Make way for the New China, by Heather Mak

Recently returning from a trip to Guangzhou to visit my grandmother, I found it remarkable how quickly the city had changed from when I was a little girl visiting for the first time, almost 25 years ago. I recall farmer’s fields with bumpy dirt roads that now, have magically transformed into eight lane highways. Small alleyways of hutong houses have been replaced by shiny new office bulidings and condominiums. Rickety bicycles carrying 10 times their weight? They’ve turned into luxury SUVs. Each time I go back, it is not the same place as I had last remembered from the previous trip. This pace of economic development and change is truly unprecedented, and is best described as a Cinderella story.

My grandma, who is almost 90 years old, regales me with stories of tougher times and tells me that “the Chinese have never lived a life as good as they have now.”

Materially speaking, this is certainly the case. My grandma, who has lived through times of extreme rationing and famine - and still darns her socks - stands in stark contrast to the spritely young Chinese adults making up the large majority of the workforce, darting past with their new gadgets and designer clothing.

Going to China for the first time with the lens of a sustainability practitioner, it was intriguing for me to observe and think through what all these changes – rapid economic progress and a very youthful population in an opaque capitalist-communist, government-run society – could mean.

The demands of youth

First, is that this younger generation was part of a larger cultural shift coming from the one child policy. While in the past, there was a culture of filial piety, it reversed to one of child worship, where parents rerouted resources to their children. Youth seem to be more demanding, more educated, more connected, and similar to many of the youth we see globally. They want a better standard of living than their parents – and we’ve already seen some of the impacts of this, such as through wage hikes in China, and corresponding ripple effects in adjacent Asian manufacturing countries.

Trust remains elusive

In a culture where personal relationships are paramount, tales of corruption and bribery are rife among government and business leaders, causing a lack of trust. Safety issues – for example with milk in 2008, and more recently with gelatine capsules made from synthetic leather and tire by-products – only exacerbate the lack of trust. Where potentially embarrassing or tragic incidents are exposed, they are quickly covered by censors. One such incident involved a blogger, who, as a proxy for corruption, went through public photos of officials and focused in on their luxury watches that could not possibly be afforded based on a government salary – causing great embarrassment. As one cab driver said to me, “People can do whatever they want in China – just as long as they don’t interfere with government matters.”

NGOs push for transparency

Environmental NGOs are cautiously making some headway in China, focusing on areas of mutual interest to government officials, such as air and water pollution. Ma Jun, of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), started two pollution databases exposing over 90,000 air and water violations by local and multinational companies, and recently won the 2012 Goldman Prize.

He said in an interview about the databases, and more tellingly about transparency, “We firmly believe the environmental issues cannot be addressed without extensive public participation, but people need to be informed before they can get involved….but data is sensitive in China. So we made a compromise, we decided to use mainly government-sourced data.”

Ma Jun and IPE’s work appears to be paving the way for which transparency works for sustainability in China – requiring a delicate balance between diplomacy and action.

Implications for Chinese business

While some Chinese brands are starting to make some progress in international markets – Haier, Lenovo, Li Ning –the greater expectations for transparency and accountability from international peers are going to require a strong cultural shift in the way that business and governance are done in China. Who is going to make that first move?

Author’s note: Thank you to Andy Chen at BSR for the lively discussion, and to author Jonathan Fenby for the book Tiger Heads, Snake Tails – which proved to be an excellent companion on the economic and political history of China.

Heather Mak is a manager at the UK-based think-tank and consultancy SustainAbility, where this blog was originally published.

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