ChinaBeat - Ni hao from Beijing. I'm Gregg Fields...

Sep 252008

Ni hao from Beijing. I'm Gregg Fields, and I'm a resident lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

My speciality is economics journalism, and I'm here to teach in the English-language Global Business Journalism program. Besides Tsinghua, the program is sponsored by Merrill Lynch, Bloomberg News, Deloitte and the Knight Foundation. It is coordinated from Washington by the International Center for Journalists.

I guess I have to start by confessing a certain misjudgment on my part. When I first was contacted about this position last spring, I thought it was an exciting opportunity because both China and the United States seemed inexorably linked in a mutual ascendance. As a journalist, particularly a business journalist, there was no better story than the meteoric rise of China as a world economic power. And of course, China's economic relations with America were a top story back in the States.

But obviously the last few months have certainly shaken some of our theories about the global economy, and the role of both America and China in it. With Wall Street rapidly collapsing under the weight of bad investments, Washington is arranging some marriages between healthy firms and those that are less so. In other cases, such as AIG, it appears to be offering up generous dowries, in the hope that a well-suited suitor may emerge.

It's testing the wisdom of the mantra -- long heard out of Washington -- that unfettered capitalism, with minimal government oversight, is the optimal economic system. At least here in China, a number of people view the U.S. situation as having been caused by an abdication of corporate stewardship and weak regulatory controls. The current heavy intervention by the Fed and Congress is seen as evidence that central planning is a resurgent concept in the United States, one whose wisdom was perhaps overlooked by a Wall Street whose buoyancy is proving as ephemeral as a bubble.

Meanwhile, Beijing is basking in post-Olympian glory at the moment. This is a country that has, obviously, its own serious issues and problems. But the glory of the Olympic and Paralympic games has rendered an optimism and sense of achievement that is palpable in the air. Whether it will remain after traffic restrictions are eased -- and the air Beijingers breathe once again becomes palpable -- remains to be seen. By most any measure, China remains, in the aggregate, a poor country. But at least for now, it's poor the way Ellis Island immigrants or, perhaps, newlyweds with big dreams and a used car are poor. Which is to say, they are clearly expecting the other half of the glass will soon be filled.

And certainly, the rumors of China being on an entrepreneurial/capitalism streak are well-founded. Perhaps due to the billions of dollars spent locally by both the government and, later, Olympic tourists, the streets are alive with the sound of money. Huge malls, world-class architecture and designer labels are increasingly the norm. China is a communist country, but it is certainly a stark contrast to, say, the drab model of Fidel Castro, where no one owns anything except the state.

So, back to those misjudgments. As I envisioned it, the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua would be a golden opportunity to teach the primacy of principles that underlie the U.S. economy. Personally, I'm a firm believer in concepts like transparency, free markets, public ownership of companies, fiduciary responsibility.

There is, clearly, a thirst for learning those concepts in the developing world. As evidence: As the reputation of Tsinghua's Global Business Journalism program has grown, students from across Asia and Africa have applied for admission in record numbers. Despite the events of the last few months, it's clear that American economic ideals hold a universal appeal.

But I'm now having to explain to my students that lofty standards are only as good as their execution. My sense of my students is that they expect these kinds of scandals and catastrophes -- just not in America. As the tens of billions of dollars in bad subprime debt are written off, I can't help but notice that an additional loss for Wall Street is its reputation as a global model of fiscal governance.

That said, I have to add that these students are excited about becoming business journalists. In many ways, they view it as the chance to play a major role in the development of their countries' economies. It is very heartening to see talented young people want to use journalism as a positive force for societal change. They very much feel a responsibility to enlighten and lead, to help set the agenda in homelands just now beginning to realize their full economic potential.

And it isn't just about money. These students understand that economics is the essential underpinning of our world, whether the issue is Wall Street or agrarian reform.

Yesterday, for instance, the Global Business Journalism students packed a forum where Pierre Piot, head of UNAIDS, was speaking. In many parts of Asia and Africa, AIDS is more than a medical issue, of course. It threatens the very foundation of the economy. Piot told the students: "When it comes to the population of people not yet infected, journalists can save more lives than doctors.'' Like a lightning bolt, you could simply feel the enthusiasm crackle as it surged through the room.

(Incidentally, at the meeting, a special honor was given to Tsinghua's executive journalism dean, Li Xunguang, for his groundbreaking writings on AIDS in China.)
In conclusion, I guess my biggest misjudgment was thinking that, in terms of the U.S.-China economic relationship, the rules were set, the game was on and the outcome was more or less pre-determined. But economies, like life, don't always go according to plan.

That's a good lesson, for both me and my students.