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.

87 comments

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china is more civilized than usa..

Posted by sunilsah | Report as abusive

Interesting!

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

how about some human rights in china hm?

Posted by qinxiaohan | Report as abusive

Well yr2009, that is exactly what I was thinking. Sunilsah, I’m a little lost for your reasoning. But regardless, really what is being said is that China has the economy to grow, but it won’t last long the way it is.

As for what yr2009 said about the products, one thing about the “Made in China” tag is quality. When my American made microwave is 8 years old and still works, while be Chinese made microwave lasted 1 year, there is a difference.

Posted by SpecpolXXII | Report as abusive

“the way people love America” – yr2009 – surely you have not left the US in your entire life…. =)

Posted by pesheff | Report as abusive

Yes, but China has a great opportunity to manifest a “cleaner” image at home and abroad utilising a power-sharing solution with Tibet. It’s time!

Posted by kjkits | Report as abusive

Uh nobody outside America loves America. I’m Canadian and I think America is one of the most evil nations on earth currently. Supporting genocidal regimes (Israel), fighting two wars of aggression over false pretenses, so on and so forth.

I mean Canada has its flaws too (Alberta tar sands), but America is close to or already is below the level of China right now in terms of foreign endearment.

Posted by Chinpo1Suki | Report as abusive

To yr2009.

To be honest, If you go through the world history, when China started sending messages to the world, USA didn’t exist yet. lol

BTW, everyone loves their own country, American love US, Chinese love China, French love France, you can not simply say, Nobody outside China loves it the way people love America, to my best Knowledge, a lot of European still think USA is just the new rich, they are not that into US like you, hah~

Posted by Perfectstranger | Report as abusive

@yr2009, do not presume that everyone in the world likes your country, especially in parts where your country is trying to bring “freedom and democracy” to. As for immigration, it is the same case. Many would like to migrate to this piece of land, while many do not.

Posted by M82-A1 | Report as abusive

Certainly Chinese has not intention to be the leader of the world in the same model as Americans because it is not tenable to have 1.4 billion people driving cars. Building 16,000 km of bullet train is a strong insight that China is in the wrong path respecting outcome conditions.

China has an ingredient that I admire and is missing also in Brazil. Corrupt people are easily disposed capital punishment. Americans are rewarding fat cats with bonuses for driving the world to this ugly economic meltdown that cost 10 million jobs just in the US. I think that fat cats have no chance in China and easily they could be stopped with death penalty instead of bonuses for annihilating the world economy.

I like China line of hardship as far as it helps to keep the country in the right track. Americans are going to become 85% obese by 2040 but I think that China Red Party easily could solve it as far as it shows threatening the welfare of their people.

Brazil does not grow so fast because our corrupt democracy cost around 20% of the public asset feeding politicians that only care for themselves instead of building roads and schools, providing a better infrastructure that our country needs to grow.

Americans are victims of their greed and using their economic power to foster the weaponry industry and bully other countries.

China are better prepared to lead the world than Americans and easily they can get rid of fat cats and keep obesity at bay. I like to see people getting capital punishment when their acts clearly jeopardize the outcome of their country.

Posted by ElsonBrazil | Report as abusive

The culture and national identity known as China is several thousands of years old – a record of endurance that makes America a “newborn” and the Roman Empire simply a thing of the past. Any national entity that has proven it’s sovereignty over such a time period…. with now billions of citizens….. is a force to be reckoned with, no matter how you slice it.

Posted by philosopfizer | Report as abusive

Good article. Since the world has a ravenous appetite for inexpensive goods the Chinese provide very competitive low cost, high quality products. Unfortunately, not so many Americans give thought to any redeeming qualities of their society because it’s only the goods that they are interested in.

I recall that the Japanese produced transistor radios inexpensively in the 60s and we labeled their goods with a derogatory term because of their low cost, low quality. The Chinese have taken a different route.

So, though culturally we aren’t paying much attention because of our own selfish wants, we should.

Posted by monterey2010 | Report as abusive

Certainly Chinese has not intention to be the leader of the world in the same model as Americans because it is not tenable to have 1.4 billion people driving cars. Building 16,000 km of bullet train is a strong insight that China is not in the wrong path respecting outcome conditions.

China has an ingredient that I admire and is missing also in Brazil. Corrupt people are easily disposed capital punishment. Americans are rewarding fat cats with bonuses for driving the world to this ugly economic meltdown that cost 10 million jobs just in the US. I think that fat cats have no chance in China and easily they could be stopped with death penalty instead of bonuses for annihilating the world economy.

I like China line of hardship as far as it helps to keep the country in the right track. Americans are going to become 85% obese by 2040 but I think that China Red Party easily could solve it as far as it shows threatening the welfare of their people.

Brazil does not grow so fast because our corrupt democracy cost around 20% of the public asset feeding politicians that only care for themselves instead of building roads and schools, providing a better infrastructure that our country needs to grow.

Americans are victims of their greed and using their economic power to foster the weaponry industry and bully other countries.

China are better prepared to lead the world than Americans and easily they can get rid of fat cats and keep obesity at bay. I like to see people getting capital punishment when their acts clearly jeopardize the outcome of their country.

Posted by ElsonBrazil | Report as abusive

If they have to succeed in being a global power, the Chinese have to be more open and friendly, and the USA can teach them how. IKEY GALACTICCA, WORLD LEADERSHIP ORGANIZATION, WOLORG

Posted by WOLORG | Report as abusive

China nerver want to be a global leader like America,but America also feel nervous of it.

Posted by Ga.Share | Report as abusive

China should be Respected and feared, but we shouldn’t forget our ties with China. Their new rockets that can blow up aircraft cariers aren’t too shabby either. Just the fact that China didn’t allow our South Korean war games to happen should set off some alarms. China will wield it’s big sword in our face if we react is another matter. I think that this time in our history we should all come together as one and stop the violence and stop the power struggle.

Posted by M.Henderson | Report as abusive

china has come long ways and has ways to go,but they are trying from the poorest of people to their goverment. the children from the rural areas try to find jobs in cities send their earnings home to their families. the goverment is in there with the floods, earthquakes, .doing a task that most countries would just give up and ask help from outside.but china ,they just do it. the goverment is trying to spread the wealth. those goverment meetings they have with representatives from different regions ,set those 5 or 10 yr. plans as to how to move their country from helping the farmers to keeping the price of real estate from over heating. changes dont come overnight . china is changing ,not to many years ago i couldn’t go there to visit but because of this western capitalism, china has caught on very well and changing rapidly at a high rate of speed. wages are low compare to other countries but give time wages will go higher, not too long ago workers from a honda plant went on strike and got higher wages. many of these foreign co. can pay higher wages if they want but they dont and if they can get away with paying less in their country they would. yes ,made in china ,the quality in some items is not there yet but then again its cheap. look at walmart, about 90% of their items are made in china are are cheap. almost all furniture from costco are made in china and quality is very good. as long as you have an active goverment who is trying to help its people to better their lives through set polcies china will move forward to its goal of harmonious society

Posted by highball | Report as abusive

Chinese Government has no regard for human rights. It treats its own citizens with utter contempt. People all over the world buy Chinese made products because they are dirt cheap. They have no quality as such so I personally don’t buy those products. As the title of this article suggests China needs to become first a civil society to gain some respect from the outside world. It won’t happen as long as it is ruled by the cruel communist regime! But it won’t happen in a million years and the world would always look at China with disdain. China, not Russia, poses the real danger to the rest of the world! The world must unite against this evil Chinese regime!

Posted by Indiana | Report as abusive

Money is not the lone standard for respectation. China needs to be advanced in technology (more creativity), not be an expert in copying of everything with a low level of quality.

I always spend much more time to buy a product ‘not made in China’

Posted by MultepleEyes | Report as abusive

This article is way too vague and ambiguous to be any good. It’s not very helpful. What does the author mean by “civil society”? What does she mean by “soft power”? What does she mean by “engage local communities and stakeholders in their countries of operation”? What kind of engagement why will it increase China’s “soft power”? Additionally, she said, “Chinese trade associations need to play a bigger and more positive role in promoting voluntary standards of corporate social responsibility” Does she have any specific suggestions on how to do this?

Posted by flaneur333 | Report as abusive