Let the states of equilibrium and harmony exist in perfection, and a happy order will prevail throughout heaven and earth, and all things will be nourished and flourish.” – Confucius
On the surface, Sino-African relations in trade and investment look incredibly successful, but there underlies a challenge that prevents Chinese firms from achieving greater success: an increasing disharmony.
The concept of “harmony” is of the utmost importance in Chinese thought, as found in both the ancient writings of Confucius and the more recent “harmonious society” theory put forward by former Chinese President Hu Jintao.
But recent developments in China’s work in Africa — for instance, demonstrations in Malawi and Kenya against Chinese businesses, arrests of illegal Chinese miners in Ghana, and labor unrest in Zambia against a Chinese-owned copper mine which was subsequently seized — haven’t always reflected harmony.
The good news: Series of “disharmonious” events like these have driven many Chinese companies to step up their show-and-tell efforts on corporate social responsibility (CSR) through reports, media and conferences.
“The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come. When in a state of security he does not forget the possibility of ruin.” – Confucius
When I consider Chinese companies, it strikes me that a CSR approach should build on this national value of harmony. This approach would align Chinese corporations’ CSR practices with Confucian philosophies emphasizing positive relationships between individuals as well as between humans and the environment. This foundation could help Chinese companies mitigate risk, ensure long-term business sustainability, and benefit local communities as much as their own financial success.
There are three keys to ensuring successful implementation of the “harmony approach” for Chinese CSR: a scalable CSR plan, community involvement, and greater publicity for their efforts.
A scalable plan. Currently, Chinese CSR efforts in Africa are generally scattershot. Companies often donate money or equipment to communities in need, but these actions are not done in an easily replicable or efficient manner. With a country- or region-wide CSR plan (based on the company’s or employees’ existing skills), however, the company would incorporate experience and efficiency in its CSR work. This would not only encourage more CSR activity and facilitate its execution, but provide the company with a built-in narrative to explain its CSR work and improve its reputation.
Community involvement. Chinese CSR efforts also have tended to suffer from a lack of local community participation. In order for CSR efforts to be sustainable, they must respond to what the local community feels it needs, rather than what outsiders may perceive. By reaching out to community members and bringing them into the planning process, Chinese companies will gain respect and understanding even before the CSR work comes to fruition.
Greater publicity. Finally, Chinese CSR efforts have traditionally been very under-promoted. Many firms may feel uncomfortable talking up their community outreach work, and may, at most, put out a press release. A more extensive and creative public relations approach, especially one that includes interviews with local media and other outside sources, could help Chinese firms build stronger relationships with communities and governments crucial to their success. And wider promotion of CSR work would set a powerful example and encourage others — all while contributing to the reputation of “China, Inc.”.
“Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs.” – Confucius
There is a clear need for economic development in the African community, and Chinese companies have the resources to help Africa grow. CSR work may just provide the key to a harmonious future for the Chinese in Africa.
Therefore, I am increasingly confident that now is the time for Chinese companies in Africa to embrace a new CSR approach — one that works better for local communities while honoring an essential tenet of Chinese culture: harmony.
This article is also published on China Open Mic, a blog that offers diverse perspectives on China in global development.