China is often the subject of
unfavorable stories about ethics in its business operations. For example, in March 2012, The New York Times highlighted a feature
about Foxconn Technology Group, a company operating in China which, among other
things, had unsafe working conditions, forced labor, overcrowded dormitories
and did not pay a living wage.
It would be a mistake,
however, to characterize China as disinterested in business ethics and
corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Business ethics and CSR in China are a work in progress and while they
still have a way to go, Chinese companies are moving fast.
As a member of the
three-person Board of Directors of the United Nations Global Compact
Foundation, I have been especially interested in business ethics and CSR in
China. Founded in 2000 by the then-UN
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN Global Compact (UNGC) is intended to
increase and diffuse the benefits of global economic development through
voluntary corporate policies and programs.
By promoting human rights, labor rights, enhancing care for the
environment and encouraging anticorruption measures, the 10 principles of the
Global Compact are designed to facilitate more just societies. In addition to integrating the 10 principles
into their strategic plan, companies are also asked to take on projects that
advance UN goals, for example, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to
overcome poverty. Initially comprising
several dozen companies, the compact as of 2013 had over 7,000 businesses and
1,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 135 countries.
I am convinced that the Global
Compact is the best initiative that can address the major challenge posed by
globalization: developing a consensus on
global ethical norms. The United Nations
with its visibility, global reach, universality, neutrality and convening power
is considered legitimate and with more than 100 local networks of the UNGC
operating almost everywhere, there are channels for crucial dialogue readily
available. Through the process of
persuasion, discussion and arguing about practices—such as those related to
sweatshops or climate change, for example—the norms and values that enable
global governance are internalized and voluntary compliance of the UNGC
principles shapes the new CSR agenda.
As an “International Scholar”
in Asia for the 2012-13 academic year, I have learned much from the UNGC
members in China, where there is a relatively new UNGC local network. The Global Compact China Network, with 300-plus
member companies, consists of Chinese state-owned companies, private companies
and multinationals in China.
An example of Chinese concern
for ethical values was evidenced during a July Global Compact China Network meeting
in Beijing to address climate change and low-carbon development. With officials from the UN and the Chinese
Government, business leaders developed a significant proposal for joint action
against climate change. Following
international conventions on climate change, the meeting highlighted best
practices of Chinese companies and encouraged all business to begin lowering
greenhouse gas emissions.
The comments of a Chinese
official at a Global Compact China Network meeting offer a summary of the
country’s vision for the future. Peng
Huagang, the Director General of the Research Bureau of the Chinese State
Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC)
expressed it well. “The Global Compact
China Network will facilitate the communication and collaboration between
Chinese and foreign companies, helping Chinese companies to make a greater
contribution to the UN MDGs (Millennium Development Goals). I sincerely wish that the Global Compact
China Network will play a greater role to enhance corporate social
responsibility and international collaboration.”
The quote from Peng Huagang
contains a crucial message: the Chinese
are quite open to collaboration with foreign companies when it comes to ethics
and CSR. They do not appreciate Western
paternalism. China’s own philosophic
traditions, such as that of Confucius and Mozi, have much to offer when it
comes to responsibility and universal values.
Given time, I believe we will see leadership in this area coming from