The Spirit of the China Development Forum

Mar 21, 2024

It’s that time of the year—late March, when for each of the past 24 years I have gone to Beijing to attend the China Development Forum (during Covid, two of those meetings were virtual). While I missed the first meeting in 2000, I have been there every year since. That gives me the longest attendance record of any foreign participant in the CDF—something of an elder statesman role in arguably the most important public conference held in China each year.

I have been asked repeatedly, why do I go? The best answer is in my latest book, Accidental Conflict (page 290):

“China probably holds more conferences each year than any other nation. No one is actually keeping count, but if my inbox is any barometer, China stands alone. Rarely a week goes by when I don’t get invited to speak or attend (physically, or now virtually) a major conference in China.  Because I can’t possibly attend them all, I turn down over 90 percent of the invitations.

But I do make exceptions, and one of them is the China Development Forum. The CDF was begun by Premier Zhu Rongji in 2000 as a relatively intimate gathering between the Chinese government leaders and a small group of foreign experts that was timed to occur immediately after the annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress every March. Zhu held the provocative belief that senior Chinese officials should debate with “outsiders” on newly approved policies and reforms. He viewed the CDF as a kind of stress test for senior officials, and he encouraged free thinking and vigorous exchanges between Chinese insiders and foreign experts.

Before going virtual due to Covid public health protocols, the CDF had grown to Davos-like proportions. It lost the early intimacy of active engagement but gained considerably in participation and notoriety through extensive Chinese and international media coverage. The CDF’s strength has always been the frank and open format of debate, discussion, and lively exchange of views. For a high-profile conference based in China, it is unique in that respect. It imparts conviction and character to the relationship building exercise between China, the United States, and the rest of the world.” 

I go back this year not just out of a sense of personal loyalty to the CDF community but with a sense of purpose to engage in the China debate at an important time of great uncertainty—uncertainty over the prognosis for China but also uncertainty over how China fits into the broader global puzzle. Of course, I approach the debate as an economist, continuing to focus on the confluence of cyclical pressures (property, local government finances, and deflation) and structural problems (demography, productivity, and debt) bearing down on the Chinese economy. I worry that China’s conventional policy playbook—proactive fiscal and prudent monetary policies—may not be enough address the potentially lethal interplay between these powerful forces.

This challenging economic backdrop is complicated by many of the geostrategic concerns bearing down on China that I have also been writing about—namely, the US-China conflict, the de-globalization of US-led friend shoring, and the tensions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Economists, foreign policy and security analysts, and politicians tend to isolate problems through their own stylized lens. The concerns I addressed in Accidental Conflict arise more out of a holistic interplay between economic, geostrategic, and sociopolitical pressures.

The China debate has long been a moving target. Recently, the Chinese leadership has placed great emphasis on what they call a “higher level opening up.” There are many ways to unpack that slogan—pushing into new industries, embracing new trading partners (i.e., the so-called Global South), attracting new inflows of foreign direct investment, or through a “dual circulation” that emphasizes the interplay between domestic and external sources of growth.

But opening up can also refer to the freedom of expression. I well remember the palpable sense of excitement I felt during the first few years of the CDF, especially when Premier Zhu Rongji was actively engaged in the debate. You could almost feel the energy in the room as CDF participants collectively tackled tough problems that China faced at home and around the world.  We didn’t always agree but we learned from our differences.  As I now make my way back to Beijing, I do so with the hope that there is a new, higher level of engagement at this year’s China Development Forum—recapturing the spirit of open and honest debate that was so vital in the early years of this gathering.

You can follow me on X/Twitter @SRoach_econ

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