Friday, June 6, 2008

CSR and democracy in China

This week’s blog comes from Shanghai, where Crane and Matten have been involved in various speaking engagements over the last years at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). There are two conferences on CSR in Shanghai this week both of which were fascinating.

CSR is definitely on the agenda here. Not just for big western multinationals, but also for local companies and entrepreneurs. Yes, a lot of what was on display is corporate propaganda, but there is some real evidence of what companies do, too.

The conferences gave a lot of food for thought for our ongoing research work. CSR in China casts some particularly interesting light on the role of CSR and democracy. Examples of how companies conduct stakeholder consultations, attempt at securing participation, protecting property rights or providing access to health, education and security – corporations here in their CSR activities pretty much emulate certain traditional governmental jobs.

But not only that. In fact these companies apply a model of interaction to their stakeholders that treats them basically similar to the status we would associate with citizens in western democracies. The obvious question is: if western companies do their western-style CSR in China, are they not effectively implementing micro spaces of liberal democracy? Stronger even: are CSR-active corporations, at the end of the day, part of some subversive movement towards democracy by operating this approach in the way they conduct their CSR projects with their stakeholders? The jury is out. But the tensions between an inclusive, participatory CSR model on the one hand and a political system that leaves little space for democracy are palpable.

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