China Opens Innumerable Doors



ACCURATELY analyzing and predicting China’s economic development has been my livelihood, and opened innumerable doors, for more than 20 years. It also gave me the satisfaction of seeing my personal interests and skills linked to the world’s biggest story – the growth of China’s economy and its “national revival.”

My relationship with China started unusually as I studied its economy for more than 20 years before I had the chance to visit. The interest started in the 1980s when, based on economic theory, I concluded that China’s economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping would achieve great success. Nevertheless, for a long time China remained unfashionable – not the front-page news of today. Soon after I began following China, the most widely held theory internationally was that it would be a relative economic failure and the real economic progress would be in Eastern Europe and Russia, where Gorbachev had introduced reforms and rapid privatization had begun.

Confident that these analyses were inaccurate, in 1992 I wrote an article that changed my life. Its title, “Why the Economic Reform Succeeded in China and Will Fail in Russia and Eastern Europe” explained itself – it analyzed why China’s economic path would produce great success and Russia and Eastern Europe would fail in comparison.

Publication of this article in Russia created a sensation. I predicted its inflation of thousands of percent accompanied by industrial collapse, but rapid growth of China’s economy. This led to public debates with Russia’s vice president, the president’s chief economic adviser, meetings with Russia’s foreign minister and TV appearances.

At the beginning of 1992 this analysis was received with widespread skepticism, but by the year’s end its predictions were already confirmed for both China and Russia. Yet despite publishing analysis based on China’s economy I had no direct contact with China at all – the work was written from the point of view of a theoretical economist.

In 2000 a client, Ken Livingstone, was elected London’s mayor. He invited me to take charge of London’s economic policy. Only in 2005 was I able to first visit China – a country whose economy I had been studying for decades!


Dining is an important part of social life in China, and with fatter wallets Chinese people can now indulge themselves on a whim. 


When London’s mayor changed in 2008 I knew China’s economic success would continue so I wanted to extend relations with the country. I became a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University, combining a minimum six months a year living in China with continuing visits to India, Russia and my base in London.

Naturally living in China gave me much greater knowledge of the country, but since it had stood the test of time, this knowledge deepened but did not fundamentally change the analysis of China’s economy I had put forward two decades earlier.

The greatest challenge has been that my wife has to remain in the UK most of the time, as she takes a practical role in my daughter’s career as a world-ranked dressage rider. We compromise by taking incredible China holidays ranging from tours of classic tourist sites like the Great Wall and Terracotta Warriors, to a leisurely poolside holiday on the island resort of Hainan Province, which was so comfortable that I am slightly embarrassed to say we never left the hotel complex for 10 days!

As we both adore good food, China’s inexhaustible cuisine is integrated in these plans. My wife tells a story of how I raved about the fish I ate at Yichang on the Yangtze River for two years before I could take her there – after sampling it she decided the wait was worth it.

I love poetry and have long read English translations of classic Chinese poets. My personal favorite is Li Bai, perhaps because of his (in)famous predilection for wine. My Chinese friends naturally vastly improved my knowledge of Chinese literature.

In another cultural direction I worked with and came to like the Chinese pop star Li Yuchun, also known as Chris Lee, winner of a Chinese equivalent of Pop Idol. I teach her in courses on branding and it doubtless bemused some Chinese readers of Lee Weekly when I, a foreign economics professor, was listed as one of her top 10 fans in 2012!

My great discovery last year was that computer translation technology has improved to a point where I can not only read Chinese media online but also participate in Weibo – the Chinese microblogging version of Twitter. Via Weibo I can communicate not only with colleagues and friends but enormous numbers of Chinese netizens – in 10 months I received 66,000 Weibo comments. Virtual friends became physical friends in several cities.

Are there difficulties to being in China from a foreigner’s perspective? From a practical point of view, they are very few. Culturally the most difficult thing to adjust to is Chinese unwillingness to say “no” in a direct fashion. It wastes a lot of time – I prefer American directness. But apart from that the openness of the Chinese people is very familiar to a multicultural Londoner.

Professionally the most annoying problem of analysis of China is sloppy statistical arguments and too much use of anecdotes instead of serious quantification. As someone writing about China’s economy for over 20 years I have grown tired, if slightly amused, by habitual predictions of a crash “soon” in China’s economy. Such inaccurate predictions over the decades have usually turned out to be based on some anecdote instead of serious statistics. This allows ridiculous myths about China’s economy to be spread – for example, that China’s investment is inefficient when it is in reality far more efficient than that of the U.S. or Europe, or that the development of Chinese consumption has been slow when it has actually been the fastest of any major economy.

But all this is secondary to the main facts. China has the fastest growing major economy in world history. By being in China today you can participate in history in a way not possible in any other country. For an individual, the draw might be business opportunities, being at the cutting edge of economic trends, witnessing hundreds of millions of people achieve decent living standards, seeing the evolution of a country that is simultaneously the oldest and most modern in the world or any one of a million other things. Whatever reason, at this point in history, China is where the world’s action is and is the place to be.

Coming to China is also “win-win.” Provided foreigners remember they are guests in China’s house and they do not own it, the hospitality of China’s people is tremendous. Each foreigner learns from China, but China understands that it also has much to learn from other countries. Such relationship is based on the concept that China and its visitors are “different but equal” – the most solid of foundations for mutual respect and affection.

Seeing history being made and the advantages of opening-up has created in countless fields, combined with a fascinating culture and good food, are irresistible. A China dream.