Corporate human rights accountability
: contextualising the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights in multinational corporation supply chains In China

  • Guodong Cheng

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This study sets out to examine the contextualisa2on of a par2cular United Na2ons (UN)human rights instrument, called the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights(UNGPs), in the supply chain of a mul2na2onal corpora2on (MNC, Alpha). In doing so,special aFen2on is given to the contextualisa2on of these principles in China, where someof the main suppliers of Alpha are located (such as a company which will be called Beta).The contextualisa2on is mainly approached from an accountability perspec2ve, which isconceived as expressions of the quality of human relatedness. Through the theore2callens of Edward Said’s concepts of authority and molesta-on, this research aims to addressthe ques2on of how the text of UNGPs with respect to human rights accountability isauthored and molested by several (inter)na2onal actors including the UN, the Chinesegovernment, Alpha and its supplier Beta, and finally by several important local actors:workers and managers who are employed by Beta. Data is collected in the form of Said’sno2on of “text” as both wri2ngs, uFerings and inscrip2ons through qualita2ve researchmethods. These include document analysis of UN interpre2ve reports, several Chinesegovernment documents, Alpha’s and Beta’s codes of conduct (CoC), and posters collectedwithin Beta’s factories rela2ng to human rights. Spoken texts are collected as well,through semi-structured interviews with workers and managers, as well as throughpar2cipant observa2on in one Beta factory. By analysing these texts, this researchsketches the process in which the text of UNGPs is cascaded down and made prac2cal (ornot) through molesta-on by the aforemen2oned actors. The examina2on of formalwriFen texts authored by UN, the Chinese government, Alpha and Beta suggests that thetext regarding human rights accountability in the UNGPs are interpreted in a par2cularway, which demonstrates both the enabling and constraining func2ons of molesta-on.That is to say, these interpre2ve texts will never be the faithful copy of the UNGPs, but areinten-onally (or some2mes uninten-onally) reconstruc2ng UNGPs in a way that deviatesifrom its original meanings by adding, dele2ng, selec2ng and re-shaping certain ideas. Inthis way, they constrain the text of UNGPs. However, the molesta-on is also enabling bygiving the text of UNGPs a reality check, thereby rendering them more prac2cal in theactors’ contexts. The informal texts uFered by local workers and managers display a largerextent of molesta-on. While it is understandable that the text of UNGPs will not be fullypresented on the ground level, this study revealed that the molested version of UNGPs—the corporate CoCs and onsite posters are further molested by workers as largely voidpromises or symbolic prac2ces, while they are oWen held in high regards by managers.This study also explores the cultural, social and economic sources that give rise to thesemolesta-ons. Such molesta-on can be enabling as it makes abstract human rightsprinciples ac2onable and brings them closer to the local actors’ context. However, it isalso constraining as it impedes the way that accountability works in the UNGPs.
Date of Award2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aston Business School
SupervisorMelina Manochin (Supervisor), Ivo De Loo (Supervisor) & Ataur Belal (Supervisor)


  • guiding principles on business and human rights,
  • human rights
  • accountability
  • MNCs
  • China

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