Tim Johnson on the China Compromise

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Another great post by Tim Johnson, this one on whether NGOs compromise their positions in order to get something done in China. This is quite interesting since the usual argument is whether MNCs have made some sort of deal with Beijing to get their ventures approved. I never would have extended this to the NGO sector – kudos to Johnson for doing so.

Now, one can easily argue that while in China one has to operate by the laws and realities of China. That is an argument big companies often make, Yahoo included. Greenpeace activists would probably be thrown in a labor camp for boarding a coal ship, and their local offices shut down. My inkling is that these are the kinds of pragmatic choices that not only private companies but also nonprofit groups make on entering China.

As I wrote recently (Leave Yahoo Alone), I am quite sympathetic to MNCs over here, and not just because they make up the majority of my clients. What are you going to do as an MNC, either do business exactly the way you do at HQ (and fail miserably in China) or follow local rules and business customs? Most enterprises do the latter.

I enjoy watching interviews with former government officials. The retired guys are honest and tell you the way things really operate. When asked about decisions that were made that obviously went against long-held policy positions, former officials usually say “Well, you have to compromise in government. If you make a deal today and vote for something you don’t like 100%, then maybe you will have the chance to do something really positive a year later.” That’s life, folks.

Same with MNCs or NGOs here. Compromise and get done what you can. At the same time, remember that some lines should not be crossed and that minimal standards need to be established, recognized, internally communicated, and upheld.

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4 responses on “Tim Johnson on the China Compromise

  1. The Humanaught

    Hey Stan, I think the major difference between NGOs/the Government and MNCs is that whereas the former both (generally) work to improve the living conditions of people, with the latter it’s a matter of profit.

    So, arbitrarily, whereby an NGO may live with some censorship laws so that they can bring food to needy families, an MNC may happily ignore a lack of strict labour laws because it brings in better margins.

    I see your point, but don’t think it’s quite apples to apples.

  2. Stan Post author

    Yeah, I agree with that distinction, that’s a good point. Both groups are doing some compromising, but of course this is not comparable as their fundamental goals are different.

    For a nice discussion of what those goals are/should be on the corporate side, I recommend the film The Corporation to anyone that has not seen it. I don’t agree with some of the conclusions of the documentary, but it’s quite thought provoking.

  3. Kelly Frazier


    For organizations with a pure profit motive, very decision will be dictated by a desire to make money. Nothing they do can be considered a compromise so long as the objective of profit making justifies the behavior. Legality and ethics are simply hurdles along that path. By definition these types of enterprises can only make a compromise by compromising what they are. Foregoing immediate profit would not be a compromise so long as it promotes the long term goal of maximizing profit. Making less money with no design to recapture loss for moral reasons would be a compromise. However, this compromise is not so much one of action as it is a compromise of changing organizational aims. Once the goal has been changed, the action is no longer a compromise because it is consistent with the new institutional identity. Absent the change in identity, the “compromise” is not a compromise at all; it is a contradiction to the organization itself.


    A. IDEOLOGY BASED ON ZERO SUM MORALITY: These are groups that feel that their ideology is based on an objective morality which is delineated on a black-white basis. There is very little gray area for these sorts of organizations and the potential for compromise is narrow. Almost any compromise of the overall ethic is itself a violation of that ethic. Consequently, by definition, they can only have a presence in China on their own terms. This often means that they are simply not in China. Members of a devout Muslim sect will not interact with women who do not wear veils in the hopes of promoting the strict Muslim view of gender morality in China. Devout Christian groups will not hand out condoms and promote safe sex so that they can reach Chinese students to promote abstinence. Abortion and the One-Child Policy are uncompromising issues. Every compromise for these sorts of groups is in zero sum competition with the objective morality: “Either you are with me or against me.”

    B. IDEOLOGY BASED ON UTILITARIAN MORALITY. Those with an ideology that believe in the subjective goal of serving the “overall good” make up the vast majority of those with a presence in China. These groups are not as fixated on procedure as they are outcome. In comparison, they promote the substantive goal of the law with less concern for the procedural aspects. So long as core values remain intact, how you get there is not as important as getting there. If a procedural change results in maximizing the desired outcome then the changes are consistent with group ideology. This is not really compromise because it is structured into group ideology.

    Again, by definition these groups are pragmatic. Consequently altering the path or changing the delivery to suit local party leaders or get around the Great Firewall for internet postings is structured into the goal of getting the message across. Journalists accept being part of a vast database if that is what it takes to report on things like the “Petitioners and Retrievers.” Journalists like Mark Magnier (http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-markmagnier,1,7753310.storygallery?coll=la-util-nationworld-world&ctrack=1&cset=true) likely do not consider the intrusive inconveniences of reporting in China so much a compromise as simply part of the cost of doing business.


    I guess my point is that the issue of compromise is inherent with the fact that no group, organization or business in any country can get exactly what it wants. Some choose to deal with this by disengaging in anything that is not Utopian. These tend to become narrow or regional sects that preach to the choir.

    Those that choose to engage outside of the core group must embrace pragmatism. Pragmatism is not a compromise, it is a process. The only thing that really counts as a compromise is a change which threatens the core or definitional level of what you are as an organization.

    I agree that business in China can pose the kinds of challenges that may make an organization question who they are what they are doing here. This is not necessarily unique to China however. My feeling is that those who feel that they are facing too many compromises should take a step back and define who they are and what they want. The threat of “compromise” is most often that uncomfortable feeling you get when you begin to redefine what you are in the hopes of getting what you want.

    Those with solid foundations and mission statements are more cognizant of when a course of action violates their ideological identity. Those with shaky foundations will see a desired outcome and begin to change how they define themselves to achieve that outcome. Compromise is a challenge that happens within an organization more than it is a compromise between an organization and external forces.

    For instance, the current US administration, by definition, does not torture. This is true because they have re-defined torture internally so that what they are doing does not count as torture. They have achieved what they wanted not by changing their interaction with external forces, but by changing the definition of how their behavior is defined internally. They have redefined who they are in the quest for what they want. Sadly they have done so at the expense of how others define the US.

    I don’t mean to suggest that businesses and NGOs in China face challenges along the magnitude of global terrorism. However, I do think that extremities serve as useful tools for the microcosms of personal and organizational challenges. If anything can be gleaned from situations like the Yahoo! debacle, hopefully it will be that we, as groups and organizations, take up the challenge of self-diagnosis so that we can condense our core values into a vision that makes the illusion of compromise less daunting.