Thu, Oct 01, 2009 - Page 9 News List

‘Market Wu’ keeps talking

Wu Jinglian helped to create China’s market economy. Now he is defending it against conservative hardliners in the Communist Party


At 79, Wu Jinglian (吳敬璉) is considered China’s most famous economist. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was an adviser to China’s leaders, including Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). He helped push through some of the country’s earliest market reforms, paving the way for China’s spectacular rise and earning him the nickname “Market Wu.”

Last year, China’s official media slapped him with a new moniker: spy.

Wu has not been interrogated, charged or imprisoned. But the fact that a state newspaper, the People’s Daily, among others, was allowed to publish Internet rumors alleging that he had been detained on suspicions of being a spy for the US hints that he is annoying some very important people.

He denied the allegations, and soon after they were published, China’s Cabinet denied that an investigation was under way.

But in a country that often jails critics, Wu seems to be testing the limits of what Beijing deems permissible. While many economists argue that China’s growth model is flawed, rarely does a prominent Chinese figure speak with such candor about flaws he sees in China’s leadership.

Wu — who still holds a research post at an institute affiliated with the State Council, China’s Cabinet — has white hair, an amiable face and appears frail. But his assessments are often harsh. In books, speeches, interviews and television appearances, he warns that conservative hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have gained influence in the government and are trying to dismantle the market reforms he helped formulate.

He complains that business tycoons and corrupt officials have hijacked the economy and manipulated it for their own ends, a system he calls crony capitalism. He has even called on Beijing to establish a British-style democracy, arguing that political reform is inevitable.

Provocative statements have made him a kind of dissident economist in China and revealed the sharp debates behind the scenes, at the highest levels of the CCP, about the direction of the country’s half-market, half-socialist economy.

In many ways, it is a continuation of the debate that has been raging for three decades: What role should the government play in China’s hybrid economy?

Wu says the spy rumors were “dirty tricks” employed by his critics to discredit him.

“I have two enemies,” he said in a recent interview. “The crony capitalists and the Maoists. They will use any means to attack me.”

Nevertheless, some analysts believe that Wu’s critiques are aiding one government faction in a power struggle with another, and that he is protected.

His pro-market ideas have influenced a generation of younger economists who now hold senior government posts, including Zhou Xiaochuan (周小川), the leader of China’s central bank, and Lou Jiwei (樓繼偉), chairman of the country’s huge sovereign wealth fund.

“He is like the father of economics here,” says Laurence Brahm, who wrote several books about China’s reform period. “What he said was the blueprint for reform.”

Critics say Wu’s influence on government is waning. They note that he is not invited to weekly economics seminars held for top leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶).

Given this, some people say, Wu is courting danger by speaking out.

“You have to remember, China is a dictatorship,” says Victor Shih, a professor of political science at Northwestern University. “If they want to shut him up, they can.”

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