China’s economy is commonly viewed as a state-orchestrated system that leaves little room for private initiative. This picture ignores deep socio-economic changes occurring under the façade of state capitalism. Today, private enterprise is the most dynamic economic sector, and a rapidly growing population of private entrepreneurs, many of them newly wealthy, is changing the system from below. As they strive for legitimacy, social status and political influence, they are reshaping the social and political landscape. Understanding China’s future and the pathways of institutional change therefore requires deep knowledge of the underlying norms and institutions that guide entrepreneurial behavior.

What are the norms guiding their activities? To what extent do they translate into civic participation and philanthropic activities, as China’s entrepreneurial elite seeks not only to extend its economic power but also to secure socio-cultural legitimacy and political influence? Are entrepreneurs perhaps rediscovering norms associated with the long-lasting liberal tradition of neo-Confucianism—notably, norms of public-spiritedness—and adapting such prosocial norms to the needs of an emergent market capitalist economy? Such an ethics would resemble the ethics—and spirit—that was key to the emergence of modern capitalism in the West.

Building on our true panel surveys of 700 entrepreneurs in the Yangzi delta region, our proposed study will use novel quantitative survey methods and “lab-in-the-field” behavioral experiments to measure cultural beliefs and norms, making these otherwise hard-to-capture “soft facts” accessible to formal analysis. Through scholarly articles and a planned book, as well as academic courses, the proposed research aims to contribute to the broader debate on whether prosocial norms of fairness, cooperation and public-spiritedness, are necessary for the sustainability of modern capitalism.