November 14, 2005
Internet war on economists lesson for many
Are we talking about brain drain, or are we talking about ideological wars? See below.
Internet war on economists lesson for many
By You Nuo (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-11-14 05:18
As a class war is being waged in the ghettos of French cities, another class war, as it were, is being waged on the Chinese Internet - and is teaching us a lesson about where reforms may need to be stepped up.
The Chinese war is the war against "mainstream economists." There are many definitions for that phrase, from apologists for the rich to lazy bones in research.
Some overseas Chinese academics are taking advantage of this event to promote themselves. Someone reportedly declared that there are no more than five top-notch economists on the Chinese mainland. Although he later reportedly retracted some of his words, there are already different versions of mainland economists' rating lists.
Already more than 90 per cent of Chinese Internet surfers have agreed with the poor assessment of economists, according to a survey on a major news portal.
The picture may get messier when more individuals and journalists add fuel to the debate. Soon enough, I am afraid, more personality attacks may be involved. The debate will degenerate into a boring game of mud-slinging and name-calling under hollow moral slogans.
If that happens, the whole event will be like the debate on reform among Confucian scholars around 900 years ago (in the Northern Song Dynasty). In the end, the opportunity to reform was lost as the debate became a ferocious fight for power, driven by blind hatred.
But what is really going on here? In my opinion (my personal opinion, that is), however, the dissatisfaction is not just with economists or economics, even though they are the proclaimed targets.
A public opinion campaign against economists would have been unthinkable in the early days of the reform, when they were showing great courage in exposing flaws in the planned economy, and in proposing market orientation for the reform that has earned China considerable wealth and respect from the world.
Don't forget that less than two decades ago, market was still a bad word and mainstream economics was still about the planned economy. Private entrepreneurs and migrant workers alike should be grateful for the pioneering work, and even personal costs, taken by Chinese economists in that time.
If anyone suggested that China could have become the world's leader in terms of GDP growth and manufacturing prowess by having the world's worst bunch of economists, it would be hard for most people to understand the logic.
In fact, the widespread grumbling about mainstream economists is only a recent phenomenon, with its roots in the mid-1990s. Since then, in contrast with the enormous change in China's economic landscape, especially in its coastal regions, reform has been slow in some key areas of public service, and reflects a poor sense of direction at times.
Most importantly, there was an unbearable rise in costs, open and hidden, in education and medical care; not as many urban jobs as expected were created for rural people, and not as many new cities were built in poorer regions. Economists did not seem as actively involved in the reform of those areas.
Some of them have died or retired. Some have turned to other interests, such as researching Chinese classical philosophy and running business schools or teaching. Some have even become board members of large corporations.
But those who championed the rights of private entrepreneurs should work equally hard to stress private firms' obligations. Those who broke down society's old institutions should also be creative in building new institutions, to ensure that a freer flow of goods and services will be followed by a wider spread of opportunities.
Building social institutions is harder than building companies. As we have seen in many countries, the administration of education, medical care, pensions and equal opportunities can arouse protests and split society. How long can China wait before it learns, from its economists and other social scientists as well, about their pioneering work in institution building; their papers, surveys, pilot projects, then call for new practices?
Yet economists aren't the only ones to blame. All Chinese intellectuals, especially those in public service, should make some self-criticisms - economists, political scientists, historians, sociologists, psychologists, and journalists too. They all bear the responsibility to carry reforms forward.
There may be just five fine economists in China. At least naming them is not hard, for there are plenty of names available. For political scientists, however, there may not be even five names to choose from, judging from their public influence.