simon zadek

Chinese Entrepreneurs Evoke Sustainability in Their Own Image

When in Quingdao, what better than to listen to Jin Zhiguo, Chairman of home-town Tsingtao Brewery, one of China’s favourite beers. Alongside other Chinese business luminaries, including Yu Minhong of New Oriental Education and Technology Group and Feng Lun from Vantone Holdings, Jin Zhiguo offerered a “feast of ideas in amidst a global shift” at the launch of the China Entrepreneur Club’s ‘Annual Summit of China Green Companies 2011′.

Minutes into the short would-be inspirational speeches, the three fold message is clear. Chinese companies must embrace good environmental and social practices, in fact they are increasingly doing so (but should do better), and this is in the spirit and interest of China’s rise as a global powerhouse. On the first and second, the stories are well-rehearsed and could be transposed with little trouble into the patterned narratives of leading North Atlantic companies. Climate change, fighting environmental pollution and looking after people and communities is in the air, alongside the ‘win-win’ promise if one does the right thing. And for those tired, global-trotting hacks, I have to say that these are serious folks with action as well as rhetoric in mind, tortured like everyone else by the ways of the market into contradictions and compromises.

But it is the third message that marks out the conversation to global participants. There are no campaigning NGOs in the room, and none mentioned as a source of pressure for change. Indeed, the global space is curiously absent, or perhaps merely an annex of China’s domestic vortex of change. ‘Green’ is what is right for China, reflecting its emergence and the role of business in making that happen. Sustainability (not a word in the room it must be said) is a national imperative, and an obligation and honour to progress in that context – it is the currency of this century, China’s century (or perhaps the first of many).

The future of corporate responsibility and sustainability is being written here, a pattern I highlighted in a recent paper republished as a Harvard working paper as ‘Emerging Nations and Sustainability: Reality or Chimera?.. Arguing that China in particular will own the sustainability agenda this century, I got plenty of pushback, especially through the Guardian blog on the same topic, from folks who rightly pointed out the mess that many Chinese companies were making, especially in Africa. But my opinion remains stubbornly in place, that China is siezing the sustainability agenda and will shape it in its own image, just as the US in projecting its power, has in its time sought not merely to exemplify but to own the very notion of freedom.

But the Middle Kingdom’s inter-generational fractures were apparent throughout this fascinating event. The very first ‘question’ asked to the honourable presenters in the first session was ‘why are there no younger people on the stage’, a comment that was met with widespread applause. The significance of the fact that a close-to disprespectful comment was made so openly to to senior a group of business people is not to be missed, all the more so as it earned a stand-up, bowed acknowledgement from the talented founder of the CEC and the event’s chief architect. One young journalist put it simply, ‘it is time to move on, to make this all real in our world here’. And to reinforce this, the session featuring China’s youthful internet star, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, was packed to standing room only, leaving competing sessions embarrassingly empty. Next year’s China Entrepreneur Club’s annual green company event, no doubt once more on Earth Day, will I suspect sport a different, leading line-up.

My pilgrim together with my colleague Kelly Yu to the China Entrepreneurs Club annual conference was the third I have made in the last four years (when it started), as I have the pleasure to sit on one of their advisory groups and have at various times presented by work to a seemingly eager (or captured) audience (this time I was in a session on the role of ICT in progressing China’s green growth ambitions). The experience recalls that of joining with Instituto Ethos in Brazil and the African Institute of Corporate Citizenship in South Africa, and indeed Business for Social Responsibility and Business in the Community in their early years, where inspiration and anecdote joined with ambition and a sense of a time arrived. Perhaps marking this particular experience out, and making it somewhat closer to that of Brazil’s and South Africa’s, is the linkage through to China’s political economy, all the more so in the light of the global recession and the damage inflicted on the substance and legend of the North Atlantic experience.

For those with a taste for a hubristic window on the future, mark your calendar’s for 2012′s Earth Day experience.

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