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Summary of my remarks at the Harvard Asia Business Conference

A Model of Modern CSR Development in China in Four StagesĀ  (three “givens” and a prediction):

I spoke on the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) panel at the 2009 Harvard Asia Business Conference about the evolution of “CSR” in China and what it means for both China and the rest of the world. I presented my own rather premature model of the evolution of the concept in China in four overlapping, mutually-reinforcing stages:

I. Hesitant engagement: (1993-2005): Chinese stakeholders see calls for greater social and environmental responsibility by foreign companies, governments, and civil society groups as largely discriminatory (technical barriers, cultural barriers, development stage differences, political differences, manifestation of the “China threat”, etc.).

II. MNC- and SOE-led: (2005-2008): CSR starts to become accepted in the popular Chinese press when major companies start publishing specific China regional reports like the first MNC’s (Shell’s) in 1999 or the first State-Owned Enterprise’s (State Grid Corporations’s) in 2006.

III. Government-led: (2008- 20??): SASAC’s 2008 #1 document and the Chinese Banking Association begin to articulate clear government positions on CSR. Government maintains strong leadership in domestic voluntary standard-setting process, begins to engage in voluntary standards initiatives internationally, such as the ISO26000 process. The Chinese Banking Association issues its first CSR Report (2009, link in Chinese)

IV. Hybrid: (20??-): Realizing the limits that international stakeholders have in understanding “country-specific” or government-initiated models of assuring social and environmental action, government agencies, enterprises, and other actors create new cooperation through overlapping standards. These new and unique social capital exchanges bridge barriers of trust while maintaining domestic interests in the voluntary and statutory standards setting process.

There are of course many other models for understanding the development of CSR in China, namely that collective enterprises in the 1950s-70s before Reform and Opening Up were fully taking care of workers’ and society’s needs (including workers’ wedding arrangements).

Others like Yin Gefei of the WTO Tribune models Chinese CSR development aligned to an ISO progression. ISO 9000: quality and price competition; ISO 1400: competition based on environmental attributes; ISO 2600: comprehensive social and environmental basis for competitiveness.

The degree of internationalization of the fourth stage and whether this prediction holds true depends on a number of factors, such as the trends of globalization in general, shifts in Chinese imports and exports, and the degree to which Chinese domestic and international stakeholders seek common means of understanding sustainable development actions and claims.