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Letter from China

I expected something else, a place where I would feel less at home, a place whose people, language, culture, and political economy would feel totally different from my own. I expected Eastern civilization to be a stark contrast with the West; but that doesn't appear to be the emerging China. Here, as well as at home, the pursuit of economic and technological progress reigns supreme; and here, as at home, there are those who worry that people may bargain away their souls in the quest.

True, the pace of the bargaining differs, and the social fallout is swifter. I cannot remember a day in my Western life when a brand-new car and a donkey-drawn hay cart were equally involved in the same traffic jam. Before China I had not seen an adult's three-wheeled tricycle being pedaled past an Apple computer store. I had never walked from the world's largest McDonald's to the fifteenth-century Forbidden City. Modernization that took the better part of a century in North America is occurring here in less than a decade. No wonder that this first Beijing International Conference on Business Ethics attracted so much attention, particularly from journalists here.

The first conference speaker, Mr. Hu Peng, the director of China's special economic zones, reiterated the themes of the Sixth Plenum of the 14th Communist Party of China (CPC), which met just two weeks earlier. He boldly proclaimed that China is committed to the future of its "socialist market economy"; but the party conference stressed that China cannot be economically successful unless it is equally committed to the simultaneous development of a more "spiritual civilization." The CPC, in its published resolutions, has made this a central thesis: one cannot develop an effective market economy without parallel progress in moral values.

Mr. Hu is right, of course; and I wish that all of you could hear in memory the Chinese analysis as we reflect on our North American culture. This is not a truth confined to any particular country. ...

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