Regular viewers of China Central Television's prime news programmes are often struck by a common scene: party bosses busily taking down notes whenever senior leaders espouse a new party line or policy change. The powerful image in these scenes reinforces a traditional trait of Chinese politics - one of a respected leader talking down to his deferential subordinates. So, it was a refreshing change when a few bold ethnic Chinese delegates at a Fortune Global Forum plenary session in Shanghai bombarded a minister in charge of economic policies with questions on why his ministry had been tardy in improving the environment for foreign investors. Just before the blunt questions were fired, State Development Planning Commission chief Zeng Peiyan had painted a rosy picture of the mainland economy and the bright prospects for foreign investors. 'China, marching into a new century, will be more opened,' Mr Zeng promised captains of industry from more than 300 of the world's most powerful companies. He went on: 'We welcome entrepreneurs of all countries to grasp the opportunity to continue your investment in China so as to realise mutual benefits, expand our co-operation, and create a beautiful future together.' Then came the first salvo: 'When can foreign companies compete on the same footing as domestic enterprises?' A good question, as foreign companies are often discriminated against. The minister spoke in generalities and said the eventual goal was to treat all domestic and foreign enterprises equally. Not much of an answer, but the questioner let him off the hook. Another delegate politely posed a sharp question: 'Mr Zeng, you just said the Chinese Government would like to increase investment in infrastructure development. 'On the other hand, the government has stated foreign investments exceeding US$30 million must be approved by your commission. 'Everyone knows one of the most difficult things about investing in China is to seek approval from your commission . . . the process is not transparent, and the time taken is long. 'Can you explain how the contradiction can be resolved?' Brilliant. The lack of transparency and accountability in the approval process for foreign investments is arguably the biggest headache bugging foreign investors, and if not resolved, will slow down foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows. Indications for the first eight months show FDI inflows will decline for the first time in 10 years. To lure more FDI was one reason Shanghai put up a grand show to impress the Fortune forum delegates. 'We are currently studying the possibility of improving and simplifying the approval process,' the minister said, adding the central government would devolve more regulatory power to local governments to approve bigger investment projects. He acknowledged the questioner's 'criticism of the commission's work' and promised to 'seriously improve our work'. Another questioner hit out in less polite terms about the length of time government agencies take to decide on various applications and complained about corruption in the process. The minister agreed there has been a lack of co-ordination between government agencies but said part of the problem was applicants sometimes providing inadequate information. But he had ordered his staff to respond to applications 'in the shortest possible time, but the shortest possible time has not been decided'. If only the industrial titans who attended the forum had been as outspoken, and addressed the key problems bugging their mainland operations - instead of fawning and flattering their hosts - they would have done themselves and their hosts a great service.