Earlier this week I discussed five paradigms that define stakeholder engagement in China today, presenting at the International Association of Business Communicators’ China Summit. Each of these paradigms challenges conventional wisdom about how to engage stakeholders and government in China.

1. Power of Multi-Stakeholders

There is only one stakeholder that matters in China today: China’s president and core leader, Xi Jinping.  Xi has spent the past five years on ideological tightening and taking measures to control the bureaucracy (not least through technology), with great effectiveness.  But with this tighter control over the organs of central power, Xi has more confidently devolved some day-to-day responsibilities for maintenance and management of society and the economy to well-disciplined government agencies, affiliates, associations and even well-vetted NGOs. This has opened-up a range of stakeholder engagement and influencer opportunities for foreign companies.

Additionally, we are seeing pulses of responsiveness by government to public opinion. While we are far from western style democracy, social media (even when tightly controlled) is acting as a sort of subtle barometer for public sentiment. Examples include backtracking by the authorities on the migrant relocations and winter heating, environmental protections, and Weibo’s recent attempt to ban gay themed content. 

2. Importance of Institutional Relationships

“Guan xi” (or personal relationships) have long been seen as crucial when engaging government in China. They still are, but the anti-corruption campaign since 2012 has resulted in the purge of up to a million Communist Party members and government bureaucrats. This has had a chilling effect on those remaining officials, who are now less willing to help out their old colleagues and personal connections, for fear they will be accused of doing something untoward.  Instead, institutional relationships based on a legitimate shared agenda have emerged as the more acceptable and effective means for foreign engagement of government entities.  

3. Transparency of Government’s Agenda

The inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party and the government remain opaque. At the upper echelons, few people inside or outside the country really know what is happening or why. Yet, arguably China is remarkably transparent about its governing agenda and priorities. Now with Xi’s unshakable power, we have a blueprint for the next 30 years which was outlined in his marathon three-and-a-half-hour work report to the 19th Party Congress in October. The Five Year Plans prepared by every unit of government in 2015 and 2016 also offers tremendous detail that can be used to inform effective engagement strategy. And a plethora of special plans, such as Healthy China 2030, provide businesses a pretty clear road map for government action. 

4. Resurgence of Traditional Channels 

China is leading the world in its uptake of digital channels. With a billion users, WeChat has become the default means of communication and transactions in China, dominating personal, professional and public discourse. 

But we are starting to see a resurgence of old media, which is seen as a purveyor of credibility and authenticity. Like elsewhere in the world, news consumers are become increasingly skeptical of the information they are getting from digital-only sources. The plastic seaweed and plastic rice scandals, which spread like wildfire on social media in 2017, were later determined to be fake.  Informed news consumers and government officials understand the inherent biases and limitation of mainstream media, but the digital platforms of mainstream news outfits like People’s Daily, Xinhua, Caixin, Jiemian and CCTV, offer valuable context and credibility.  

5. Dearth of Competence

While China is awash with former government officials, journalists and traditional PR agency hacks, most bring a single-stakeholder lens that is narrow, out of date and ineffective in today’s multi-stakeholder environment. 

Foreign companies who want to use smart stakeholder engagement as a tool of strategy in the Xi’s New Era must find competent support from people who know how to handle the complexities of engaging in a dynamic, multi-stakeholder landscape—government, media, NGOs, business partners, investors and employees. And as geo-political tensions rise, they must find support from a rare breed of professional advisor who can also navigate the interplay between Chinese stakeholders and the wider world.

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James Robinson

James Robinson, is managing director of APCO Worldwide's Shanghai office and global sustainable growth & corporate purpose practice lead. Read More