China needs to become a civil society in order to be a true global leader

By Guest Contributor
August 18, 2010

The following is a guest post by Pei Bin, director of China Partnership Development for BSR, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. The opinions expressed are her own.

At the recent Aspen Institute Socrates Summer Seminar, I attended the session “Soft-Power: U.S. Leadership in a Hardball World,” moderated by Joseph Nye, a professor of International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The session sparked my own reflections on the existence, or lack thereof, of soft power in China. While everyone at the Aspen Institute expressed strong and positive interest in China, the majority of the United States still views China as a threat.

As BSR’s President and CEO Aron Cramer once said: “One thing our countries have in common is that we see our weaknesses through the prism of the perceived power of the other country, and sometimes we lose sight of the balance between the two.”

As a Chinese national, China’s economic confidence is clear to me. But the country still lacks a strong global profile and image abroad, otherwise known as “soft power.”

China’s dramatic economic development — driven by top-down policy support and bottom-up entrepreneurship at all levels and across all regions — was achieved at the cost of cheap labor, environmental deterioration, and the exploitation of natural resources. Even though China has brought 500 million people out of poverty, the majority of the population is still living in remote, mountainous regions and fighting for daily survival.

The Chinese government needs to do a lot more to enable civil society development in China. For the past 30 years, the government has committed to further reforms to foster the development of trade associations and private foundations but with total control of the process.

Nonetheless, there is a growing space for civil society in China, as seen with the increase in the number of private foundations in the past several years. More than 1,800 foundations have already been established, and foundations have been growing at a rate of over 200 per year for the past three years. However, there is a lot more the government must do. As David Shambaugh said in a recent article in the International Herald Tribune, “China will not develop its soft power until it develops civil society.”

In order to help accomplish this, China also needs to provide more support and guidance for Chinese companies that want to expand their operations overseas. Currently, there are nearly 60,000 trade associations and chambers of commerce in China. Chinese trade associations need to play a bigger and more positive role in promoting voluntary standards of corporate social responsibility as an integral part of their effective management and operation through engagement of their member companies. This is a stark contrast to the EU trade associations and governments, which already actively support companies’ internationalization efforts.

Additionally, Chinese companies that go abroad need to step up their efforts to engage local communities and stakeholders in their countries of operation. Many of these international projects have been contracted out to construction companies that have no knowledge of community development or sustainable development and lack international management skills. While they have helped build hard infrastructure, such as roads and clinics in Africa, Afghanistan, and Peru, they have failed to empower local communities.

China is certainly an economic power when it comes to volume, but it definitely cannot be considered a powerful international leader without making more of a commitment to social leadership as well. Chinese companies need to focus more on the social return on investments that help drive positive social changes in local communities where they operate. Only then can China become a true global leader.


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I have to reply to this moronic response:

1. Any western countries had colonized Asia and Africa. Spain, US, Germay, French and many more. China has to go to third world countries to do it. Because all greedy western countries already RAPED most Asian and African countries in the past.

2. You don’t want to migrate to China? Many people chosen China as their education destiny then USA now. Especially now that US President Obama a good orator with NO substsance and performance.


China has no message to the world, and its image is not particularly appealing.

People buy made in China products because they’re cheap. These products don’t have the appeal of the French ‘chic’, the German ‘quality’, or the Japanese ’sophistication’.
Personally, I buy made in China, but I’m not comfortable knowing that the people who make these products are not being treated fairly by their employers, as well as by their own government.

China is supporting obnoxious regimes in Sudan and Iran, and other countries, without balancing it by anything positive, humanitarian, or ‘cool’ that anybody knows of.

Nobody outside China loves it the way people love America, because of America’s projected image as a free, open, fair and dynamic society.
Nobody wants to migrate to China, to the best of my knowledge.

Posted by yr2009 | Report as abusive

Posted by wanhart | Report as abusive

let me tell you what, most Chinese think that China is too much poorer than US, less democratic, and US is a great country, and American ppl are enjoying their liberty and freedom. US is the paradise, and most Chinese are cynical about CCP, but are using to be non-aggressive and humble to CCP and to US, etc, that’s historical nature of Chinese.
Actually, they wanna show friendship to American and they admire the way American live, even sorry American are suspicious and afraid of China power, mainly due to CCP, but not Chinese civilians.In fact, most ppl in China embarrass China is not a good friend to US, but they wanna be like JPN, UK,..

This is harley living in China.

Posted by harley.d | Report as abusive

China will never have soft power because it has a poor world image. It is seen as a fascist dictatorship with hostile intentions: destroying economies, destabilizing governments and getting under your skin. Secondly, the US inherited the world recognition and relationships conferred by the British empire – something China or Japan simply can’t. Third, China does not understand how to lead by consensus; it’s a dictatorship. The Chinese I know in Silicon Valley lack the demeanor, style or desire to be popular leaders. There are such leaders in Hong Kong but they have no political power.

You can’t just dream your way to world hegemony. You have to inherit it from the last great world empire, and China is the least likely country to do that. It does not have the image, the traditions, the world recognition, the institutions, even the language. If China wants power, she has to grab it. Mao would have known that.

Posted by sooku | Report as abusive

RE. the post by AustinUSA: It takes a lot of money, will power and organization to turn a weapon advantage into a military advantage. And you don’t become a leader by “standing up”. You become a leader by being liked. That may be hard for China’s leadership to comprehend.

Posted by sooku | Report as abusive

Americans are not ready to face the fact of falling from the world leading position. As a father of an US Navy officer and a naturalized US citizen, I really worry about our givernment. How long is it going to be run by those crooks, who only care about been elected or re-elected. Recently, I visited China. In a private dinner engagement, one of a business owner was asking me ” what is going on in your country? While we are moving to a capitalist way, you are going communist.” I was stuned and had nothing to say. He also mentioned two things which just showing how bad we are. Either we are not willing to admit it, or just simply don’t want to face it. He said “America was built by some smart lawyers who cared about the country two hundred some years ago. Now, America is going to be ruined by the smart lawyers as well.” “Protectionism made us so poor for the past. Americans are step on our footprints.”"Your government keep want us to increse our currency value because our products were too cheap. If we don’t sell you the cheap stuff, where could your middle class people to go buy $10.00 DVD players, and $5.00 t-shirt?” Deeeeep thoughts.

Posted by sjk168 | Report as abusive

China will never become global anything, leader or whatever. Europe and North America are global because they are open societies. People of all racial, ethnic, cultural etc. background move and integrate themselves there, even if they don’ speak host country language and share same values as the host nation. I can not imagine someone who is not Chinese-speaking and does not look Chinese integrate in Chinese society. As a matter of fact, Japan will never become global power for the same reason. China is going through industrial revolution, something that Europe went through in 19th century. Hopefully, it will increase standard of lives of ordinary people, not just increase GDP (BTW, USSR had great GDP, but ordinary people were starving).

Posted by shakro | Report as abusive

Reading through all the comments I see varied views and bi-faceted opinions mainly debating 1.China’s current Politics, which dictates its domestic affairs and its consequential relevancy with foreign nations, 2.its conflict history with surrounding nations, 3.comparison of the general state of law-entitled freedom and social living standard of China’s citizens to citizens of other modernized nations. Nearly all the comments holds partially accurate details, facts, and truth, but some lacks thorough hindsight at the core of its comment.
Now, I’m a Chinese citizen with a United States permanent residence card who spent most of my life in the USA, cultivated with a basic American education and currently living in China(the adverse state of economy in the USA has forced me, however reluctant I’m, to momentarily settle in China for employment), with parents that lived in China all their live, and now I would like to compare and share my opinions and perceived state of reality based on the years I spent in the USA and growing experiences living in China to the comments listed here.

From the local municipal’s slogans of city and towns I visited, the articles I read in newspapers, and news I watched on TV, its unmistakable that China’s current main political policy is domestic economic growth and the fortification of its central economic role aboard, China is clearly no longer passive in the game of global currency and its utilizing the influence of currency to its maximum efficiency. And the truth is, its policy is becoming a reality, rather or not if the methods are optimal; with modern highway infrastructures, banking infrastructures, education infrastructures, manufacturing facilities, commerce districts, malls, hospitals, all expanding accordingly to all areas of China and from it, I see the common citizen’s benefits in the economic growing spree. The modern China reacquainted and established relations with foreign nations of the world for slightly over 3 decades since the 1970′s, after experiencing over half a century of devastating civil wars and wars that crippled the very core of the Chinese Race, in such a brief time frame, along with tumultuous foreign relations events, China has moved from GDP no.81 to no.2 and not without a reason. With China open to trade and its available massive labor platform, businessmen of the west, in their quest to obtain maximum margin out of their products, have chosen China because of asymmetric currency values which leads to lower labor wages, cheaper supply cost, and overall manufacturing cost. This decision imported millions, and rising, of jobs to China from foreign nations. As for China’s method of approach on certain economic developments, I strongly advise on assuming the attitude of “spectator”. After all the Dutch Trading Empire or the New York Stock Exchange wasn’t created and perfected in one day, its over the course of over a century in both cases. The efficient standards and methods that mature economies enjoy today comes from learning hard lessons, don’t expect China to tumble any less lightly.

Like all modernizing nations, industrial pollution is unavoidable, USA has a few prime historical examples; the unimaginable pollution of lakes and rivers by Standard Oil in the late 1800′s, where a single lighted match can cost a fire “on” the lake or river, the year round smog resulting from industrial and automotive pollution in central districts of California in the 1920′s that severely damaged health and prohibited vision beyond 10ft, not to mention other present day pollution catastrophes. So my questions are, “Is there any modernized nation that exist in its current state without causing pollution or consumption of resources? Will any nation willingly donate a solution that can avoid or further reduce pollution and consumption of resources that can be realistically achieved and simultaneously keep up with the pace of modernization in China?”, if not, please don’t expect any greater of China then would of itself. China endeavored mightily with other Superpowers to acquire infrastructural technology for nuclear power plants to replace its coal power plant infrastructure with the aim of reducing carbon emissions, but the reply is a unsurprisingly “No”. When I used to commuted to work on the subway system of New York City or pass the Brooklyn bridge, the genius and magnificence of these structures never for once failed to inspire a sense of awe in me, but at the same time made me think how much steel, concrete, metal, etc it takes to construct these modern wonders. I still don’t know today, and I sincerely wish someone would enlighten me.

Human Rights, the biggest and most threatening subject to not only the Communist party, but to the entire Chinese population as well. This is a extremely sensitive issue concerning over 13 billion souls with far reaching consequences to China itself and the rest of the world. The Communist party realizes the potential rewards and dangers of this subject more than anyone else, and its taking its utter most care in its gradual advancement. I asked a coworker once if he can imagine China being a true democracy the likes of USA, he replied, “one day, but not now. Can you imagine 56 ethnic groups voting for a Chairman? Just take a look at Taiwan, we don’t need 56 more Taiwan.” Now the incidence at Tienanmen Square in 1989, I would have to agree with the rest of the world. The soldiers that committed the atrocities are heartless animals, but I still doubt that the Communist Chairman told the troops directly to “roll them over with tanks, they’re just animals”, because it would be the equivalent of US President Richard Nixon telling the national guards at the Kent State massacre in 1970 to “Shoot to kill, no mercy for the pigs on campus”, I’ll refrain from revising my perception of both incidents as overreactions by rash inexperienced troops that led to a chain reaction which resulted in the unnecessary death of the protesters.

The boarder conflicts are always over legal possession of land and it’ll remain the same for any country in aggression or defense. I’ve read enough history books to know that the legal rights over “said piece of land” always belong to the victor of the conflict. From Genghis Khan(the largest empire ever forged) to Catherine II of Russia(during her reign the Russian broader covered Turkey and included half of Alaska)to America’s Manifest Destiny to Germany’s Nazism, its always been the victors that determines the boundary of it’s nation, the defeated are always the muted ones that learns to obey and lie in wait for their chance to rise.

Let the military do all their catwalk, as long as peace continues to be maintained there is always a chance for a brighter future. Make no mistake, the USA is the No.1 country in the world from Human Rights to social standards, but like every other nation its got its flaws and proficiencies.

Posted by Protege | Report as abusive