Sunset of the economists

Two decades ago, China’s reformist economists walked the halls of power and dictated policy. Now, they have been sidelined in favour of a new priority: national security. What happened?

An ultra-large cargo ship carries out container handling operations at the automated terminal of Yangshan deep-water Port in Shanghai, China, Jan 1, 2024
Image by picture alliance / CFOTO | CFOTO

“Who knew that the big story of 2023 would be the decline of China?” This is what one prominent Chinese academic told me, on a recent trip to China. Like many scholars in the mainland, he didn’t want to be named for fear of career reprisals. He is a strident nationalist, who has long enjoyed tweaking the noses of Western visitors with his talk of a multipolar world. Now he fears that China’s leaders may have inadvertently engineered a return to American hegemony through their own incompetence. His mood is so bleak that he talked of taking early retirement and leaving Beijing entirely.

The gloominess he evinced was echoed time and again in my discussions with dozens of thinkers from some of China’s top universities and think-tanks. Not everybody was as depressed or negative, but in over two decades of visiting China I have never encountered so much frustration and lack of hope. After Beijing’s economic exuberance in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008, and again in the early covid-19 period of 2020-2021 where China’s zero-covid approach allowed a V-shaped bounce back, the atmosphere among Chinese economists is now sober.

The full version of this article was published on the China Books Review on 1 February 2024. You can read it here.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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