Despite numerous attempts to restrict market research and social survey organisations in the name of 'protecting state secrets', Beijing's efforts are failing. Following a period in the early 1990s, when market research companies were courted to bring their expertise to China, the government has tried to clamp down on private-sector research firms can collect and disseminate information that makes them look bad. Authorities in April last year announced that only China's State Statistical Bureau (SSB) would be permitted to release national government statistics, in the name of protecting national security and standardising the information the world has about China. 'Non-governmental and local survey organisations are unauthorised to conduct national market research and are even less authorised to release national statistical information,' was the chilling statement of Wang Jiping, director of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. This was a precursor to the onerous August 1999 'Provisional Measures on the Management of Foreign-Related Social Survey Activities', which forbade research companies from asking questions that duplicated statistical surveys conducted by the government. 'What we want to rectify with the regulations are surveys that are harmful to state security and the public interest,' said Xiong Zhennan, director-general of the SSB's policy and regulations department. The regulation made people in the market research industry wince, because it exacerbated rather than solved many of the statistical problems in China, fueling censorship, corruption and skewed numbers. 'We worry about whether the numbers are screened or filtered by the government. The government could screen out figures and research that are very critical to our business,' said Frances Zheng, senior business analyst for Anheuser-Busch in Shanghai. In practical terms, the rules meant that key statistical information on income, which is essential for companies trying to ascertain pricing structures or production targets in a region, would be unavailable or unreliable at best. The August 1999 measures also stipulated that each survey's scope, content, timeframe and any alterations midway had to be pre-approved by the SSB. The SSB would be allowed to delete any information considered 'sensitive'. Worse was the requirement that findings had to be reported to the government first, violating one of the key ethical issues of market research that results only be revealed to the client. This restriction raised numerous fears that information could leak out of the back door to help bolster lagging domestic firms, fuelling both the competition and a black market rampant with counterfeit and pirated merchandise. 'We fear whether the findings of surveys will actually remain proprietary and confidential or whether they will be vetted or at least made available to the competition,' said Richard Burkholder, director of worldwide operations for Gallup. In July this year, the SSB said it was 'opening its doors' to foreign market-research companies, by issuing licences to 19 domestic and 10 foreign firms for the exclusive right to operate on the mainland. While disguised as a reform, this was another attempt to impose a heavy hand on the free flow of information. The government has had little need to alter the surveys presented to them, as many organisations report they now self censor to avoid bureaucratic delays. Many have also reduced the geographical scope of their studies, to avoid seeking permission from each province they conduct research in. But despite all these restrictions, the Internet has become a new vehicle for social studies that the government cannot control. One example is www.planetproject.com , where anyone can register his or her opinions on a range of social and political issues, in numerous languages including Chinese, and compare them with people from all over the world. Chinese have logged on to this site funded by Oracle, AT&T, Sun Microsystems, 3Com and Harris Interactive, freely answering questions that would almost certainly never make it past SSB censors. Such questions include, 'Are you proud of the country of which you are a citizen?' (71 per cent of Chinese said they were) and 'Would you switch your race if you knew you could not switch it back?' (57 per cent of Chinese say they would). Even if the government were to decide to block access to this site, there are hundreds of other online surveys that Chinese can log onto. Many also offer cash incentives, such as www.opinion site.com, www.ithink.com and www.questions.net . An equally strong counterweight to the government's restrictions has been its own need to spur foreign investment. The EU scored a major victory in this regard by bringing the issue of market research to the table when it negotiated China's entry to the World Trade Organisation. 'The Chinese decree imposing extremely burdensome requirements that might affect the confidentiality of market research reports will be substantially amended. Reports will no longer be pre-examined by Chinese authorities before being given to the client, but firms will merely have to send copies of questionnaires to the authorities, not the replies or results,' read the EU text of the negotiations. Only time will tell if the government will now invoke new draconian legislation to counterbalance these WTO concessions or the availability of uncensored surveys on the Internet. However, in the desire to 'protect national security', the government cannot forget that China's untapped market remains attractive to investors only so long as they can accurately assess it.