Corporate Activism With Chinese Characteristics: Positive Over Punitive

Chinese adults differ from Western European and U.S. adults on how companies should respond to global events, particularly when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Corporate activism in China and the Russia Ukraine Crisis
Getty Images / Unsplash / Morning Consult artwork by Anna Davis
May 09, 2022 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • A plurality of Chinese consumers say they want companies to respond to global events in ways that mirror their customers’ values.

  • But they are less likely than their Western counterparts to identify what should trigger those responses: Smaller shares of Chinese adults are willing to agree that certain behaviors — such as invasion of or cyberattack on another country — should prompt corporate action.

  • On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese consumers favor positive measures (like donations to aid Ukrainians) over punitive measures such as market withdrawal.

  • As the threat of secondary sanctions intensifies, Chinese businesses operating in Russia and/or Ukraine must therefore walk a thin line. The only clear way forward in limiting reputational blowback among Chinese consumers is to focus on helping those affected by the conflict and avoid political entanglement.

Chinese views on corporate activism are less clear-cut than those in Europe and the United States

Corporate activism in China is fundamentally different than in Western Europe and North America: Western companies have made high-profile missteps when trying to understand Chinese sentiment around global events. But Chinese companies are not immune to blunders: Earlier this year, ride-hailing company Didi wound up reversing its decision to exit Russia amid public pressure to support the Kremlin during the Ukraine conflict.  At the same time, sanctions and the risk of their continued tightening are making Chinese companies leery of Russian and Ukrainian markets.

Morning Consult asked Chinese, European, and U.S. adults if they thought companies should respond to global events in general, and how they should respond to the Russia-Ukraine crisis in particular. Chinese consumers agree with their Western European and U.S. counterparts that companies should help Ukrainians, but disagree on whether they should penalize Russia for invading Ukraine.

Chinese adults prefer that companies take a principled stand, but they balk at drawing red lines

Chinese consumers are about as likely as Western European and U.S. respondents to say they want companies to react to global events in ways that reflect their customers’ values.

More than 2 in 5 Chinese, American and European Adults Want Company Responses to Reflect Customer Values

Respondents were asked if they want companies to react to world events in accordance with customers’ values, or to focus on protecting their assets
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Surveys conducted April 11-14, 2022, among a representative sample of 998 Chinese adults and March 29-30 among roughly 990 U.K., German and French adults each, with unweighted margins of error of +/- 3 percentage points. Survey conducted March 30-31 among a representative sample of 2,210 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

But when asked what types of events should trigger a principled reaction, fewer Chinese consumers were willing to pinpoint when companies should respond. A plurality of Chinese respondents agreed that a company should take action if a country invaded or conducted cyberattacks on another country, had objectionable environmental policies or violated human rights by condoning the use of forced labor or repressing free speech. However, in most cases, U.S. and Western European adults were more likely to support taking action. The exception is environmental policies, where 43% of both Chinese and U.S. adults said businesses should respond.

Bar charts showing Chinese are less likely to see corporate activism as necessary compared with Americans and Western Europeans

Chinese consumers on the war in Ukraine choose positive over punitive

When it comes to  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese consumers diverge from Western Europeans and Americans. In contrast to the latter, Chinese consumers largely favor remaining in Russia, and have a net negative response to public opposition to the war or withdrawal from Russian markets. However, respondents are largely on the same page in supporting humanitarian actions like donating to Ukrainian causes and providing aid to refugees. 

Dot plot showing that Chinese adults prefer corporate activism in the form of incentives rather than penalties

The Chinese reluctance to criticize Russia or encourage companies to withdraw reflects Chinese views of Russia in general, which remain rosy.

Chinese Views of Russia Are Overwhelmingly Positive, in Contrast to Opinions in Europe and the United States

Respondents were asked if they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Russia
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Morning Consult Brand Intelligence interviews about 200 adults per brand or country daily and over 12,000 adults around the globe everyday through multiple online survey panel providers. Interviews are conducted among a representative sample of adults in the world’s emerging and largest economies. This survey was conducted in April 2022.

This result is in line with other data on Chinese views of the conflict from the Carter Center, which shows both high Chinese support for Russia and high support for Chinese involvement in brokering peace.

Chinese businesses walk a thin line

For multinationals whose investors and customer bases are primarily located in Europe and the United States, the path forward is much clearer: Withdrawal is the safest option both from a compliance and public relations standpoint. Chinese consumers, on the other hand, favor positive actions like humanitarian aid over punitive measures such as withdrawal or public opposition. As the risk of secondary sanctions increases, however, Chinese companies may need to justify drawdowns to a skeptical public. Their best bet is to place a strong focus on the positive actions they are taking to support a resolution to the conflict and assist those affected by the war.

A headshot photograph of Sonnet Frisbie
Sonnet Frisbie
Deputy Head of Political Intelligence

Sonnet Frisbie is the deputy head of political intelligence and leads Morning Consult’s geopolitical risk offering for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining Morning Consult, Sonnet spent over a decade at the U.S. State Department specializing in issues at the intersection of economics, commerce and political risk in Iraq, Central Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. She holds an MPP from the University of Chicago.

Follow her on Twitter @sonnetfrisbie. Interested in connecting with Sonnet to discuss her analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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