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Cultivating Ethical Agility and employing guānxi to protect human rights

Just as the idea of face is well-known to foreigners who travel to China, so too is the related concept of guanxi and just as face is often misunderstood

and misapplied even by experienced businesspeople, so too is guanxi. We begin this chapter by examining the close relationship between the two. We then explore its grounding in traditional Chinese culture and social practice. It is a concept that can seem familiar and easily accessible to Westerners. In reality, however, it requires a deep understanding of nuance and of traditional culture to be properly invoked. When it is poorly understood it can create as much peril as opportunity. Often cynically applied, guanxi is frequently misinterpreted as cronyism or, in the worst case, as an excuse to curry favor through bribery. But there is no escaping its crucial role in getting things done, preventing problems from occurring, and fixing problems when they do occur. Thus, cultivating agility in guanxi by being able to not only understand it but also to put it into practice is an indispensable skill for Westerners to acquire.

A central theme of this book has been that fluency or Agility in traditional Chinese culture and ethics does not mean “going native” and abandoning your core ethics and business objectives. In previous chapters, we have illustrated this point by showing how knowledge of and Ethical Agility within traditional Chinese ethics in the form of our Ethical Triad can be used to great effect in protecting intellectual property and assuring safety and quality in the manufacturing supply chain, two of the most important ethical and business challenges of operating in China. This chapter puts the utility of cultural fluency to the ultimate test on perhaps the most contentious issue dividing China and the West: human rights. We demonstrate that Ethical Agility in understanding and practicing guanxi can in certain instances constitute the most effective wray for companies to fulfill their human rights responsibilities. We consider two wrell-publicized examples to make our point. In the case of Apple, we show how the agile use of guanxi enabled the company to fix horrific human rights conditions at its principal supplier, Foxconn. By contrast, we consider the hapless response of the National Basketball Association to a Twitter comment by a lone executive about human rights in Hong Kong, which, because inexplicably the NBA had seemingly no guanxi to draw upon, turned into an embarrassing multi-billion-dollar international debacle.

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