Representing Corporate Culture in China: Official, Academic and Corporate Perspectives

Article excerpt

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Over the past two decades, and particularly since China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, there has been an explosion of interest in the concept of "corporate culture" (qiye wenhua ...) among large Chinese corporations. As Table 1 demonstrates, an examination of the websites of the top one hundred Chinese corporations or corporate groups reveals that 75 per cent include corporate culture links on their websites, as do 83 per cent of the top twenty-five privately managed corporations (siying qiye ...). These statistics reveal a strong desire among larger Chinese corporations, whatever their ownership structure happens to be, to publicly represent their interest in "corporate culture". Whether or not these corporations have actually transformed their culturesnamely, their management style, corporate values, work environment and employee behavior-it is striking to find such wide-ranging consensus on the need to publicize or represent their corporate culture to the outside world.

In this paper, I will examine the reasons for this widespread interest in representing corporate culture among large Chinese corporations. The paper is divided into four main sections followed by a conclusion. First, I survey some non-Chinese definitions of corporate culture to show how the concept has been used outside China. Next, I introduce the "official" Chinese representation of corporate culture: how the Chinese government has co-opted this foreign concept, promoted it among Chinese corporations, and in the process re-defined corporate culture to make it a vehicle for the government's own policy priorities. I then compare this "official" representation of corporate culture with "academic" representations, in other words Chinese academic texts. I show that in some cases academics explain and justify the official view of corporate culture and in other cases they strongly reject it. Finally, I demonstrate how five large Chinese corporations publicly represent their cultures, and how they comply with the official requirements for corporate culture-at least on the surface-even when there is no direct legal obligation on them to do so.

In my conclusion, I argue that the majority of large corporations, including privately managed corporations, appear to be responding to government demands to "improve" their cultures. Of course, one might argue that corporations are simply representing themselves as responding enthusiastically to the government's latest policy priorities, but not necessarily really changing their behavior.2 Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly some real impacts involved. Corporations must devote significant budget resources to establishing in-house corporate culture departments and organizing "cultural transformation" activities for their employees. Corporate managers must also work closely with the Communist Party Committees within their corporations-as these Committees are frequently the most enthusiastic proponents of corporate culture change within the firm.

At the same time, it would be misleading to view this as a top-down exercise of political control over corporations by the Chinese government. This is because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has itself undergone a transformation in the past decade. It has become much more responsive to the needs of businesses and willing to adapt its role within corporations to assist the activities of corporate executives. Likewise, CEOs and employees of large corporations may have their own reasons for embracing certain aspects of the official Chinese definition of corporate culture. Indeed, some corporate executives-even in privately managed corporations-are happy to combine corporate culture programs with Communist-style political indoctrination methods, as they see this leading to a more disciplined and productive workforce. And their rank-and-file employees may not be willing to relinquish certain aspects of the socialist enterprise system either, such as the provision of a range of cultural and educational activities for employees, and the possibility of employee participation in corporations' operational management. …