Christian ethics and business life: an ethnographic account of overseas Chinese Christian entrepreneurs in China’s economic transition
China’s market reforms have made it go from having one of the world’s most backward economies to having its most dynamic economy. However, alongside the rapid economic development, the culture of corruption and exploitation due to the lack of morality has become widespread. The 2008 melamine-milk scandal, which involved 300,000 infant victims, reflects one aspect of the problem. There have been voices from politicians and intellectuals advocating that China should adopt religion as one possible source of constructing a new business morality in its modernization efforts. Among these voices, there are an increasing number of people who argue that Christianity could play a role in rebuilding China’s moral order (Aikman 2003; Bays 2003; Zhao 2006). Significantly, at the same time, empirical studies on Christianity in China (Chen and Huang 2004; Cao 2007) show that a new group of ‘boss Christians’ has emerged. Unlike the stereotyped understanding of Chinese Christians as old, female, and low-educated peasants, ‘boss Christians’ are male and educated entrepreneurs who are adept at integrating Christian values into their businesses. Studies (Yang 2007; Li and Yang 2008) also demonstrate that Christian-owned corporations in China are following Christian ethics, such as integrity, which contribute to workplace practices that are more rational, moral, and legal. These phenomena remind us of Weber’s (1992) thesis on the Protestant ethic. According to Weber, there is an elective affinity between Protestant values – especially in terms of their motivational significance – and ethical economic behaviors in modern Western capitalism. Weber argued that Protestantism inculcated a set of virtues in its adherents that produced a Protestant character, which in the appropriate setting became the self-disciplined and rational entrepreneurs who contributed to the development of early capitalism. However, in his application of the Protestant analogy to China, Weber (1951) argued that China and its religious traditions, that is, Confucianism and Taoism, were not congenial to modernization due mainly to China’s traditionalism. This claim is controversial among Chinese studies scholars especially after the economic growth of Japan and the four Asian tigers, which were seen as having a ‘Confucian society’, attracted worldwide attention. Scholars argued that they found counterparts to a Protestant ethic in Confucianism and took Weber to task for his Eurocentric and erroneous analysis of Asian religions (Yu 1987, 1997; Berger and Hsiao 1988;
Redding 1990; Tu 1991). These studies have been significant in pointing out the importance of Confucianism in providing an economic ethos that fuels the Asian economic development. However, because of their focus, these scholars have inevitably neglected Weber’s original argument on the Protestant ethic and the actual influence, if any, of Christianity and Christian ethics in Asia, including China. Such limitation is also due partly to the fact that Christianity was insignificant in numbers and influence in the past decades in China. With the change of society after the economic reform, noting that Christianity1 is the fastest growing religion in the emerging market economy of China, we can now explore, using more empirical data, the issues of Christian ethics and their effects on business behaviors in China. Recognizing that China’s modern capitalism was not initiated by Christians or any religious groups, I will not examine the macro-relationship between religion and China’s capitalism. My purpose is instead to explore one aspect of the Protestant ethic: how, and to what extent, has Christianity cultivated its adherents’ characters, attitudes, and business practices in China? I will explore this issue at the micro-level, namely, from the subjective understanding of individuals. This chapter seeks to contribute to existing studies that examine Christianity’s influence on Chinese economics. It approaches the issue, however, from a different perspective, that of overseas Chinese Christian entrepreneurs working in China. Ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the United States have been the largest group of foreign investors in China, especially after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. They occupy more than 80 percent of China’s total foreign investments (Chen and Hu 1997; Huang 1998) and employed 18 to 20 million people at the end of 1994 (Tracy and Lever-Tracy 1997). Their critical role in providing the capital and expertise to fuel China’s economic growth has earned them the name of ‘the mother’ (Cheng 1994) or ‘one of the twin engines’ of China’s economic miracle (Lardy 1995). Given their economic and religious influence in China and noting that many of them are religious people, it is important to take this into account to gain a more comprehensive overview of the potential religious influence on China’s economy. This study focuses on the Christians among the overseas Chinese. By doing so, it seeks to debunk the myth of ‘overseas Chinese Confucians’ as espoused by scholars (e.g., Berger and Hsiao 1988; Tai 1989; Redding 1990; Tu 1991; Hefner 1998), which was typically evident in Redding’s (1990: 2) argument: ‘Directly Confucian ideals . . . make Confucianism the most apposite single-word label for the values which govern most of their [overseas Chinese] social behavior’. Through providing an ethnographic account of Christian entrepreneurs, this chapter aims to stimulate a more multi-dimensional perspective of overseas Chinese entrepreneurship and business values.