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China and an Ethical Mapping of the Global Economy

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Written by Andrew Hao

If you have been paying any attention to recent news on the crucible of China's expansive development, then the negative social and environmental impacts of industrialization and economic growth can hardly be ignored. What is particularly provocative, and in need of sustained inquiry, is how these matters are increasingly represented as ethical failures specific to China's position in a global moral economy: Baby formula tainted with melamine in 2008, and other recent food safety events; the Foxconn/Apple affair, held as a representative case of the exploitation endured by workers in outsourcing plants who contribute to maintaining the cheap prices and high profits enjoyed by consumers and investors in developed nations; daily reports on the quotidian experiences of businesses at every scale with political corruption and the bribery of state officials; China's shameful merit of having the majority of what many media outlets have deemed to be the world's most polluted cities. For even casual observers of contemporary China, the concept of business "scandals" appears euphemistic; the frequency and degree of these infractions seem to confirm that China is leading in a systematic race to the bottom in all dimensions of corporate social responsibility. Those who work in business ethics are often asked if corporate social responsibility is an oxymoron. When it comes to China, our interlocutors hint that the answer, more so than usual, is already settled.

The public representation of the events above, through media depictions and social critiques alike, amounts to more than just reportage centered on individual occurrences. It is also shaping an emerging transnational moral narrative that figures contemporary China as a particularly dense site of ethical failures contemporaneous with its economic development. While I have engaged in on-the-ground fieldwork with the Chinese managerial elites, NGOs, state officials, factory workers, international organizations, and commercial associations who are collectively debating and molding the relationship of ethical norms to liberalizing market forms, my interest here is not to adjudicate whether China is or is not a site of socially accountable business activities. This is not to say that empirical evidence that seeks to expose the failure of corporate implementations to live up to loudly proclaimed allegiances to normative standards is not vital; it is, and many significant observers and critics, both within and outside of China, are assessing the validity of how multinational and state owned enterprises perform against standards of broader social concern that exceed profit maximization alone.

Between glossy corporate PR publications seeking to persuade stakeholders about the ethical compliance of enterprises, and critical voices from a variety of circles who expose the failures of business self-regulation in increasingly moral terms, what is intriguing is how post-reform China has become a touchstone for contemporary global anxieties over the relationship between economic dynamics and ethical standards. While critical work has often rightly pointed to the particularity of local ethical worlds as they intersect with border-crossing ethical enterprise best practices, or has sought to demonstrate the lack of correspondence between claims by market actors and their actual conduct, my interpretative interest here is of a different sort. I ask: How is an unequal mapping of the ethical capacities and potentials of different global sites, subjects, and cultures being conceptualized? What are the functions of these emerging transnational divisions and distributions in the moral cartography of economic life?

The recent past has seen the curious simultaneity of the unavoidable recognition of China's rapid economic growth and the condemnation of the Chinese marketplace as distinctly absent of the normative best practices that market actors and organizations ostensibly abide by in more developed economies. It would seem that at the very moment when historically dominant national economies are being surpassed, or fear the same, by China, that a global distinction, which censures the ethical deficit in the Chinese economic sphere, is being given shape. In speaking with Singaporean corporate managers and British financial journalists, European NGOs and American social advocacy groups, I have noticed that anxieties about the economic advancement of contemporary China according to quantitative standards of assessment are tempered by the self-assurance that the Chinese economy remains morally deficient. GDP and rates of annual growth may show one picture, so we are told, but publics invested (psychically and financially) in developed economies can displace their concern over China's development through a self-satisfaction that casts China as ethically fractured, while buttressing normative satisfactions with the robustly advanced social responsibility of "our own" economic conduct at home.

This divide exceeds the distinction between the service economy expertise in corporate responsibility primarily located in more developed economies and the emphasis on manufacturing for export in China; it is symptomatic of a supposed differentiation between cultures of ethical responsiveness at the collective level of economic practice. "Ethical capitalism," a term coined by the British political geographer Andrew Barry, marks the development of a new benchmark for economic and moral modernity: the responsible firm and the socially conscious investor, manager, and consumer. A new global imaginary that hierarchically distributes the moral capacities and possible ethical futures of markets and economic actors is emerging.

A metaphor for an unbridled, under-regulated market, China has become fixated upon as a displaced site where we believe we can view the negative social costs of market practices unconstrained by the ethical norms that we presume are firmly in play closer to home. In this figurative global economic and moral imaginary, do we subtly circumvent greater attention to the normative dilemmas raised by corporate practices in places other than China, by vindicating these other sites as "more ethically developed," to borrow the words of an executive at an American firm who spoke to me about the disparity between Chinese and Western notions of responsible enterprise?

Historically, a variety of tropes have been employed to represent salient features of the ethical configuration of the Chinese economy through individual figures. The duplicitous Chinese merchant played a significant role in the popular publications of the late nineteenth century American missionary, Arthur Smith, who claimed that "the commerce of the Chinese is a gigantic example of the national insincerity." The more recent past, particularly during first period of China's turn to economic liberalization, has seen a fixation on the inadequate rationality of those economic actors embedded in cultural norms that frustrate market presumptions about efficiency: the Chinese family firm; the often debated role of guanxi in economic relationships; workers accustomed to state enterprises who are unable to adapt to market discipline. It seemed that Chinese economic agents did not focus on self-maximization enough, that they did not value the inherent worth of radical individualism in the competitive private sector.

What is curious now is that as China has become measurably adept according to common market standards of success -- and even more so during the recent economic downturn in comparison to previously dominant nations - there has been a strong resurgence in invocations of the morally compromised Chinese commercial participant.

Sure, a profitable industry of mostly foreign consultants, marketing firms, public relations executives, and managerial experts who bring expert knowledge on issues of corporate social responsibility has developed in China, but the payoff of the moral mapping I have alluded to is of a different sort. It is precisely the characterization of China as a location desperately in need of an imported moral education on business matters that gives us a cynical comfort in the ethics of our own economic behaviors, in our internationally competitive advantage as moral persons.

Andrew Hao is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Andrew has done research on corporate social responsibility and business ethics in Beijing and Shanghai. He has taught at the Haas School of Business, U.C. Berkeley, the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and Montclair State University. You can reach him at Andyhao@berkeley.edu.