Communism for Profiteers

As Congress argues about alleged tranfer of sensitive military secrets and technology to China, and while officials in Beijing step up their campaign against dissidents, Fortune magazine is arranging for several hundred corporate executives to travel to Shanghai this fall, just in time to celebrate half a century of Chinese communism. The execs will be attending the invitation-only 1999 Fortune Global Forum -- participation is limited to "chairmen, presidents, and CEOs of major multinational companies" -- which will focus on "the practical realities of doing business in China today and into the next century."Entitled "China: The Next Fifty Years," the three-day event will open on Sept. 27 and conclude just prior to the official celebration on Oct. 1 marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Along with corporate honchos from Sweden, Germany, Finland, Brazil, Japan, India, and England, there will be American execs from companies such as Dell Computer Corp., Ford Motor Co., General Electric Co., and Honeywell Inc. Chinese business and government leaders will be on hand as well, thereby giving Global Forum participants the opportunity to, as the event's promotional materials put it "network with good people."According to Fortune, some of the corporate chieftains will travel on to Beijing "for anniversary commemorations" of 50 years of communism and watch the Chinese military parade at Tiananmen Square as part of the festivities. Fortune is careful to point out, however, that the executives who do choose to go on to Beijing will be attending the fete on their own, and not as part of the conference.One astonished China watcher on Capitol Hill, who asked not to be named, thought it more than ironic that the titans of capitalism are traveling to China to celebrate the achievements of communism. "What does it imply for the future of democracy in China? If you are struggling to bring democracy to China, you have to fight not only the secret police, but now Western business interests and the Western media as well."The Chinese government is rolling out the red carpet for the CEOs. They'll be officially welcomed by President Jiang Zemin, who is scheduled to travel to Shanghai to deliver the keynote address at the opening night dinner. Jiang has also "inscribed a greeting in calligraphy, sending his personal best wishes for the Forum's success," according to the conference's Web site.Of course, no China affair would be complete without former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the man who downplayed the massacre at Tiananmen Square and who now consults for companies doing business in China. He's slated to be the main attraction at the luncheon on the Global Forum's second day.Other retired government officials set to journey to Shanghai include former United States Trade Representative Carla Hills and former Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, who is scheduled to deliver a speech entitled "What Now for China?" Fortune has also lined up a lecture by Lee Kuan Yew, who was the notoriously law-and-order-obsessed prime minister of Singapore for 37 years and who now serves as a senior minister in that country.The conference is being organized by Fortune's business side -- the head of the magazine's conference division, John Needham, has temporarily moved to Shanghai to oversee planning for the gala affair -- but a number of editors and journalists are attending, including some senior Fortune editors who will be moderating panel discussions. These include Norman Pearlstine, editor-in-chief of Fortune and Time magazines as well as other Time Inc. publications, and John Huey, Fortune managing editor. In a Global Forum brochure, Huey describes the affair as "the most important international event in our magazine's 69-year history."Among the plenary workshops and panel discussions in development for the conference are "Making Money in China Today," "Business and the People's Liberation Army," and -- congressional investigators take note -- "Expanding China's High-Technology Industrial Base." In the interest of diplomatic sensitivity, there will be no discussion of impolitic topics like human rights. Not surprisingly, that angers some activists."There are positive messages you can send and there are those that condition Chinese authorities to believe they can get away with unacceptable international behavior," says Minky Worden, who lived in Hong Kong for six years and is now a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch. "This sends an implicit message to Chinese officials that the [current] crackdown is just super with U.S. companies."To such criticisms, Fortune spokeswoman Terry McDevitt responds, "We're a business magazine, not a political magazine. Human rights is not one of the things we normally cover." She added, "Though I don't want that to sound like no one here thinks about that."The Global Forum will also provide for one of those marvelous moments of media synergy. Time-Warner Inc., which publishes Fortune, is putting the production on. Another of Time-Warner's subsidiaries, CNN, plans to air coverage of the event."It's natural and appropriate for CNN to cover this gathering," says Eason Jordan, president of international news for CNN. "The Forum brings together Chinese leaders and many of the world's top business leaders in the world's most populous nation on the 50th anniversary of its establishment," he said. The potential conflict-of-interest will be avoided in the usual way, according to Jordan: "CNN in its reporting on the Forum will disclose what many people already know -- CNN and Fortune have the same parent company, Time-Warner." Fortune's Web site urges that interested parties recommend speakers for the magazine's conferences. You might suggest Bao Tong, the government official who served seven years for speaking out in favor of the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. Send your own recommendations to Fortune at TAG: This article was originally published by the MoJo Wire (, Mother Jones magazine's online sister.

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