It is no longer possible to understand public policy without focusing intensively on the public roles of the business sector. The world is awash in experimental private governance, from corporate codes of conduct, to demands for disclosure of private sector environmental and social impacts, to ‘social enterprises’ that aim to save the world the profitable way. Such experiments are emerging within Asia, changing the terms of the social licence to operate as society becomes more adept at making demands for good corporate citizenship and as the natural resource crisis begins to hit home. And as Asian corporations go global, they encounter new standards for social responsibility. Yet far too little is known about the status of these trends in Asia and how the debates over corporate responsibility, developed in a Western context, might translate given the very different relationships among government, business and society in the region. This article explores practice and theory to uncover what is already known and how to frame further research. It concludes by laying out a research agenda to analyse how the public roles of the private sector in Asia are evolving, and why they matter.