China Conference 2018

Liberty vs optimism: an East-West tussle over China’s future

At the SCMP’s annual China Conference, American journalist Keith Richburg makes the case for more openness while Chinese venture capitalist Eric Li says the outlook is better than fine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 11:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 6:40pm

A clash of civilisations played out on a conference stage in Hong Kong as an academic extolling individual freedom and a venture capitalist citing data on Chinese optimism traded barbs.

“As China grows and develops and rises to become a world power, commensurate with that they have to start giving a little bit more openness to their own people,” said Keith Richburg, an American journalist, author and academic.

“They have to start letting people read a little bit more what they want. They have to start letting people be what they want and move around the way they want. There’s a reason why you get so much innovation coming out of the US and why so many people go to Silicon Valley.”

But Eric Li, managing partner of Shanghai-based Chengwei Capital and founder of news and commentary network, said the data showed otherwise.

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As China grows and develops and rises to become a world power ... they have to start giving a little bit more openness to their own people
Keith Richburg

“You can’t find one credible public survey that says the Chinese are not happy or optimistic about the future. They’re the most optimistic people on Earth,” Li said.

The two panellists provided the liveliest exchange – and most pointedly divergent viewpoints – on a panel called “discussing commonalities between Chinese and Western cultures and values”, part of the South China Morning Post’s annual China Conference on Thursday.

The conference ranged over the relative strength of China and the United States, as well as the importance of the two countries reconciling their differences.

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Li’s contention about Chinese optimism is supported by a recent survey by Paris-based market research group Ipsos. In the company’s annual “What Worries the World” report, China topped the list in terms of domestic perceptions of a country’s overall prospects.

Some 87 per cent of respondents in China said their country was going in the “right direction”, while 13 per cent saw their country on the “wrong track”. Meanwhile, the optimists accounted for only 43 per cent of respondents in the US, compared with 57 per cent for the pessimists.

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Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent who wrote Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa and is now director of journalism and media studies at the University of Hong Kong, countered frequently that China outperformed in most metrics because the country had been making up in recent decades for the economic growth it lost during a long period of political turmoil and mismanagement.

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Westerners, especially Americans, need to worry about their own problems
Eric Li

“China has managed to grow by 10 per cent a year for many years, but they were starting at a low base because of the wars and then the Cultural Revolution and the travesty of Mao Zedong’s era,” Richburg said. “There’s nothing miraculous about how China is growing. China was just catching up to where they should have been.”

Li shot back, saying China managed to improve basic public health and wellness standards between 1949 and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

China’s life expectancy rose from 41 years to 68 years in that time, Li said, without citing a data source. Literacy also rose from 15 per cent to 80 per cent in the same period.

“Westerners, especially Americans, need to worry about their own problems. I think Americans have let their country stagnate because it cares too much about the individual, too much about liberty and less about the collective.”