Law professor investigates rise of corporate social responsibility in China

January 10, 2012 By Mindie Paget

( -- It might come as a surprise to learn that corporate social responsibility is on the rise in China, a country where manufacturers pollute nearby communities, labor protests have made global headlines, and intellectual property piracy is commonplace.

But this summer, the Conference Board, a leading source of global business research, surveyed 476 leading companies in China and found that 60 percent of the non-foreign-invested Chinese companies had a strategy for or , and half had specific funds dedicated to corporate implementation. Virginia Harper Ho, an associate professor of law who will teach KU’s first comprehensive Chinese Law course this spring, recently spent two months in China investigating these developments and presenting her research at universities across the country.

“China’s approach is evolving but is likely to be much more state-directed,” Harper Ho said. “Already, President Hu Jintao and other leaders in China’s central government and the Chinese Communist Party have publicly urged companies not to place profit-seeking above broader social welfare, but to adopt responsible and sustainable business practices.

“In many ways, corporate social responsibility is right in line with some of the Chinese central government’s current policies, like sustainable development and building a ‘harmonious society.’ On the other hand, there is a certain irony in seeing governments that haven’t been that consistent in enforcing the law now working on corporate social responsibility programs.”

Harper Ho presented her work at an international conference on collaborative governance at Fudan University in Shanghai, as well as at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Guanghua School of Law at Zhejiang University. Her conference paper, “Corporate Social Responsibility as Collaborative Governance? The PRC Approach in Comparative Perspective,” compared how governments in China, Europe and the United States are approaching corporate social responsibility.

“Governments in the U.S. are far less active in promoting corporate social responsibility beyond traditional regulation and enforcement than most governments in Europe and elsewhere,” she said, “so companies doing business in the U.S. tend to face pressure to be – or be seen as being – ‘responsible corporate citizens’ more from investors, consumers and NGOs than from governments.”

From late May to the end of June, Harper Ho conducted field research in Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces, as well as in Beijing and Hong Kong. At the national level, Harper Ho found that a number of state agencies, including the People’s Bank of China, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Commerce are working to facilitate enhanced legal compliance and participation in voluntary programs that reward companies who go beyond what the law requires. However, much of her work is focused at the subnational level, where corporate social responsibility guideline and audit programs created by local governments are proliferating.

“Most people in the U.S. tend to think about corporate social responsibility as business ethics or going beyond what the law requires,” she said. “But in China, just getting companies to comply with basic legal rules is an immediate goal of most of the programs created by governments.”

Now that she’s back on campus, Harper Ho is compiling her findings for publication and sharing her research results at KU and beyond. In October, she spoke at a campuswide forum sponsored by the Center for East Asian Studies and a faculty forum sponsored by the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Oklahoma.

In addition to the contribution her work will make to interdisciplinary scholarship on corporate social responsibility and the law, Harper Ho intends to draw upon her experiences in to enhance students’ experience at KU. This spring, she will teach a course on Chinese Law that will complement KU’s existing international and comparative law offerings.

“Having the opportunity to conduct research abroad in an area that touches on both corporate law and Chinese legal reform will help me better integrate comparative perspectives into the business curriculum and make sure my Chinese course gives students a current perspective,” she said.

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