We have been talking about China quite a bit recently. Not only on this blog, but also in numerous discussions and emails with our current and former students, various issues around the Olympics have come up. One of the sentiments voiced particularly by our Chinese readers was that it is quite hard to be Chinese these days. With all these critical questions asked about the politics of the country the debate can all too easily sound as if it is about bringing an entire country and its people wholesale into discredit.
Believe us, with one of the authors of this blog coming from a country with quite a notorious legacy in the 20th century, we can empathize with that feeling. Therefore, the more we are happy to report some interesting news on China and business ethics this week.
On Thursday, it was front page news in the New York Times that Chinese authorities successfully broke up a child labor ring in southern China’s Guangdong Province. More than 100 children between 13 and 15, often kidnapped from other parts of the country, were liberated from ‘captive, almost slavelike conditions and minimal pay’.
The article demonstrates a growing concern for human rights among Chinese authorities. It also provides an interesting perspective on the ethical issues involved. One factor is the sheer size of the country, which makes it tricky to enforce even the best intentions of the central government. Furthermore, it highlights that despite China’s economic boom, considerable parts of the population are still living in relative poverty and that cheap labour from rural China is in much demand from coastal regions feeling the pinch of rising costs.
These things take time, as we in the west should know all too well. In our business ethics book (p.298) we discuss Tom Donaldson’s argument that in applying human rights to a situation, the general context of economic development has to be taken into account. One or two centuries ago, European or North American children indeed played a key role in contributing to the family income, just think of Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Oliver Twist’.
The article also puts this governmental crack down in the context of the Olympics. As unpleasant as all this international criticism might be – it obviously has an effect. And as predicted earlier in our blog, businesses are in the front line if it comes to the locus of change. Perhaps most heartening of all though is that details of the child labour ring were uncovered by the Chinese media, not the usual suspects from overseas.
During the cold war, progressive political leaders such as the famous Willy Brandt were vilified for their ‘change through rapprochement’ politics between West and East. Arguably, by hindsight this was a key element in bringing down the Iron Curtain. It seems that with China, the same strategy might work. That’s why hosting the Olympics, maintaing close economic ties, and encouraging media freedoms, could be key for the journey ahead.
On a more personal note, Crane and Matten had other good news from China this week. Brokered by one of our students, a leading Chinese University Press has taken up discussions with our publisher to prepare a Chinese translation of ‘Business Ethics’! We keep you posted on these developments. But no promise yet that we will ever master a Chinese blog for that one…