Social enterprise and the broader topic of social innovation are attracting a lot of attention in China these days. The recent Social Enterprise Summit in Hong Kong drew in more than 100 institutions and an audience of 1,000, with an increased presence from the mainland.
For all the talk, however, it is less clear how much is being translated into action. In many ways, it seems social entrepreneurship in China lags behind other dynamic, developing countries. Many outside of China are skeptical about the country’s intent and capacity to support social enterprise on a scale that will create real impact. At the same time, many also believe that China can achieve in two years what has taken other countries ten years to do, if it decides to prioritize at a national level the development of social enterprises. The crucial issue, of course, is the role the government chooses to play.
Although we are close to the scene we still have much to learn about the social sector in China. The country is incredibly diverse and full of apparent contradictions. As many have often commented, “whatever you hear about China is true somewhere.” Bearing this in mind, can we draw any conclusions about social enterprise and innovation trends in the world’s most populous country?
To prime the discussion, we offer some questions for your consideration:
Doing good and doing well?
The jury is still out in many cases on the idea of making money while doing good. Even within the social enterprise camp, this issue is passionately debated. Many Chinese still believe an age-old notion that wealth and ‘uncharitableness’ go hand in hand (为富不仁). This pervasive attitude means that the very foundations of social enterprise are met with skepticism or suspicion. We know of social enterprises that have made little progress when trying to explain their multiple motives to potential customers. They then decide to market their services as a traditional business, with much greater success. If one must choose between doing well or doing good, most Chinese will opt for the former. There are many reasons for this –-beginning at home, where families push their children (often, an only child) to get traditional jobs to support the family. In addition, the recent scandals involving NGOs and philanthropy have re-enforced the belief that even those who claim they want to do good, are really just serving their own interests.
Business acumen and social empathy?
Driven by economic necessity and culture, the Chinese have become well-known for being entrepreneurial people. In modern China, large state-owned enterprises (SOEs) garner much of the world’s attention, but small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have also played a crucial role in China’s economic growth. Can China channel this entrepreneurial spirit into the social sector? In the west, this has required the presence of a strong civil sector creating awareness of the needs of the disadvantaged. One can argue how successful the west has been at meeting the needs of those groups, but the question remains unanswered for China. The interesting development in China is the degree to which social issues are now publically discussed. Especially amongst young people, the prevalence of social media like Weibo (micro blogs) is creating a new kind of public consciousness. Topics such as Wei Gongyi (micro public welfare), which also covers the discussion of social entrepreneurship, convene many interest groups and individuals on the Internet. In promoting social entrepreneurship, thought leaders from academia (with their own “VIP” Weibo accounts) provide widely respected advice on the issues. Again, the question is how all of this talk can coalesce into concrete action.
Supply and demand?
One of the liveliest debates about social enterprise in China is around the issue of supply and demand. Some believe China has sufficient capital and intermediary resources for the most innovative social entrepreneurs to scale their organizations. This camp argues that the real issue is lack of quality entrepreneurs and enterprises. But others argue that many promising social entrepreneurs, typically young and lacking “real world” experience, struggle to find needed financial and non-financial resources. This other camp adds that social enterprise needs much more in the way of infrastructure development and commercial mentoring. Do these issues, coupled with the other cultural and regulatory barriers, simply make starting a social enterprise too daunting?
- What will you prioritize, mindful of the challenges and contradictions we’ve touched on above?
- Would you focus resources at the local, regional or national level?
- What existing elements need to be changed and what new elements need to be instituted?
- What best practices might be adapted from elsewhere?
- In terms of outcomes, what might social enterprises in China demonstrate to the world in five years as the result of this concerted effort?
对于在行善的同时又赚钱的这个想法目前仍存在颇多争议。 即使在社会企业的阵营之内，这个问题也处于激烈的辩论中 。许多中国人仍然抱着“为富不仁”这样的传统观点 。这普遍存在的态度使得社会企业的理念根基遭到摒弃。据我们所知，一些社企在试图对潜在客户或投资者解释自己的多重底线时，进展甚微。于是，他们决定将自己定位成传统的商业来推广，反而更加奏效。如果行善与牟利二者只能选其一，大多数中国人会选择前者。其中有种种原因 — 首先是家庭因素，家长会期望孩子（通常是独生子女），去私营或者公共部门做一份高薪的工作，以此养家。再加上，最近中国的一些非政府组织和慈善界所卷入的负面事件，更是促使人们相信那些声称想要做好事的人，其实也只是为了一己私利。
在经济和文化的推动下，中国人的企业家精神已是众所周知。在当代中国，大型国有企业得到了世界的瞩目，但中小型企业在中国的经济增长中也起到了至关重要的作用。中国能否将其创业精神发扬到社会领域中去？在西方，这需要一个的强有力的社会部门的存在以使人们意识到弱势群体的需要，对此成效如何， 有可商榷之处。但在中国，这个问题还尚待解答 。有意思的是，中国当下对社会问题的公开讨论的程度也在发展。尤其在年青人之中，像微博这样的社会媒体的风行，正在创造一种新的公众意识。微公益这样的话题，也涵盖了对社会企业家精神的讨论，在互联网上聚集了一批对此感兴趣的团体和个人。在促进社企发展方面，学术界的一些思想领袖，也会通过自己的微博认证账号，对相关话题给出有影响力的见解。最终，关键仍在于如何将这些言谈凝聚成具体的行动。