Challenges to Professional Independence in a Relational Society: Accountants in China

Gina Xu*, Steven Dellaportas

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


This study examines the tensions between the western concept of professional independence and accountants’ commitment to significant others under the care perspective of guanxi. The principle of professional independence is founded on arm’s-length transactions to avoid undue influence on professional and ethical judgement. However, in the relational society of China, social interactions based on Confucianism elicit a duty of care and concern towards significant others in important relationships. For a professional accountant, the commitment to persons with whom they have guanxi is potentially at odds with their commitment to professional independence. Data collected from interviews with Chinese accounting professionals, accounting academics and expatriate accountants working in China provide insight on how Chinese accounting professionals discharge their obligations under guanxi. Notions of guanxi and the rules of exchange identified in Hwang’s (Knowledge and action: A social psychological interpretation of Chinese cultural traditions, Sin-Li, Taipei, 1995) model of “Confucian ethics for ordinary people” provide the lens to explain the ethical dilemmas facing Chinese accountants. The findings suggest that accounting professionals prioritise the interests of their superiors and clients over the users of financial reports. Despite accountants’ moral obligation to protect the public interest, personal and professional obligations in China struggle to extend beyond client or employer interests mostly because of the absence of a formal relationship or connection with the public. This contrasts sharply with the notion of professional independence practised in western societies, where accounting professionals must be independent of their clients and superiors and commit to a duty to protect the public interest. The outcome of this study demonstrates the impediments to transplanting western concepts to different cultures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)415-429
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Confucianism
  • Guanxi
  • Professional independence


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