通。

「董秘的工作在內地越來越受到重視,但缺少像香港特許秘 書公會這樣的組織,協調及促進行業的運作,提升有關學 習、培訓和專業發展,相信在這方面會逐漸完善,更好地發 揮作用。」

「目前,董秘一職很大程度上被視為一個階梯,乾一段時 間就被提拔或上別的公司去擔當更高的職位,總體上還沒 有成為一種可以長期乾的崗位。我們要讓董秘的工作更專 業化,進一步加強董秘專業認可地位,而培訓工作也要統 一起來。」

李維安教授說,由於董秘是伴隨著上市合規要求而出現的新 崗位,在內地仍算是頗陌生的行業,很多人還不很明白,需 要進一步宣傳教育。而董秘的發展需要一個過程,從開始不 被重視,到重視其工作並由高管擔任,再發展下去,將會更 專業化,不是隨便什麼人都可以做,也不是說簡單的考考試 就可以勝任。要當一個稱職的董秘,需要具備多方面的素 質,不但要掌握合規和法律的技能,還要有溝通的技巧,也 要懂得財務方面的知識。通過董秘的稱職工作有利於提高和 達到治理的有效性。

往經濟型治理轉

對於中國上市公司協會的成立,李維安教授深表贊同,形容 協會是上市公司、監管部門和政府之間的橋梁,一方面加強 與政府監管方面的服務,一方面可以促進上市公司自律約 束,形成行業之間的良好行為。他說,這樣一個組織,可以 促進內地市場「去行政化」的發展進程,同時提高上市公司 的質量,推廣公司管治好的文化。

「在這個基礎上,我覺得應該還要進一步落實。政府很多方 面都不敢放,怕一放就亂,那麼行業自律,自我約束機制的 建立,當中的意義很大,應該在這個平臺上再多做一點。隨 著市場化的改革,資本和證券市場的發展,類似中間組織作 用的發揮,行政主導的角色就會大步退出。」

「總體趨勢來說,行政型治理將會趨弱,經濟型治理得以加 強。但是,有時候或許有反復,就以全球金融危機為例,金 融市場翻天覆地,美國經濟衰退,歐洲國家陷入嚴重債務問 題,而中國金融機構挺過去了。於是,有些人對完全市場 監管的制度產生懷疑,甚至反過來說中國的行政乾預政策可 取。其實,內地金融機構能夠挺過全球金融危機,有賴改製 上市後在更高要求的內外管治下,把風險控制下來,並不能 說這是乾預制度所致。」

李維安教授說,內地原來的行政型治理往往是一元化的,現 在正往多元化的經濟型治理轉,帶來了巨大的變化。中國的 發展一路從計劃經濟走出來,改革把原有的框框打破了,現 在眾多企業到海外上市,要合規即與國際市場接軌,這要有 一定的過程。從行政型治理往經濟型治理走,其中涉及治理 理念的根本改變,也意味著行政部門的權力要受到限制,當 中涉及既得利益的改變,真的要加倍努力去乾,才能使治理 改革闖關成功。最後,公司管治要落實到法治,按規辦事。 就是從人治往法治走的路,要逐步把治理落到實處,凡事依 法依規執行,把做得不好的公司淘汰。

高錦堅 (記者)

 

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