What would Henry Luce think?

By Sheridan Prasso, contributing editor

Henry Luce, the venerable founder of Fortune magazine, once wrote that "Communism is the most monstrous cancer which ever attacked humanity." He was talking about the "loss" of China to Mao Zedong in 1949 and its failure to become a democratic state. It was the greatest disappointment of his life.

So as I was writing this article about Chinese companies investing billions into doing business in the U.S., and the ironies of the Chinese creating jobs for thousands of Americans and saving struggling companies from bankruptcy, the thought kept entering my head like the relentless advance of a Red Army brigade:

What would Henry Luce think?

Luce cared so passionately about China because he had been born there -- to American missionary parents -- and his world view was shaped by an idealism about human civilization that he embodied in his creation of Fortune in 1930, along with Time before it and Life magazine after. Fortune's mission, according to Luce, was to "assist in the development of business enterprise at home and abroad," and to champion the role of the private sector in the creation of a great nation. The very notion of Communism posed an affront to those ideals, and he famously purged writers from his magazines whom he judged to have Communist sympathies.

Of course China today is "Communist" in political name only, with a still anti-democratic government that also promotes capitalist-style economic growth in the very same way that Luce envisioned for America. The idea of a pro-market autocracy from the left, rather than from the right, was never imagined in Luce's day.

So to find out what Luce would think, I phoned Professor Alan Brinkley, the author of the new biography, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century . I caught him getting out of a taxi on a busy New York street and posed my question.

"His lifelong dream of China was, to a significant degree, the kind of China that exists now," Brinkley told me over the cacophonic din of sirens and street noise. "He certainly didn't want a Communist government, but the government of China today is not the kind of Communist government that Luce knew when he was alive. His greatest hope was that China would become a prosperous, Westernized, globally important nation, and that's what China has become."

"If Luce were to come back to life and see China today, he would be amazed -- not entirely happy, but impressed," Brinkley continued. "He'd be critical of the government just as lots of Americans are. It's certainly a China that is much more like the China that he had envisaged than the China he knew in the last years of his life."

Luce suffered a heart attack in 1967 and left this world just as I was coming into it. In my lifetime, I have studied China with fascination as it has grown from impoverished nation into economic power -- still with its myriad problems on human rights, free speech, and other democratic ideals, but also promoting the kind of economic prosperity, at home and now in the United States -- that would have made Henry Luce proud.