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China: The Value in Values

I'm in Shanghai this morning, speaking at The U.S. Consulate on The Athena Doctrine. Yesterday I spoke to business leaders at The American Chamber of Commerce and on Friday I'll be in Beijing with business and media leaders. I've been coming to China for over  twenty years now and one trend that's clear is after twenty-five years of economic boom, the Chinese definition of success has begun to shift. And with it, major opportunity for leaders who understand the value in values.

In addition to the pursuit of wealth and status, people are yearning for a kind of spiritual fulfillment, which you can't get from shopping. While their own economic success has reinforced nationalistic pride, attention is turning to social good, environmental stewardship and the desire for sustainability. At the same time, The Chinese government has scaled back its presence, opened up markets for profit-driven concerns, but in a way has left a leadership vacuum. First it was the transition from a command-and-control to a free market economy, and now it has reduced its role as a cultural arbiter, declining to define the values that should guide individuals and society. With the government less apt to fill the space for values, Chinese people set their moral, social, and commercial priorities. And in this leadership gap, there is a grassroots development of socially conscious businesses and, for the first time in Chinese history, the rise of philanthropy and private service organizations.

Bessie Lee, an executive at Group M in Shanghai calls this the “soft power” to effect change in China in ways the government cannot control. The government is aware of a values gap that must be closed if people are to become concerned, engaged citizens, she said. However, more than fifty years of Communist rule had left the country with no independent social service sector to do what government could not. “There was no culture of philanthropy,” said Gaungshen Gao, who runs the Sun Culture Foundation, at Gates-Foundation like Enterprise founded by Yang Lan, who is often referred to as the "Oprah Winfrey" of China. The real problem with China’s lack of a charity sector became obvious to all after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which left 4.5 million people homeless. Chinese people responded generously, however, the public later learned that 85 percent of the money donated had ultimately gone to the government because the private aid organizations had not put it to use.

Indeed, Lee says that a better Chinese society won't come from the "efficient machine" of the Communist state. Instead it will come from private enterprises, which are just beginning to shape public tastiest, attitudes and behaviors. The Athena thinkers here in Shanghai are already stepping up to the challenge. As people look to businesses for social leadership, there will be leaders who meld a restoration of pre-Communist values with modern management. Sure, the wealth has been great, but values are the next 'Boom Market'.