It’s hard to get accurate information about what’s really going on in China’s economy or its workplaces. This is a big problem for unions that need information about the companies they bargain with and the industries within which they operate. It’s also a problem for consumers who need to know about product safety and regulatory standards—as recent scandals involving contaminated pet food, toothpaste, and children’s toys make clear—and for environmental organizations, human rights advocates, and other watchdog NGOs—all of which play important roles in the civil societies of the industrialized world.
It’s easy to blame the Chinese government for the information gap. But corporations in China—both foreign and domestic—are as much or more to blame. While how much information corporations can keep secret from the public as “proprietary knowledge” is contested in every country, in China corporations have far exceeded acceptable bounds by creating a raw capitalism based on secrecy and short term advantage. This is at odds with the transparency needed for the rule of law and social accountability. If labor laws, product safety standards, and environmental regulations are to be enforced public access to a wide range of information is required.
Now pressure is building for more transparency. For instance, on a recent trip to China US labor leaders agreed to an information exchange with their Chinese counterparts—something that could serve as the basis for further cooperation between Chinese and non-Chinese unions. Some corporations are also questioning the corporate climate of secrecy and have even taken steps in the direction of transparency that could serve as the basis for a campaign by labor and civil society organizations to tear down the wall of secrecy that characterizes corporate business practices in China.