Right now, we are seeing the beginnings of "China" as a country brand. Rather than reject UN declarations on human rights and other norms, China has sought to portray itself as an unlikely defender of human rights and shifts the focus on the human rights record of the United States. China is embracing and shaping international institutions, not rejecting them.
My guess is that Chinese enterprises will become more sensitive to human rights issues when recognizable Chinese corporate brands enter the scene. Sure, cheap Chinese cars are making headway in low-end markets. Chinese business standards will improve when customers demand an improvement, including in supply chains.
This week I am in Singapore and I got a detailed explanation of this state's brand a couple of days ago at the Singaporean Chamber of Commerce. Singapore's brand is to be the best environment for foreign direct investment (FDI). Its Economic Development Board uses its international connections and intelligence to identify the Next Big Thing and figures out how to make Singapore an attractive nest for that Thing.
Singapore looks for the top partners on the planet for the projects. In other words, if they want to get high finance, they do not look for the managers of funds, rather they look for the people who advise the managers. The very top.
The Next Big Thing now is water technology, digital media, and biotechnology—Singapore attracted the Dolly guy. A gleeful article in the Straits Times yesterday captures this attitude. The top headline was "US business, political elite upbeat about S'pore: PM," and the piece started out with this:
"America's movers and shakers are upbeat about Singapore and that, to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is one sign it is doing the right things."
Singapore is doing the "right things"—to leapfrog the region in technology. The other interesting thing is that Singapore draws on national pride to abandon bad projects, instead of holding on and bleeding resources: Think of the Malaysian Proton car. A great strategy, but ASEAN resentment or jealousy toward Singapore is understandable, especially since the common wisdom in the region was that Asian economies would follow an orderly flying-geese pattern of economic development.
Not only has Singapore's success created distrust, the state is too small to lead Asian regionalism. Thailand's leadership prospects have been put on hold by the coup. The Philippine economy is too weak. That leaves Indonesia or possibly Malaysia as candidates.