Leading in China for Profit and the Public Good

So far, I’ve both hailed the possibility of better leaders emerging in China and railed against Chinese government repression.

Now I hope to connect those dots. Namely, up-and-coming business leaders at multinationals in China have the power to reshape China’s social and political landscape in positive ways.

Even as those 20-, 30- and 40-somethings charge ahead with their companies and their careers, they possess—or are gaining—the intelligence, creativity and clout to improve more than just China’s business climate.

I don’t deny that that business climate alone has been good for the Chinese people. The international trade that has accompanied China’s capitalist push over the past quarter-century has led to tangible new freedoms for millions of Chinese.

And I realize China may not ever look exactly like the Western democracies—which have plenty of warts themselves. Maybe free speech and other individual rights I cherish will never be as strong in the more collective Chinese culture as they are in the United States.

Even so, there’s room for business leaders at multinationals to do more to temper the most disturbing aspects of China. These include continued factory worker exploitation, as documented late last year by BusinessWeek. And the jailing of journalists. And the mistreatment of Tibet, as highlighted in a recent Rolling Stone expose.

That February 8 piece is replete with sickening accounts of torture by Chinese authorities and of the gradual erosion of Tibetan culture. It hit me even harder as I looked at one of the accompanying photos: an image of an Adidas shop in Llasa. As readers of my earlier blog items may know, Adidas HR executive Angel Yu has stood out for me as a prime example of a new generation of Chinese leaders who are working to combine the best of the East and the West—and who eventually may be prepared to tackle tricky global problems as never before.

I don’t know what Angel Yu thinks of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, or exactly how she can influence her country’s actions there. But it strikes me that she and other rising leaders in the business community can, over the long run, make a significant difference there and elsewhere. Perhaps in Tibet, for instance, Adidas can go out of its way to give opportunities to locals when it comes to hiring and distributing franchises. That could help counteract what appears to be a conscious Chinese policy to flood Tibet with non-Tibetans.

One other piece of the puzzle merits mentioning. Young Chinese business leaders are coming into their own just as the country as a whole is broadening its horizons globally. A recent Time magazine story on China cited a 2006 survey showing that 87 percent of Chinese respondents thought their country should take a greater role in world affairs. Most Chinese, the survey found, believed China''s global influence would match that of the U.S. within a decade.

If the 21st century is going to be, to a large extent, "The Chinese Century," the kind of China that becomes a stronger world power matters immensely. Will it continue what appears to be its current agenda of cozying up to bad-behaving states with natural resources, such as Sudan, without pushing for reforms? Could it instead offer lessons on capitalist development combined with workers’ rights, as well as how to shift from authoritarianism to greater political openness?

I’m not alone in calling for China business leaders and their companies to embrace a kind of social responsibility. In fact, I found in my reporting that the concept of corporate social responsibility has been gathering steam in China. One company that views leadership development in a social context is computer maker Hewlett-Packard. Arthur Wei, general manager of China Hewlett Packard for Northern China, proudly told me that his firm sees itself as an "executive academy." That is, HP aims to groom effective leaders not just for itself, but for other organizations in China.

HP wants to "grow with China" by contributing developed talent to the country, Wei says. "That’s the return to the society that we’re doing business with."

That return is potentially powerful. At its best, HP’s corporate culture has a strong egalitarian streak, prizes integrity and, despite the recent boardroom spying flap, respects the individual.

I hope HP graduates many fine China leaders from its "academy." And that they and other Chinese leaders now coming of age remake the country to bring out its best and jettison its worst. China needs them to do that. The whole world does.

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