Corporate respect for human rights in the Chinese context

RBC ForumKatryn Wright, Programme Director, Outreach and Capacity Building, Global Business Initiative on Human Rights (GBI). The views expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the views of the GBI member companies or partner organisations.

With China’s growing importance in the global economy, increasing overseas foreign direct investment, and very real human rights impacts, Chinese and international companies face greater imperatives at home and abroad to address human rights. In China and internationally, there are greater pressures and incentives to address business and human rights – from rights-holders, governments, business partners, investors, consumers and civil society. In this context, Chinese approaches to responsible business will be discussed as part of the agenda of the OECD’s 3rd Global Forum on Responsible Business Conduct in Paris on the 18th and 19th June 2015.

How are Chinese policymakers and business leaders responding to increasing pressures to prevent business-related human rights harm? And what is needed to support business to live up to standards and prevent adverse human rights impacts?

The baseline international normative standards on business and human rights are clearly articulated in the UN Guiding Principles on Business on Human Rights (UNGPs) which clarify the respective duties and responsibilities of State and business actors. The UNGPs outline that the corporate responsibility to respect human rights entails developing a policy commitment, implementing human rights due diligence processes, and providing or cooperating in remedy when the business causes or contributes to human rights abuse. Increasingly the UNGPs are being integrated into other international standards, including the human rights chapter of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The Chinese government expressed its appreciation and support for the UNGPs at the UN Human Rights Council in 2011.

Recent years have also seen a shift in Chinese government policy in relation to business and human rights and corporate social responsibility. The China Chamber of Commerce of Metals Minerals and Chemicals Importers & Exporters (CCCMC) Guidelines for Social Responsibility in Outbound Mining Investment call for companies to ‘observe the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights during the entire life-cycle of the mining project’. Other policy developments include: the incorporation of human rights in social responsibility guidelines for the electronics industry that refer to the UNGPs; the mandating of social impact assessments for large footprint projects; and the drafting of a law on public participation in environmental protection and impact assessments. In parallel, a recent draft law relating to foreign NGOs has been the subject of concern, with the European Chamber of Commerce in China expressing particular challenges as it pertains to partnerships between businesses and NGOs.

Within this context, there is therefore growing urgency for companies – including Chinese-headquartered private and state-owned companies, multinational companies operating and investing in China, and companies that have business relationships with Chinese companies around the world – to develop knowledge, tools and experience to implement respect for human rights in practice. This was apparent when in 2013, a coalition of Chinese and international organisations convened 200 predominantly business representatives in Beijing to discuss (for the first time) human rights within the framework of the UNGPs. There are a number of complementary avenues that should be pursued in order to build learning, capacity and practice on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights by Chinese business leaders – with crucial roles for the Chinese business community, along with OECD companies and business partners, civil society and other stakeholders.

One avenue that has clear value is the creation of learning forums on human rights, tailored to Chinese business needs and impacts. This may require safe-space forums for companies that may be competitors to collectively address human rights impacts. Companies should leverage their business relationships to engage joint venture partners, suppliers and customers to increase scale and momentum around commitments to progress. Safe-space forums established so far have enabled learning and exchange between Chinese and OECD companies on human rights issues such as community engagement, community grievance mechanisms, local content issues in Africa, indigenous peoples’ rights and collective bargaining. There is strong interest from business leaders in exploring how to address a range of human rights issues, good practices and lessons learned. Yet there are currently few platforms for companies to turn to for support and expertise.

Another avenue could involve constructive and innovative engagement between diverse stakeholders, including companies and business associations, civil society and international organisations. One example is the collaboration between CCCMC, Global Witness and the OECD to deliver guidelines for overseas Chinese mining companies which incorporate human rights and the UNGPs. Further collaboration between CCCMC and the OECD in developing due diligence guidelines on responsible mineral supply chains will encourage alignment with international standards. Such collaborations are productive ways to utilise expertise, meet standards and expectations and improve business practices. Dialogue and collaboration between multiple stakeholders on human rights is also needed in order to consider how to interpret standards, identify good practice, create transfer of expertise and ideas, and work together to innovate and find creative solutions, particularly in complex situations and across business relations. Civil society can also play important roles by acting as key interlocutors for stakeholder and rights-holder engagement on the ground in locations where Chinese companies are operating overseas.

There is a clear need for more concerted and collaborative efforts by all stakeholders to advance business and human rights in the Chinese context. This will require commitments and collaboration by business and other stakeholders. Some companies are beginning to take action, but increased support is needed from multiple stakeholders to achieve scale. Shared standards and norms need to be aligned to the UNGPs, and good practices need to be identified. Capacity-building, behaviour change and relationship-building are needed now and will require commitment and support from all stakeholders.

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GBI member companies had combined revenues of over $1.5 trillion in 2014 and have 1.75 million employees operating in diverse industries and in over 190 countries including China. Since 2012 GBI has been working in partnership with Chinese and international organisations to engage business leaders on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in the Chinese context. For more information visit:

Third Global Foru‌‌m on Responsible Business Conduct, 18-19 June 2015, Paris, OECD

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