The Number of Trustworthy Economists in China

(  The survey shows that only two economists are trusted by more than 10% of the people.  October 7, 2005.  Via China Youth Daily.

Hong Kong University of Science & Technology Professor Ding Xueliang recently said: "There are fewer than 5 economists who mean anything in China."  

What is the basis of this mistrust?  The explanation lies the answers to the following two survey questions in a China Youth Daily survey.

From your viewpoint, whose position should an economist assume when speaking out? (votes: 1,290)

58.0%: Scholars
38.2%: Public
  1.6%: Interest groups
  1.2%: Government
  1.2%: Don't know/Too hard to explain
  0.4%: Other s

But in reality, whose positions do economists assume when speaking out? (votes: 1,279)

69.7%: Interest groups
14.3%: Government
  7.4%: Scholars
  4.1%: Public
  3.8%: Don't know/Too hard to explain
  0.8%: Others

One year ago, there was a battle between economist Lang Xianping and Kelon Group president Gu Chujun and this caused the aura that surrounded the Chinese economists after the economic reform to be tarnished.  More recently, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Professor Ding Xueliang said, "There are fewer than 5 economists who mean anything in China" and that caused the public to pay attention to the problem about economists once more.  Not only the media now, but the general public seems to have heard and communicated about Professor Ding's throwaway quote.

China Youth Daily conducted a special survey titled "Which mainstream economists do you trust?"   The results show:

Lang Xianping (郎咸平) (31.0%)

Wu Jinglian (吴敬琏) (19.8%)

"I don't trust anyone" (12.5%)

Professor Ding's assertion about "no more than 5" was supported by 83% of the public, with another 10% saying that "they cannot say" and only 8.3% objecting to that statement.

In July of this year, the arrest of Kelon Group president Gu Chujun ended the one-year-long battle between Lang and Gu.  Lang and his fans had the last laugh.  After this fierce battle, the name of Lang Xianping is known to everybody.  Among those surveyed this time, almost one third (31.0%) thought that they were willing to trust what Lang says among the economists who regularly speak out.

Among the fourteen economist named in the survey, Wu Jinglian had the second highest support rate at 19.8%.  None of the remaining twelve people got more than 10%.  The third leading vote-getter was "I don't trust anyone" at 12.5%.

Whereas Lang Xianping had been attacked in meetings of economists before, the mainland economists were totally quiet with respect to Ding Xueliang's recent statement.  Even in the face of his critique that they "only know how to make money but don't seek knowledge," the mainland economists were silent collectively.

"This time, the economists got smart."  During the survey, one interviewee said: "Of course, it was possible that they saw the how the latrine stinks (note: an economist once said that the Internet is like a public latrine) and they became afraid."

In a society in which economics is at the center of everything from top to bottom, people must have some expectations about those who have the title of 'economist.'  According to this survey, 58.2% of the respondents said that economists should speak as independent scholars in order to affect policies.  Another 38.2% regard them as spokespersons on behalf of public interest.  Yet, these expectations remain just expectations.  As one netizen commented: "You regard someone as your lifetime mate and this person also says that he often thinks about you.  Yet you discover that this person continues to maintain 'dubious relationships' with other persons.  Then you look through your assets and you find out that your savings passbook is missing.  What are you supposed to think?  That person is the economist."

As for the expectation that "the economists should express their views as independent scholars," this may be wishful thinking on the part of the public, as other people have said different things.  Beijing University Foreign Economic Theory Research Center deputy direct Xia Yeliang wrote: "To make it clear, an economist is just another occupation to make a living.  Since the demand is high and the benefits are good, many people are willing to join the ranks.  Someone has caustically explained that the only difference between an economist and others is that he can use his advantage in economic knowledge to seek a buyer who offers a higher price.  Of course, in order to achieve this objective, he does not mind using the public interest as the chip."

There are other viewpoints which state that economists are "despised" not because they sought personal gains, but because they put on the appearance of acting on behalf of public interest.  They don't say that they are "helping the nanny steal the owner's possessions," but instead they say publicly that the taking over of the possessions was "fair and reasonable" from the viewpoint of an impartial third-party observer.

Someone had used the "theory of rent-seeking cycle" to explain the actions of the economists: they usually own three identities -- corporate economist, government economist and academic economist.  Their actions can be categorized into three steps.

In the first step, they worked with the corporations to become the hired help and "image ambassadors" (not the "image ambassadors" such as celebrities that we usually speak of, because the economists do not usually disclose their affiliations).

In the second step, they act as government economic consultants or members of certain commissions or committees to determine the public policies that affect the corporations that they had been hired by.  These economists can "fairly" tip the scale towards their employers in the background.

In the third step, they return to their places of origin and use their positions of academic researchers and public intellectuals to cite chapter and verse from university podiums to the media to prove that their viewpoints and policies are correct based upon "careful and meticulous" economic theories and analyses to the point of attaining the Pareto-optimality.  Thus, they win not only the absolute trust and support of the public, but they also won the trust of the government as well as those corporations who hire or will be hiring them soon.

In the China Youth Daily survey, the people were obviously not only concerned and disappointed about the economists.  "The economists only happen to the ones who are closest to the interests and most influential presently, and that is why the interests want them to speak on their behalf," said one respondent to the reporter.  "Who can guarantee that the expert scholars in other areas are speaking for the public interests when they speak out as public intellectuals?"  Thinking about the collusion between government and coal-mining interests or the gaming within the real estate industry, he even began to worry about certain government officials: "Open your eyes wide!  When someone comes out to speak on behalf of public interests, you better be careful!"

Related linkLiberalist X.L. Ding (HK): The Number of Qualified Chinese Economists are Few  Anti's English Blog