The Life of a Chinese Economist
The South China Morning Post has dropped a bombshell, which if you are an economist in China that does anything less that say how great and wonderful the Chinese economy is, comes as absolutely no shock. According to the SCMP:
“Economic researchers and people working for state-owned media told the South China Morning Post that the central government’s propaganda department had instructed senior editors at major official media outlets to be cautious about whom they invite to talk about China’s economy and what they might say about the problems and challenges it faces after its long run of supercharged growth. “There’s no black list or white list, but it’s clear we are now being encouraged to invite economists and analysts with domestic securities firms and banks to talk about China’s economy, especially on live broadcasts,” said one mainland media source who declined to be named given the sensitive nature of the matter.”
If you are shocked by this, you would probably be just as shocked to learn they speak Chinese in China or that there is gambling in Casablanca. As an economist who has pointed out discrepancies in official data and problems in the banking industry, among other official sins, I can unequivocally state that all this is true and more. Within the past year my office has been broken into, I strongly believe my home has been broken into, there is every indication my phone calls are all listened to, and my computer has been hacked or at the very least targeted.
It began when I wrote a blog post, which has since been taken down due to threats against my personal safety, in which I mentioned some of the activities of a large, powerful, and very influential Chinese company. The information I linked to and wrote about this company was nothing more than public domain information that had already been published by global news organizations. Though embarrassing, I wrote nothing new about this company that was not already in the public domain.
Shortly thereafter, I received word from a senior person at my school that three lawyers and a secretary from this company in Beijing had flown to Shenzhen and made numerous civil and criminal legal threats against me also urging that I be fired immediately. School personnel told me they would do nothing to protect me, strongly advised me to take down the offending post, urged me to make a full apology to the company, but said that they did not see the need to fire me. Though these actions may have been taken in solely by the Chinese firm, I was also told that the actions by this Chinese company were likely taken with the prior knowledge of powerful interests in Singapore.
Nearly immediately my computer was attacked, I believe for different reasons my phone was monitored from that day forward, my home internet has been cut off for extended periods of time despite my neighbors being perfectly fine, and my office was broken into among other intimidation tactics. There have been other small incidents but I have every reason to believe that none of the basic tactics have ceased for nearly 1 year.
I have personally made my peace with what has happened and have chosen to continue to write about what I believe the data says and what companies are doing. It is extremely intimidating to receive the threats, intimidation, and daily reminders that my activities are so closely monitored. I personally know others who have left China because their “safety could not be guaranteed”.
For most academics not in China, it is difficult for them to understand the level of scrutiny and monitoring we face on regular basis. Most professors have students assigned to monitor them and security officials approaching many people to report on our behavior. Our email is widely acknowledged, even by students, as being read. While there are some overt obvious forms of intimidation as I have detailed, much of it is also the “deal you can’t refuse” variety. There are no overt threats but the message is clear.
More than being surprised at what the South China Morning Post is reporting, I am surprised that anyone is surprised by this news. Yu Jie in his new book calls Xi Jinping the Godfather and this is a good model for much of the intimidation and threats. While China has changed enormously in recent years and even in my nearly 5 years here, the repression and intimidation has only worsened.
Economists are targeted because some us choose not paint a rosy picture of the Chinese economy. It should come as no surprise that the People’s Bank of China chose Deutsche Bank economist Ma Jun as its chief economist given he has a 2014 Chinese growth projection a full percentage point higher than the official target.
Like the fable of the emperor’s new clothes, economists who tell those in power what they want to hear are lauded while those of us in China who point out the obvious face threats. Who knew being economist would bring such danger?