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