China, Capitalism, and Character

(I wrote this a few weeks back in the cab on the way to the airport leaving Shanghai…)

I am wrapping up what has been a phenomenal trip to Shanghai and Beijing. I finally made the trip I have been wanting to make for a decade, and I’m so glad that I did.

A Nation of Capitalists

The reflections an observations of these past days are far too many for a post or likely my words at all, but one observation that struck me was just how capitalist China seems.

It seems to be a country of scrappy, hard-working dreamers. Everyone I met in their twenties had plans for bigger and better things – new careers, new cities, new adventures.

It also showed up in day-to-day life from the taxis to the stores to the mega-nightclubs. Everyone was reaching for that edge – like a game of poker with no cards and all bluff – posture was everything.

But rather than being put-off or intimidated my the melee, I dove into it and started smiling. My poker face was no match, but it was fun to play along.

Did I get “ripped off” a few times in the process? Sure. I definitely spent few extra dollars over the last two weeks because I pushed the envelope and took chances. But it was well worth it.

Tension Between Ethics And Profit

Seeing people push that line of ethics beyond the breaking point in the pure pursuit of profit is something I have seen in worlds from high finance on Wall Street, to the competitiveness of Harvard classrooms, and now on the streets of China.

It is the same fundamental strain: What are you made of when the chips are down? Are you willing to sacrifice your character for a few dollars or points or yuan? Or do you believe integrity is worth it?

We have seen the results of a collective group of decisions to put the game ahead of integrity, and we will be picking up the pieces for the next few years if not longer. Yet when a market-mentality replaces morality and values in people’s decision-making processes we should expect nothing less. This is a symptom of a broader social problem.

Striving For Integrity

I would be lying if I said I have never crossed the line. Sure I have…we all have. But I have sincerely tried – especially in the last six months or so – to put my integrity, character and transparency high on my priority list.

Maybe that makes me a sucker in some sense – but consciously choosing to take the high road when you see the alternative in front of you seems different than being duped into naivete.

In other words, I have seen the demons and know that dark path exists, but I’ll keep trying to resist it and instead keep trying to walk with my head held high and with honor. I know that it will come in fits and starts, but I am grateful to have many of you out there walking along with me.

In the mean time, I think I may have paid too much for some souvenirs…

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