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International Management

How does the pursuit of harmony shape expatriate management in Chinese multinational corporations?

9 September 2019
Since the 1980s, China has shifted from a planned economy to a socialist market-oriented economy.

In our latest post, PhD researcher Muhao Du outlines the ambitions of his doctoral research on Chinese expatriate management. The post is based on his prizewinning poster presentation exhibited at the inaugural Welsh Postgraduate Research Conference in June 2019.

My research focuses on the lifecycle of expatriate management in Chinese multinational corporations (MNCs) through the experiences of the expatriates themselves. The study is placed in the context of the concept of ‘harmony’, which is said to characterise the Chinese approach to human resource management (HRM). By focusing the research on the concrete experiences of Chinese expatriates, the research will develop detailed case histories and provide a more personal insight into Chinese HRM.

Chinese context

Since the 1980s, China has shifted from a planned economy to a socialist market-oriented economy in line with China’s economic reform and opening-up policy (also called the ‘open-door policy’).

“Economic reform has played a critical and fundamental role in the development of China for the past four decades.”

The open-door policy attracted foreign direct investment to facilitate Chinese domestic development, signalling its insertion into the global economy.

In 1999, the open-door policy was overtaken by the ‘Going Out’ policy, which emphasised market and resource seeking motives, to accelerate outward foreign direct investment by Chinese firms and to open the Chinese domestic market further, to improve China’s global competitiveness. The ‘Going Out policy’ has contributed to many Chinese firms becoming internationalised and eventually provided a solid foundation for China to later access the World Trade Organisation. As a result of this policy shift, increasing numbers of Chinese employees have been working overseas in Chinese MNC subsidiaries.

More recently, the ‘One Belt and One Road’ project, proposed in 2013, has further facilitated the expansion of Chinese MNCs. This ambitious project is a development strategy focusing on infrastructure development and investments in around 152 countries across Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. Thus, it can be predicted that the number of Chinese expatriates will be increasing.

The evolution of Chinese HRM

In parallel to the implementation of China’s ‘reform and opening-up’ policy, Warner (2011, p. 3229) wrote that “a new form of people-management, (renli ziyuan guanli), which literally means ‘labour force resources management’, became – for good or ill – something of a synonym for what was to be generally understood as HRM (see Warner 2008 on this point).’ It is important to note that against the background of economic change, the state intervention characteristic of the Chinese business system persists. It plays a role in shaping people management in the Chinese context and influences a particular approach to human resource management (HRM), deemed as Chinese HRM (Warner 2008). It is to be seen in “specific HR initiatives that are informed by the ideological values that the state seeks to promote, namely, to build a knowledge society and a harmonious society” (Cooke 2011a, p.3844). Though it has been claimed that Chinese HRM is converging to the Western model, the impact of traditional Chinese personnel practices remains strong and may be seen in traditions such as group orientation, loyalty and seniority and the distinctive role of the official trade union in the Chinese political context (Cai et al. 2011). The main characteristics of Chinese HRM as involving paternalistic, hierarchical, compliant and coercive behaviours (see Cooke 2011b), yet the issue of ‘harmony’ is also important.

The concept of harmony

In Chinese thought, ‘harmony’ is said to be associated with the principles of Confucianism. Li (2006) defines harmony as the objective that people should behave or conduct any activities through a set of principles and/or rules. The emphasis on the harmonious relationships and social obligation, as well as high moral standards to those in a higher authority position in a family and the society, has been claimed to give rise to a gentler management approach in China (Lin and Ho 2009). In practical terms, when such principles are transferred to the workplace, a key assumption is that the avoidance of conflict between employers and employees is a priority. There is resonance here with the unitary perspective that underpins HRM in Western settings such as the UK.

“In China, pursuit of harmony at the workplace is understood to mirror and support a harmonious environment in society.”

Throughout my PhD study, it will be interesting to examine how harmony is sustained and influences the management of expatriates not only while they are on assignments working outside China but also when they return home.

The study will, therefore, follow the life histories of expatriates from recruitment through to repatriation.

Muhao Du is a PhD candidate at Cardiff Business School.

His research focuses on expatriate management in Chinese multinational corporations.


  • Cai, Z, M. et al. 2011. Explaining the human resource management preferences of employees: a study of Chinese workers. The International Journal of Human Resource Management 22(16), pp. 3245-3269.
  • Cooke, F, L. 2011a. The role of the state and emergent actors in the development of human resource management in China. The International Journal of Human Resource Management 22(18), pp.3830 – 3848.
  • Cooke, F. L. 2011b. Human Resource Management in China: New Trends and Practices. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Li, C. 2006. The Confucian Ideal of Harmony. Philosophy East and West 56(4), 583-603.
  • Lin, L. H., and Ho, Y, L. 2009. Confucian dynamism, culture and ethical changes in Chinese societies – a comparative study of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The International Journal of Human Resource Management 20(11), pp.2402–2417.
  • Warner, M. 2008. Reassessing human resource management ‘with Chinese characteristics: an overview. International Journal of Human Resource Management 19(5), pp.771–801.
  • Warner, M. 2011. Society and HRM in China. The International Journal of Human Resource Management 22(16), pp.3223-3244.