What’s the Point?

Apr 5, 2024

That is the tough question that I am now asking myself after my recent trip to Beijing to attend the 25th annual China Development Forum (CDF). Having been to all but the first CDF in 2000, my participation over each of the ensuing 24 years makes me the longest-attending foreign delegate to China’s most important public conference. I have seen the CDF in its best days and in its tougher days. This year was a low point—giving rise to the question I pose above.

I raise this question as a CDF insider, present at the creation of this event by former Premier Zhu Rongji who believed in the power of debate and exchange between senior Chinese leaders and foreign “experts” from academia, think tanks, and multinational businesses. Zhu brilliantly timed the event to occur immediately after the National People’s Congress (NPC), holding the provocative view that the ministers of China’s State Council should be tested by external debate immediately after their internal deliberations at the NPC.

Zhu Rongji practiced what he preached. I remember well my first CDF in 2001 when I was a keynote speaker at what was then a much smaller, more intimate gathering. I presented my views on the global economy, arguing that a post-dotcom slowdown was at hand. Fred Bergsten, founder of the Petersen Institute for International Economics, took the other side of the debate. At the conclusion of CDF 2001, Premier Zhu convened the attendees and listened as John Bond, Chairman of HSBC, began to summarize the three-day gathering. Zhu quickly grew impatient and cut him off; what he really wanted was a live recap of the Roach-Bergsten debate and called on the two of us to summarize our respective positions. At the end of the meeting, Premier Zhu pulled me aside and said in perfect English, “Roach, I hope you are wrong, but we will plan as if you are right.” The next year at the CDF he warmly greeted me with a simple, “Thank you.”

It is in that spirit and in the spirit of many subsequent years of active participation in CDF sessions that I bemoan the loss  of what had been a vigorous culture of debate in China. The CDF has effectively been neutered as an open and honest platform of engagement. Word has been sent down from on high that there is room for only “the good stories of China.” Anyone who raises questions about problems, or even challenges, faces exclusion from the public sessions.

That was certainly true for me. On the eve of CDF 2024, I was informed by the powers that be that “… your recent comments on the Chinese economy have generated intense scrutiny and even controversy among Chinese and international press. It is very likely that whatever you say at CDF in a public setting will be misinterpreted and even sensationalized by media, which is not in the best interest of you or us.”  As a result, I was not given a speaking role for the first time in 24 years. Moreover, my background paper on Chinese rebalancing that I had been invited to prepare as part of the CDF “Engagement Initiative” was not published or distributed, as was normally the case in the past.

Nor was I the only one singled out.  An economist friend who I have known and respected for years was instructed before going on stage not to say anything negative about the economic outlook. Censorship is one thing, political correctness another. But thought control aimed at stifling debate is another matter altogether. That gets to the essence of the question I posed above: What’s the point?

I went to CDF 2024 with the idealistic hope that the flames of the original spirit of this event were still flickering. As I wrote in Accidental Conflict, I am fully mindful of the changes that have occurred in Chinese discourse in recent years. Notwithstanding ever tighter efforts at information control, I harbored the admittedly naïve view that there was still room for analytically grounded, empirically supported research. After all, I had long been viewed as a “good friend of China.” My error was to presume that my special relationship gave me license to raise tough questions about important issues bearing on China’s medium- to longer-term growth outlook.

CDF 2024 closed the door on that possibility. The event was tightly scripted, with no debate, no meaningful exchange of views—not even at the smaller roundtables that have always been designed for engagement. Yes, there were plenty of Western multinationals in attendance, but mainly for shameless, commercialized pitches of their commitments to China and to hear the official view from Beijing that “China is open for business.” CDF 2024 was shorter by a day, with a streamlined agenda that was belatedly posted on the CDF website.  The normally high-profile Monday lunch slot was left empty. The premier’s closing session, long a staple of past CDF’s, was replaced by an opening speech that was nothing more than a condensed version of the Work Report he had delivered earlier to the opening session of the NPC on March 5. CDF 2024 was a hollow remnant of its fabled past.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say all this saddens me. I still have great admiration for the Chinese people and for the miraculous transformation of China’s economy over the past 45 years. I refuse to buy the western consensus that China’s development miracle was always doomed to failure. I am highly critical of the outbreak of a virulent Sinophobia that portrays China as America’s most dangerous adversary since the former Soviet Union. I am steadfast in my view that China faces serious structural growth challenges in the years ahead. And I continue to believe that US-China codependency offers a recipe for conflict resolution that would be in the best interest of both superpowers. My agenda remains analytical, not political.

In the end, I intend to keep showing up and to keep pushing for free and open debate in China. And I will continue to do so in the spirit of Deng Xiaoping’s famous credo of “seeking truth from facts.” I am not giving up. That’s the ultimate point of it all.

You can follow me on X/Twitter @SRoach_econ

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