Promoting the human rights essence of CSR in China

21. Jul 2008

Mads Holst Jensen Adviser, Ph.D., The Human Rights & Business Project, The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) ([email protected])

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By the mid 1990s, the CSR wave hit China and its introduction can be seen as a process. Initially, CSR was conceived of almost entirely as demands placed on Chinese companies by Western business associates. This conception has certainly survived to the present day, but from the early 21st century on we have seen a rapid increase in CSR projects based on multi-stakeholder engagement and partnerships that aim at step-by-step progress to pave the way from Chinese realities to CSR ideals. Increasing Chinese ownership for CSR is the basic thrust of this process and it yields promising results. However, the essence of CSR should remain intact throughout the process and therefore we need a common language to guide it.

The first and second principles of the UN Global Compact manifestly establish the key role of human rights for business. Human rights laws have proved their practical and theoretical worth and combining reliability and flexibility human rights laws offer an adequate framework for a common language for standards that stay the same in essence despite fluctuations in business practices and contexts.

Promoting human rights and business in China does at times seem like fighting an up-hill battle with two fronts. One front results from the fact that addressing human rights issues is still controversial in China. The other front is resulting from the fact that concern for responsibility and sustainability in a broader perspective all too rarely matches up with concern for short term survival in an environment of relentless competition. This problem is part of reality for all companies around the world and it becomes no less real in China often playing a key role in “a race to the bottom” with other countries of similar status in the global value chains. At the same time, China’s integration and gradual ascend in these value chains result in emerging acknowledgement of the fact that compliance with international standards is the most viable way forward.

In this short blog-posting I will sketch our work on China at the Human Rights & Business Project of the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR)

Setting the scene

To some extent, the conventional Chinese saying, “take Chinese learning as the essence and Western learning for its utility” (zhongti xiyong ????) epitomizes the Chinese reception of CSR. Part of the process of translating CSR into the Chinese context consists in comparing the concept to what is considered essentially Chinese. The Chinese tradition of business ethics is often highlighted as a predecessor of CSR. This argument implies sheer generalizations about CSR as well as the Chinese past, but still, Chinese business ethics scholars have developed and expounded it for more than a decade now. Representatives of Chinese business also share the notion that CSR does correspond to Chinese realities, past and present.

The Chinese government expresses commitment to promote common prosperity and equity under the concept of “Harmonious Society” and in this context it comes close to expressing endorsement of human rights. For instance, the declaration of The 2005 GoTone-Nanchang International Forum of Constructing Harmonious Society and Corporate Social Responsibility of October 2005, which is commonly recognized to be among the very first CSR forums organized at the government level in China, brings signals to that effect:

“[..] those basic conceptions in terms of human rights, employee, environment, anti-corruption, etc in the Global Compact sponsored by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan are basically the same as those endorsed by the human-entered strategies of the Chinese government”

However, the fact that there are overlaps between Western CSR and Chinese preconceptions does not imply full assimilation of the former into the latter. In effect, this would lead to a kind of one-way communication in which the essence of CSR is getting lost in translation, so to speak. In stead, it is important that Western and Chinese actors meet half-way to create a common language for CSR. This leads to the introduction of human rights and business. DIHR employs the partnership approach as the basis.

The partnership approach of DIHR

International human rights organizations play an important role in pointing to and documenting violations of human rights by the Chinese government, while the approach of DIHR is to support the development of viable institutions and enhance the human rights capacity of stakeholders within the country. The two methods supplement each other and are part of the same struggle.

The partnership approach adopted by DIHR for our work in China has as its underlying motive and guiding parameter mutual understanding and respect between the partner and DIHR as well as the partner’s self-determination, professional integrity and ability to promote human rights in a politically sensitive environment. DIHR defines partnership as a form of cooperation based on joint planning, commonly agreed objectives and shared values for the promotion and protection of human rights, rule of law and the fundamental human rights values. Based on the partnership approach we are in the process of conducting the following four key projects concerning China.

Developing the China-specific HRCA Quick Check

The HRCA Quick Check is a diagnostic tool designed to help companies detect human rights issues with regard to their business operations, associates and all other stakeholders. It is based on a 6-year process of research and consultation involving representatives from over 100 companies, human rights organizations and international specialists and researchers.

The Human Rights & Business Project website offers free access to an interactive, computerized version of the tool (, as well as PDF versions translated into several languages, including Chinese (

Launched at the UN Global Compact Summit in Shanghai in 2005, the HRCA Quick Check is at the forefront of the human rights and business approach in China. To ensure optimal Chinese participation and ownership, we have produced a Chinese translation of the standard version of the tool. Currently, we are developing a China-specific version that targets the issues most relevant and challenging in the Chinese context and offers advice on how to tackle these issues.

Developing China-specific CSR training

Developing material and methodologies for CSR training that adequately appeals to a Chinese audience is the key objective of the project. Moreover, the project is based on a train-the-trainers format, which ensures enhanced impact of the project’s capacity building approach. The China-specific CSR training has the following features:

– Draws on a range of experiences with CSR training in China, including consultation with
a selection of organizations in China specialized in CSR training.

– Conducted by Chinese-speaking trainers

– Addresses staff as well as management

– Enhances CSR performance for all kinds of businesses in China; Chinese associates and suppliers constitute a key target group

– Based on systematic training material specially developed to fit the Chinese context and appeal to Chinese training participants

– Communication between staff and management to enhance CSR performance is a key priority of the training; there will be a focus on capacity building for staff representatives

Launching the updated China Country Risk Assessment (China CRA)

Originally published in 2005 the China CRA has been comprehensively updated to reflect the dynamic nature of Chinese law and practice. The full CRA, totalling nearly 200 pages, compiles detailed information on Chinese law, common labour practices, international regulations, risk proximity to company operations and management recommendations. The full China CRA includes nine Focal Areas summarizing the most urgent human rights issues for companies to confront as they manage Chinese operations or supply networks. Moreover, a Background Sheet is included with relevant information on Chinese economy, demographics, history, government, human rights challenges and recent developments. All of these sections have been significantly updated from the original version.

To reflect the ongoing risks faced by migrant workers, a Focal Area has been added with additional background and risk information on the specific challenges of applying human rights to China’s nearly 160 million ‘floating’ workers. Moreover, a special section of the Background Sheet is summarizing the major developments in legislation, including the recently implemented Labour Contract Law, Property Law and Employment Promotion Law. These developments are described in detail in the relevant sections of the full China CRA. The sections on freedom of association and trade unions have been reformulated to reflect the rapidly changing context in Chinese law and common practice and a new section addresses internet privacy that has emerged as major area of concern in recent years.

Rights of Migrant Workers in China – A DIHR Human Rights Programme

It is the overall aim of this three-year programme to achieve increased respect, formally and substantially, for the rights of migrants in China and compliance with existing human rights standards. In particular the focus is on enabling the partners to improve relevant labour laws affecting the situation of migrant workers as well as to contribute to a practical improvement of their conditions including an improved access to dispute resolution mechanisms and improved working conditions. The immediate objective of the programme is to contribute to the access of migrant workers in Beijing and in the Western part of China in particular to strengthened mechanisms of labour dispute prevention and resolution both formally and in practice.

One key element of the programme is aimed at the private sector. Training and other activities will be carried out to inspire an operational understanding of and commitment to the protection of the rights of migrants into participating companies.