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Yanfei HuYanfei Hu
Western University

Institutional Entrepreneurship in an Authoritarian Context: Promoting human rights and democracy in China

The central thesis of institutional entrepreneurship is to unpack the tension between “institution” (the context) and “entrepreneurship”(the action). Extant research favored western democratic contexts, unable to explain institutional entrepreneurship in contexts with higher institutional control, such as authoritarian regimes.

I address this gap with a historical case study about how an American NGO promoted human rights and democracy in China. I combine discourse analysis and inductive case study to discover that 1) The institutional entrepreneur adopted a phased entry strategy to deeply embedded itself in China’s elites and grassroots, overcoming the disadvantage of being a peripheral actor; 2) It adopted a phased legitimation process, first acquiring organizational legitimacy, then pursuing the more controversial issue legitimacy when socio-political contexts opened up; 3) Tactically, it played the role of sensemaking mediator, inspiring diverse local actors to make collective sense of alternative templates.

This study extends the existing theory which focused on contexts of moderate institutional control. Practically, it shows that multinational organizations can adopt subtle forms of institutional entrepreneurship to promote divergent social change in host countries without alienating the authoritarian government


I am a PhD candidate in strategy at the Ivey Business School. My research is at the intersection of organization and society. I primarily use qualitative methods, such as discourse analysis and grounded theory. I like cool contexts that tell unconventional stories! My present projects strive to understand how some organizations managed to change seemingly impermeable social institutions. For example, how did an American foundation promote human rights in a country where such discourse is regarded as highly divergent? How does an animal rights organization de-legitimate the powerful and taken-for-granted meat industry and promote veganism to meat-eating society members? I believe that strategy scholars should be bold enough to bring the concept of strategy beyond business performance to address social issues, and I think we should be relevant not only to business practitioners, but also to the society. Before coming to Ivey, I had taken up roles including business journalist and corporate development manager. I hold an MBA (Ivey) and BA in Economics.

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