China Centrum Tübingen (CCT)

From Poisoned Milk to Fake Vaccines: When Business and Morality Collide in China

Just a decade after Chinese public confidence in food and drug safety was severely undermined by the baby formula scandal in 2008, it was rocked again by widespread distribution of faulty and expired vaccines. Chinese consumers are therefore understandably sceptical about the ethics of many of the country’s manufacturers. The crisis in public confidence has brought business ethicists into the limelight, with many people hoping that these scholars will be able to influence China’s business environment for the better. This has, in turn, led to a boom in research and publishing on the topic of business ethics. The business ethicist has, in fact, become an important social actor and a key link between business and the public when confronted by new scandals.

The ideas and practices of business ethicists, however, are far from homogeneous and they draw on and propose solutions to the business-morality dilemma based both on foreign and domestic, ancient and modern sources. This has led to phenomena ranging from the emergence of research into “Confucian entrepreneurs” and Guoxue (Chinese national studies) as part of MBA and EMBA programmes, local business association-sponsored “National Awards for Moral Enterprises,” a “National Business Ethics Debate Competition” in top Chinese universities, to popular public business ethics lectures offered by famous foreign professors and academic seminars aimed at entrepreneurs.

In this lecture, ZHAO Qian explores the work of business ethicists in two Chinese top universities, scrutinizing the content of their understandings and prescriptions, as well as linking them to the social context and the cultural repertoires on which they draw. Below a surface layer of convergent moral doctrines and norms, she finds fundamental differences in the origins and underpinnings of their ethical thought.


Qian Zhao is currently a PhD candidate at Max Weber Kolleg, University of Erfurt. She was previously a guest lecturer at the Centre for Modern East Asian Studies at the University of Göttingen. Her teaching and research interests include corruption in developing countries and Chinese cultural entrepreneurs in socioeconomic transition, with a particular focus on contemporary Chinese business ethics.