This week, I had the privilege to speak with a world renowned China expert @ Harvard—Prof. Anthony Saich. Prof. Saich is very well acquainted with the Oriental Dragon. He first came to China as a student in 1976, right before China opens its door to the world and then has been here almost every year since. He was the Representative for the China office of the Ford Foundation from 1994 to 1999.
Prof. Saich is a prolific scholar who has published several books on development in China: The Governance and Politics of China (2004); The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party (1996), Revolutionary Discourse in Mao's China (1994) and China's Science Policy in the 80s (1989).
Prof. Anthony Saich
Prof. Saich has a wide range of academic experience, he has taught at universities in England, Holland and currently in Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
Our conversation began with his journey to China more than thirty years ago.
Zong: Prof. Saich, I am really impressed when I read that you came to China the first time in 1976, a time when China was pretty much cut off from the rest of the world. You probably know another interesting fact is that someone came to China at the same time as you, the former U.S. President Bush. And he recalled Beijing at that time a"mono-color city". Do you share the same view? What was your first impression of Beijing at that time?
Saich: My first impression was mixed. On the one hand there was the excitement of being in a strange place that retained much of its traditional architecture and old houses and alleyways. Cycling around and exploring these was interesting. However, it was also a very isolated city, contact with local people was virtually impossible. Nearly everything was closed early in the evening, there was nowhere to go and relax and have fun and the colors were very monotonous. Soon after arriving we realized how little Beijing people knew about the world outside and we discovered how difficult life had been for them, especially over the previous ten years. Little did we know that things were about to change so dramatically.
Zong: Now more than 30 years have passed. How many times have you been to China during the three decades? What motivates you as a life-long China scholar? Is it because China is the"one of the most interesting social laboratories in the world"? In your interview with China Daily, you said"Think of the last 30 years. It is hard to think of anything more interesting". Could you please elaborate on that?
Saich: I tend to go to China several times a year as I am a Changjiang Scholar at Tsinghua University and also we have a number of training programs that we co-organize for Chinese government officials. This keeps my frequent flyer miles in good state.
Actually, on a number of occasions I thought I would stop working on topics related to China but each time something interesting happened that drew my attention back to the country. The reform period in China has to be one of the most interesting stories of the last thirty years, it is simply incredible the changes that China has undergone in this period. Old problems, such as large-scale poverty, have been resolved but new problems have arisen, such as significant inequality. The success of reform in China is of vital importance to any citizen of the world. A wealthy and healthy China will be good for all and thus it makes sense to study this process of transformation.
The processes that China is undergoing simultaneously are mind-boggling: hundreds of millions have moved off the land to find work in old and new urban centers, old industries have been down-sizing while new industries have been developed, new social security systems are being put in place to substitute for the work-place based systems of old. The challenges are immense: how to maintain growth and protect the environment, how to build an effective market economy, how to amend political structures so that they suit the needs of the evolving society and economy, how to restore equity in the face of such rapid change and how to construct first-rate education and health systems that serve citizens adequately.
These are massive challenges that very few countries, if any, have had to face simultaneously. Thus, you can study almost any problem to do with socio-economic development in China and on a scale that is unimaginable in any other country. In 30 years the Chinese people have undergone the kinds of transformations that took us several generations in the West. How can one not be interested in studying this in detail?
Zong: Great insights! Let's get to more specific topics—Olympics, which is unarguably the No. 1 focus in China. A successful Olympics will significantly boost the host countries' development in politics, economy, culture as well as the international image. What changes, in your opinion, will the Olympics bring to China?
Saich: I do not think that the changes will be immediately visible. Changes, if any, are more likely to impact longer term as China continues to evolve as part of the global community. Certainly, hosting the Olympics has been part and parcel of major changes in a number of countries, just think of Japan, Mexico, Moscow, and South Korea.
As the Olympics get closer I think it is more difficult to see the potential for longer term change. The focus becomes on security and making sure that things go off well and do not embarrass the host country. What is deemed good by the host country might look different to those outside who are just interested in having a good time and watching the sports. Thus, reactions to whether the Olympics are seen as successful or not will vary from place to place and from group to group.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to present itself to the world outside so the choices China makes about how it manages the Games and deals with international reporting will shape global perceptions of China for years to come. Holding the Games clearly is a major marker in China's emergence as a global player. I think that the longer term changes will relate to how Chinese people see themselves as part of the global community and how China continues to adopt global norms and procedures but I do not see any dramatic short term effects.
Zong: A successful Olympics is also a huge challenge to Chinese government. In my opinion, two biggest ones lie in economy and environment. For the first one, according to the official statistics, Chinese government invested in total 42 billion dollars in the construction of stadiums and improvement of Beijing city environment. Wall Street Journal recently published an article arguing whether it is worthwhile to make such a huge investment since many areas in China are under developed. What is your opinion on that?
Saich: This is a question that seems to come up with all Olympic Games and many debate whether such investments could be deployed better elsewhere. I think that one needs to analyze the investments by categories. Certainly, investment in airport expansion and public transportation systems and roads that can be used long after the games can be considered worthwhile. These will bring benefits long after the games leave town. Of course China has invested a lot of money in major stadia and this relates to what it sees as national pride. This is more difficult to judge. Some countries would not want to use the money in this way and might choose to build more modest venues and would be criticized by their people if they invested it on lavish stadiums. However, if the Chinese people are happy to see their money used in this way then that is their choice. I think the main question is how the venues will be used subsequently. China has plans to continue using the main venues for national and other events and this may well justify the expenditure. A great country should have great venues.
Zong: Many people in China are worried about the post-Olympics recession, which have been witnessed in Sydney and Athens. You have been a professor at Tsinghua's school of management and public policy. What is your advice for policy makers?
Saich: Almost certainly there will be a post-Olympic slump, so much investment and energy has gone into preparing for the Games that it is hard to see how it would be otherwise. Beijing has had enough urban construction for a decade and so many major projects have been completed in time for the Olympics that it is inevitable that there will be a slow-down. I do not think that there is much that one can do about this but economic life will pick up again shortly afterwards. The main thing is to look at the long-term generating revenue potential of the venues that have been constructed and have a plan ready for this. Otherwise the Olympics finish and no-one is sure what to do next. In a number of other countries venues were built just for the Olympics with no longer-term plan in mind and these have turned out to present major problems. Thus, long-term planning and strategy is the key.
Zong: The second challenge is environment. We all have witnessed China pushes a number of measures to improve environmental protection and energy efficiency, and on the other side, Beijing scrapped its"Green GDP" plan two years ago because it was not applicable. Prof. Saich, in the age of rapid urbanization, how can China, on the government level, do better in environmental protection?
Saich: This is a difficult problem for all societies that undergo the socioeconomic transformation that China is experiencing, how do you weigh growth against environmental protection? Unfortunately for China, it is developing at a time when the results of prior environmental degradation have become all too apparent and thus does not have the time and luxury that the West enjoyed to develop economically first and then turn to environmental clean-up, China has to deal with both at the same time. This sets new challenges.
The first thing for China to do is simply to enforce the laws that it has already adopted. China has a very good environmental protection network and laws but the problem has been with implementation. Of course, this has to do with the incentive system for local officials but if the rules on the books were applied properly this would produce a major benefit.
Second, China has a great opportunity with urbanization to adopt new building codes and materials that are more environmentally friendly. China can skip over a generation or two of poor buildings that are not environmentally sound by introducing new technologies, it can do the same in industry. If the Chinese government is really serious about this, it can offer subsidies for the adoption of green materials and technologies, certainly the government has the money to do this. It is just a matter of willpower.
Third, there is an important question of lifestyle that individuals wish to pursue. In the US, there needs to be a realization that to confront global warming individuals will have to change their lifestyle and live in more energy efficient homes and drive less and drive more efficient cars. For China given its large population and land size, a US life-style is not feasible and planners should look more to urban planning models in places such as Japan where car usage is less, homes are smaller and there is better investment in public infrastructure. Thus, global partnership and action is needed as well as more positive incentives by government and individual realization that lifestyle changes are necessary. If not, then we are all in trouble!
Zong: There are many other challenges for the government, such as security, logistics, etc. KSG organized a program to provide training to Beijing officials. What do you want these officials to get out of the training?
Saich: The training programs that we have organized have not been specifically for the Olympics but have covered broader issues of public management and policy. Essentially, there are two kinds of issues addressed in the training programs. First, we introduce a number of frameworks and techniques that are geared towards enhancing the general capacity for public policy analysis and improving the quality of public service. This ranges from improving the ability to think strategically to techniques of negotiation and persuasion to teamwork.
The second part of the program introduces, through case study, best practices drawn from around the world on how to deal with specific public policy challenges, such as improving urban infrastructure, working with the non-governmental sector, and developing public policies that support sustainable and equitable development. It is remarkable that despite the difference in political history and culture, how similar many problems are at the practical level. Thus, we hope that the participants will be able to introduce a more global perspective into their work and draw on international best practices where relevant and useful.
Zong: Prof. Saich, thank you very much for your time!By Xing Zong, a sixth year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D degree at Duke, and he is also a member of Duke Board of Trustee.