We examine the association between mandatory corporate social responsibility (CSR) disclosure and economic contribution (tax payments) in China, where we expect this association to be affected by a region's institutional attributes. Exploiting a dataset that shows cross-regional variations in institutions, we find that in regions with lower institutional quality, firms claiming to be socially responsible actually avoid taxes, whereas CSR disclosure in other regions is more aligned with the social responsibility aspect of tax compliance. Our study contributes to the literature by demonstrating that in the absence of proper institutions, CSR disclosure is likely to remain a form of window dressing.
Do Chinese firms that claim social responsibly fully meet their economic responsibilities (in terms of tax payments) to society? Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the social irresponsibility of corporate tax avoidance have separately attracted a great deal of scholarly attention.1 Studies examining the relation between CSR and tax avoidance in Australia and the U.S. report mixed results ranging from a negative relation (e.g., Hoi, Wu, & Zhang, 2013; Lanis & Richardson, 2012) to a positive relation (Davis, Guenther, Krull, & Williams, 2016).2 Watson (2015) further finds that the negative/positive relation depends on whether firms have surplus resources with which to support CSR activities. Studies suggest that a country's institutional environment affects corporate reporting behavior (Atwood, Drake, Myers, & Myers, 2012; Ball, Kothari, & Robin, 2000). For example, it affects tax avoidance (Atwood et al., 2012), perceptions of the importance of corporate ethics and tax compliance (Demirbag, Frecknall-Hughes, Glaister, & Tatoglu, 2013; Riahi-Belkaoui, 2004; Shafer, Fukukawa, & Lee, 2007; Snell & Tseng, 2002), and attitudes toward CSR (Muller & Kolk, 2015). Marquis and Qian (2013) find that regional institutional development in China influences the extent to which reported CSR activities are symbolic or substantive in nature. Making use of a dataset that displays substantial cross-regional variations in institutions within a single country, this study examines whether there is a difference in the association between mandatory CSR reporting, as measured by an independent CSR rating agency, and tax-based corporate economic contributions to society depending on the quality of the institutional environment in which the firms operate. We argue that firms are less likely to view tax payments as an important social obligation in regions with less developed market economies, insufficient legal infrastructure and professional intermediaries, less ethical awareness and commitment to social obligations, low faith in government, and low-cost consequences of misconduct. However, these firms may engage more in other, less expensive CSR activities as a counterbalance to any negative views associated with their aggressive tax reporting. Therefore, we expect that firms in these regions may adopt more aggressive tax positions while using a less substantive CSR strategy to window dress their CSR reports. In contrast, in regions where (1) stakeholder monitoring of corporate affairs is more active, (2) people are less accepting of unethical behavior and have more faith in government institutions, (3) economic costs imposed on noncompliance with laws and social norms are higher, and (4) managers are more likely to refrain from actions that deviate from the tax obligations expected of them by society, we expect CSR-minded firms to be more likely to view taxes as complementing their CSR activities and to pay fair taxes