Handling policy on the ground

Like all thinking economists, I’ve been fascinated by the transformation of China in our lifetimes and the implications of its emergence as a major economic power. Although no expert, I’ve read quite a lot of the popular books on the country and its economy. Many fall into the hype trap – either China will take over the world, or it will experience a terrible setback because of the many challenges of rapid development on a huge scale.

My favourites have been the books of reportage such as Leslie Chang’s  or Richard McGregor’s  or even Fuschia Dunlop’s . I’m also looking forward to Danny Quah’s forthcoming book on global economic hegemony in the post-US unipolar world  – he recently posted this online.

Meanwhile, this week I’ve read one of the best books so far about the drama of China’s journey – in my lifetime – from the brutality of the Cultural Revolution to the cultural and political as well as economic and social tensions of a society whose average living standards have doubled every seven years but very unevenly distributed. It’s Jianying Zha’s .

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It’s a slim book, a series of essays focussing on certain individuals in the business and in the cultural worlds. Ms Zha has lived her adult life between China and the US, having grown up with a family sent to work on a farm out of Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, and having made her way out via university as soon as the climate began to change. The dual perspective is illuminating. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about economist Zhang Weiying’s proposals for reforming Beijing’s university – some of the description of the controversy could have been applied verbatim to the UK context. “Like a typical economist, he marches stridently by the logic of the market and tries to turn the university into an efficient production line, a lean and mean academic market. … He sees running the university essentially as a management affair, not a supple and subtle art which requires, among other things, tolerance and the ability to recognize idiosyncratic geniuses who don’t fit a cookie cutter plan.” Are there any universities even in the US that really march by the logic of the market?

The book also furnished me with a bunch of new-to-me Chinese proverbs. My favourite: “When there is policy from above, there is always a way of handling it on the ground.” Also: “Dropping a stone on someone’s head after he falls into a well.” (Equivalent obviously to kicking someone when he’s down.)

It’s beautifully written and illuminating about debates within China, rather than the western debate about China. Highly recommended.

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