Beijing Forum 2011

I’m attending the Beijing Forum 2011 this week, and it’s a superb international conference. Much of the conference took place at Peking University. Over three hundred international scholars were invited to participate, and there are dozens of interesting conversations going on at any one time.  The goal is to stimulate productive dialog among scholars from many nations about the issues of modernity and tradition we currently face, and the setting works. I’ve had very interesting discussions with scholars from Thailand, China, Angola, Laos, and Mexico, and it is very interesting to get the different perspectives that we all bring.

The focus is on academic perspectives and dialogues around the overarching theme of “The Harmony of Civilizations and Prosperity for All.” This year’s organizing theme is “Tradition and Modernity, Transition and Transformation.” There are seven themes for the Forum’s discussions this year:

  • Change and Constancy: Historical Perspectives on the Way to Social Transformation
  • Economic Growth in the Context of Globalization: Opportunities, Challenges and Perspectives
  • Inheritance and Innovation in Education
  • Transformation and Stability: Achievements and Challenges in Developing Countries
  • Artistic Heritage and Cultural Innovation
  • Urban Transformation and the Future of Mankind
  • Deliberative Democracy and Social Harmony

Each group contains a distinguished selection of academics from around the world, heavily focused on European, American, and Asian scholars. (There were only six scholars from sub-Saharan  Africa, and  only two participants from Latin America.)

My paper, “Justice Matters in Global Economic Development,” was included in the Economic Growth theme. I argued five basic points: We generally agree about the basics of a just society. The current state of the world badly contradicts those values (poverty, inequality, abuse and coercion). Amartya Sen’s writings provide a powerful basis for those commonsense ideas about justice. The greatest impediment to improving justice is the untrammeled power private and state interests have vis-a-vis the poor. And injustice matters because it causes serious social problems. So states need to strive to reduce injustice.

I didn’t really have a good sense of how the argument was received by the participants, but there was a fairly clear split between “laissez-faire” growth advocates and economists who took inequalities of income and health very seriously.  I assume the latter group was more receptive than the former.

The academic question I received during the formal discussion period came from an American economist. He pointed out that China’s 10% annual growth since the 1990s has greatly improved the standard of living for a hundred million people in coastal China, and created job opportunities for tens of millions of migrant workers. He wanted to know if I was seriously advocating a slower rate of growth as the price of greater justice. The question reflects the assumptions of many of the economists in the session: state policies aimed at enhancing equality are highly destructive to economic growth. So, by inference, preferring economic justice is harmful for a society. 

My response, in a nutshell, was “yes”.  Economic development involves choices. And it is possible that a strategy with a  lower growth rate would do a better job of bringing all of China up together, rather than creating a broadening gap between rural poor and affluent urban people.  I am indeed arguing that it would be best to choose the second strategy.  (This might take the form of investing a larger percentage of China’s formidable savings and reserves in substantially enhanced public goods for the rural poor — education, healthcare, and retirement.)

What is equally important, is that the power differential between poor people and propertied interests in China today almost guarantees that the poor will lose out. Property confiscations by businesses and municipal development authorities are a good example. (Coincidentally, the Thai urban planning expert I talked with said this is precisely the case in and around Bangkok, and the Angola urban planner made similar comments about Angolan farmers and the residual white settlers.) So injustice is as much about power as it is about exploitation. And this means that legal and institutional reforms are needed if China’s inequalities are to be reduced. 

It was striking to me that the thrust of my talk seemed to be most resonant with the Peking University students in the room. A cluster of them came over to talk about the implications of these ideas for China during the break.  These young people seemed genuinely concerned about how China might address some of the large issues of social inequality that have arisen since the economic reforms began in the 1980s. (In fact, even some officials I’ve talked with here in China believe that more serious attention to justice issues is needed in China’s future — for example, with regard to China’s rural poor and to migrant workers and their families.)

(The talk is included as a page on the list at right. I plan to post the bilingual PP as well.)

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