Professionalism Among Chinese Engineers: An Empirical Study


In 2016, Davis and Zhang surveyed 71 Chinese engineers to investigate the claim that the concept of “profession” may have a far wider range than the term. They concluded that China seems to have a profession of engineering (as Davis has long defined “profession”) even though the Chinese still lacked an exact translation of the English term. In part, the survey reported here simply continues the work of Davis and Zhang. It confirms their result using a much larger, better educated, demographically different pool of 229 Chinese engineers. But, in part too, it does something else. It investigates the concept professional competence—the perceived knowledge, skill, and judgment that those surveyed attribute to themselves and other engineers. The article has four parts. The first part describes the basics of the survey (who was interviewed, how, when, and so on). The second part describes some important features of the survey’s questions, explaining how the questions closely track both the concept of profession and the concept of professional competence. The third part reports and interprets the results relevant to the presence or absence of the concepts of profession and professional competence. The fourth part reports the conclusions.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Indeed, nothing in this approach prevents even the mafia being counted as a profession (once “code of ethics” is omitted or deprived of its moral content). See Sanders (1993).

  2. 2.

    This is not a new point in social contract theory. Compare Rousseau (1978, Bk. I, Ch. V): “This gift itself is a civil act, it presupposes a public deliberation. Therefore, before examining the act by which a people elects a king, it would be well to examine the act by which the people becomes a people. For this act, being necessarily prior to the other, is the true basis of society”.

  3. 3.

    Schmidt (2014, 1005) correctly notes that this argument for following professional standards is deontological (duty-based), since it relies on the moral rule “Don’t cheat.” But he also suggests that there are consequentialist and virtue arguments that should lead to the same conclusion. So, it seems, no one need abandon their preferred moral theory to accept this account of profession.

  4. 4.

    One reviewer for this journal charitably suggested that Iseda meant “occupation” when he used the word “profession” here, something less corporate than “profession” but more corporate than “one’s own work.” That may be. But Iseda would still need to explain why his students should take pride in their occupation rather than in their individual work, without turning “occupation” into “profession”.

  5. 5.

    See Cao et al. 2014, for an example of a member of the anthropological camp working in China; see Didier and Derouet (2013), for an example of a member of the anthropological camp working in France.

  6. 6.

    Both the English and the Chinese survey forms are available at (accessed 21 Nov 2019) along with the raw data on which this article relies and tables summarizing answers to the questions (both those included here and those only referenced).

  7. 7.

    This research received all approvals required in China.

  8. 8.

    The information is available (in Chinese) at (accessed June 26, 2019).

  9. 9.

    The Chinese are not entirely without codes of engineering ethics. For more about such codes in China, see Cao et al. (2014) and Zhang and Davis (2018).


  1. Brandt, R. (1979). A theory of the good and the right. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Cao, N. J., Su, J., & Hu, M. (2014). Ethical awareness in Chinese professional engineering societies: Textual Research on Constitutions of Chinese Engineering Organizations Philosophy and engineering. In D. P. Michelfelder et al. (Eds.) Philosophy and engineering: Reflections on practice, principles and process, philosophy of engineering and technology (Vol 15, pp. 203–214).

  3. Davis, M. (1994). Is engineering ethics just business ethics? International Journal of Applied philosophy, 8(2), 1–7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Davis, M. (1996). Professional autonomy: A framework for empirical research. Business Ethics Quarterly, 6(4), 448–450.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Davis, M. (1998). Thinking like an engineer: Essays in the ethics of a profession. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Davis, M. (2009). Is engineering a profession everywhere? Philosophia, 37(2), 211–225.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Davis, M. (2011). Will software engineering ever be engineering? Communication of the ACM, 54(11), 32–34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Davis, M., & Zhang, H. (2017). Proving that China has a profession of engineering: A case study in operationalizing a concept across a cultural divide. Science and Engineering Ethics, 23(6), 1581–1596.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Didier, C., & Derouet, A. (2013). Social responsibility in french engineering education: A historical and sociological analysis. Science and Engineering Ethics, 19(4), 1577–1588.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Gert, B. (2005). Morality: A new justification of the moral rules (Revise ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Harris, C. E., Jr., Pritchard, M. S., Rabins, M. J., Ray, W., James, P. E., & Englehardt, E. E. (2014). Engineering ethics: Concepts and cases (5th ed.). Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Harris, C. E., Jr., Pritchard, M. S., Ray, W., James, P. E., Englehardt, E. E., & Rabins, M. J. (2019). Engineering ethics: Concepts and cases (6th ed.). Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Iseda, T. (2008). How should we foster the professional integrity of engineers in Japan? A pride-based approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 14(2), 165–176.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Sanders, J. T. (1993). Honor among thieves: Some reflections on codes of professional ethics. Professional Ethics, 2(3/4), 83–103.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Schmidt, J. A. (2014). Changing the paradigm for engineering ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics, 20, 985–1010.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Rousseau, J. (1978). On the social contract. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Zhang, H., & Davis, M. (2018). Engineering ethics in China: A century of discussion, organization, and codes. Business & Professional Ethics Journal, 37(1), 105–135.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Thanks to the support from the Major Project of the National Social Science Fund of China (Research on Ethical Morphology of Chinese Engineering Practice, 15ZDB015), and to Associate Professor Jian Yuan for suggesting a few improvements in the statistical analysis and for his support from the Special Task Project of Humanities and Social Sciences Research of the Ministry of Education (Research on the Cultivation of Engineering and Technical Talents, 18JDGC019). Thanks also for comments of several reviewers for this journal.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael Davis.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic Supplementary Material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (PDF 262 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Wei, L., Davis, M. & Cong, H. Professionalism Among Chinese Engineers: An Empirical Study. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2121–2139 (2020).

Download citation


  • Engineering
  • Profession
  • China
  • Engineers
  • Competence
  • Social contract