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Director of the Ash Center @ Harvard
I’m honored to contribute to the Parlio community and looking forward to this Q&A

I am a Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and direct the School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation where I write and research on politics and governance in post-Mao China. I am looking forward to your questions on China’s government, it’s role in the Asia-Pacific region, and its relationship with the United States.
This Q&A took place between 9/19/15 and 9/24/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
17 questions
Researcher @ Harvard | Parlio community manager
How does China's relationship with an increasingly recalcitrant North Korea serve China's regional foreign policy priorities?
China has been more cooperative with the US on the issue of resolution of the Korean Peninsula. However, the strategic interests diverge. Both want a nuclear free peninsula, China prioritizes stability over all else and is worried that a collapse of the North will bring refugees into China and potentially US troops up to its border. For the US the main priority is ensuring the nuclear free status. Thus, some common ground but also varying priorities.
Student at Harvard Kennedy School of Government
How badly will China be affected by the reversal of its demography later this century ? Funding its social security and healthcare system will become more difficult with a majority of senior citizens and less young workers t support them, so how will the need to engineer a "new deal" will affect its stability and development?
This is one of the biggest challenges for China. It will be the first country to grow old before it grows rich and we really do not know what this means. China is already officially an old country in terms of demographics. Certainly, it will have a major impact on employment with a smaller working population carrying a heavy burden. this has been exacerbated by the family planning policy that has distorted the generations. Also, the oldest old category is increasing fasted and here the associated medical costs are highest. It will produce in China the familiar guns v butter debates that e have seen in other countries. China's demographic dividend is passing its peak and this is an advantage that the US will continue to enjoy.
China faces severe governance issues related to corruption and environmental contamination at the same time as its growth is slowing (driven by a large number of structural factors). What are the two or three achievable things (e.g., SOE reform, further crackdown on corruption, etc.) you'd recommend to President Xi?
I think that you re correct that President Xi needs to focus on a couple of key issues to get traction with reform and belief that changes can be wrought. The campaign against corruption has been popular but unless it is institutionalized in the next phase and the system opens up to external pressure and observance, the fear is that corruption levels will rise again. The main thing for President Xi to focus on is to ensure that investment gets to where it can be most effective. This means more funding for the private sector, which is developing rapidly, and providing significant returns and less to those SOEs that eat up capital ineffectively. this entails financial sector reforms. Second, in the social realm, the leadership needs to integrate the migrant populations fully into the urban framework. This is a transition debt that the central government needs to cover (health insurance, pensions etc.). Without this there will be longer term problems as we have seen in other countries with migrant communities that feel alienated or treated as second class citizens. Third, where China is making progress and could continue to great effect is with alternative energy sources as a way to start rolling back the impact of pollution. This is crucial to the regime as the levels of pollution are a direct result of the government's development strategy and it affects all members of society regardless of where they live or how much income they earn.
China recently organized a huge WWII memorial military parade, at which leaders of most Western countries and Japan were absent. How much of an influence has China's history of defeat at the hands of Western imperialist powers in the last century had in China's current foreign policies?
I think that it is used by the leadership to provide support and legitimacy to its rule. The CCP portrays itself as the political entity that liberated China from past abuses and that regained its territorial integrity. There is no doubt that China suffered humiliation and great sacrifice but it is also a stumbling block to moving forward in terms of a better relationship with Japan for example. China sees itself as a victim and President Xi stresses that the rejuvenation of the nation will restore its former pride. Thus, the narrative of past abuses is very significant in framing the way policy is viewed and shaped.
What role do you see Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) play in reshuffling the world order? Do you see it as a threat to organizations such as World Bank, IMF, or Asia Development Bank (ADB)?
Also, what top three issues would you pay attention to out of President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the U.S. this week? Thank you!
I do not see the AIIB as a threat to existing institutions. If you look at the massive infrastructure needs in Asia, it is clear that even with the AIIB, they cannot be met by the current institutions. Personally, i think it was a big mistake for the US not to join at an early stage but it is debatable that Congress would have agreed to any funding. The current international partners should ensure more effective functioning of the AIIB.
For President Xi's visit--how far he is willing to go on developing a protocol for cyber security, and whether he signals that he wants the US and China to be genuine partners rather than rivals.
Is China poised to become a plutocracy?
This is difficult to answer. In theory a dominant single party should be able to adopt policies that could be in the national interest rather than those of the wealthy elite. Therein no doubt that there are very strong vested interests groups that have benefitted from reforms and are frustrating new reforms. However, the political elite still enjoys some insulation. The real problem, I think, is at the local level where economic and political elites are much more closely entwined and are liable to frustrate reforms.
International Market Research - Snapchat
China is probably one of the few countries right now stressing sustainable development and environmental protection at a large scale. Knowing how the government has reacted in the past in changing the behaviour of its citizen; moving forward to push sustainable initiatives, should the government react by gently pushing environmental restrictions? Or should we accept our own hypocrisy and accept that the government has a responsibility to lead the Chinese people toward sustainable behaviour?
I think both aspects need to be pursued, The government can play a role by developing incentives to move towards a more sustainable economy and developing alternative energy forms. It can also shift the system of evaluation of local officials to move away from the pervious GDP growth obsession to including more indicators that cover sustainable development. it is doing this but the system needs time to change and more needs to be done. Obviously, citizens need to take more responsibility but again this needs time as we get to understand the impact of our actions.
Financial Consultant/ Investment Advisory Representative
Professor Saich,
I have two questions for you:
1. If you were to attribute three things to China's rise to the second largest economy, what would they be?
2. Chinese GDP has slowed quite a bit compared to the past several years; how much of this do you think is a result of political influence in the Chinese economy?
1) First and foremost abandoning an ineffective version of the Soviet model and moving to practices that have worked well elsewhere in East Asia--export-led growth and state directed investment etc. Improving incentives for individuals and enterprises. Opening up to foreign investment, not only bringing in foreign capital but also foreign know how. At the same time allowing large numbers of people to go abroad for training and bring back ideas that could be used in China.
2) I do not think it is a result of political influence per se. It is true that the government decided that the previous growth model has run its course and that it needed to be changed. It is hard to find more state investment and it is hard to see trade playing a great role and thus consumption has had to take up a great role. This means a slowing of growth. Also, the economy is reaching a point at which other economies in East Asia also began to slow.
Author of: "Superpower", President of Eurasia Group
What is the single greatest threat to Xi Jinping and his reform process?
That the economic reforms are frustrated by vested interest groups. Although, the Party has tried to develop other forms of legitimacy, it is still dependent on improving living standards and growing the economy. In the 1980s it was easy to see who would gain by the reforms and where support would come from. Similarly, in the 1990s, when Deng Xiaoping launched the economy free for all, it was clear to see who would benefit, party and military elites. Those who will benefit form Xi's reforms have less power within the system and are confronted by a strong block of vested interests in the state-owned industry and banks and local officials who have benefitted from the close relationship to political power. This may leave the reform program lacking momentum and stuck with some of the downsides of planning and the market. At a certain point in time, Xi will need the local elites to help him push through his reform program and here the anti-corruption program comes into play. Many local officials are sitting waiting to see how far this will go and he may need to lighten up to get them on board with the reform thrust.
Research Assistant @ RAND Corporation
As Chinese state-run cyberattacks continue to be a major source of tension between the U.S. and China, many are wondering how effective a potential U.S.-China cyberspace agreement would be.
What do you think are the necessary components for such deal? Do you think a bilateral cyberspace peace treaty is more feasible than an economic sanction against Chinese businesses that have profited from cybertheft?
Thank you!
I am not really the right person to ask about this but some thoughts. I think an agreement would be preferable to sanctions but I think it can do no more than lay out the rule of the road and at least give guidelines that we can measure action against. I presume no matter what both countries will maintain cyber probes agains the other, and indeed against other countries.
Author of "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are"
An American was formally arrested in China shortly before Xi's visit. What do you think is the significance of the timing of this arrest? nyti.ms/1MGMXOC
It does seem strange and I am not sure. Whether it is people trying to embarrass Xi before the visit might be one explanation but also the Chinese system is not as well coordinated as we might think and it could just be poor timing.
Research fellow at the Belfer Center @ Harvard
How satisfied are average Chinese citizens with Xi Jinping's leadership?
It seems that on the whole they are pretty satisfied. Our surveys show high levels of satisfaction with the Central government but they decline as government gets closer to the people. This might indicate that people see problems in the system as local aberrations rather than ill intent form the top. With respect to corruption, our previous surveys have shown this as the government line of work where citizens are least satisfied but last year opinion has improved and now they are least satisfied with land management. However, they still see many local officials as corrupt and harbor doubts about whether the campaign can continue effectively. In a survey last year by the Horizon group and a Japanese company, President Xi emerged as the most popular national leader globally. On the whole, citizens seem satisfied but of course they have few channels through which they can express their dissatisfaction. In fact, the CCP has been successful in instilling the notion that criticism of the Party is unpatriotic and that Party and nation are synonymous.
Someone interested in US, China and the Middle East
Professor Saich, with China's soft power on the rise in the Middle East how is the United State's foreign policy likely to evolve in that region?
I am sorry but I do not really have an answer to this but it is an important question
What are the biggest challenges the Chinese government faces in moving from an export driven economy to a more consumption driven economy? What impact do you foresee this having on other developing countries that are closely tied to China?
Clearly, the impact will be differential depending on which country one is talking about. Exporters of raw resources will see a decline in their trade with China and Chinese exports might decline in Southeast Asia as low end production moves to other countries. The other pillar to China's growth has been state-led investment and it is hard to see this rising further, hence the emphasis on consumption as a key driver. I think a key problem might occur if the vested interests block a shift away from investment on the SOEs to the private sector (although investment is expanding significantly), meaning that the shift to a consumption driven economy stalls and growth slows.
Hi Professor, it is great to have the chance to ask you a question again (outside of the class I took with you). What are your thoughts on Singapore's relationship with China after the death of Lee Kuan Yew (who was the main connector to China due to his friendship with Deng Xiao Ping)?
Singapore's relationship to China is complex. I think that perhaps the Singapore leadership overestimated its influence on China in the past. While some have thought that China might model its economic conglomerates on Singapore and may even evolve its political system in a similar direction as Singapore, i think current policy shows this to be untrue at the present time. SOE reform will not produce Temasek like organizations in China and the political system seems to be moving further away from a political evolution. Clearly, without Lee, a link is broken and Singapore will not have such good direct contacts so i think any influence with China will be diminished, Thanks for taking the course.
Author of "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are"
Dear Professor Saich, what would you consider to be a meaningful and successful outcome to Xi Jinping's visit to the United States?
Some of this is in answers above. Given that in China signals come from the top, I think the best outcome is that the two leaders express the strong willingness to move the relationship forward and outline three or four key areas where they want to show progress. While the system might not follow this it will be a clear signal to those in China to move forward in those areas.
One thing I'm not seeing here yet is a question regarding the CPEC deal with Pakistan. Perhaps one of the biggest and certainly most significant of their investments so far in their efforts to connect China to international markets. Given the recent shocks China's stock markets created in the South Asian markets, India's alarm/consideration for becoming part of the security council, and gaining access to Gwadar's deep sea port -- do you see China being able to overcome all this unpredictability and really challenge the status quo of global political prowess?
No. China desires to have a greater say in how global affairs are managed, rightly so. However, its impact as you suggest is going to be greatest within eh region. there are carrots and sticks (investment and AIIB and then more aggressive territorial claims). China will be an important player but it cannot for the foreseeable future become a global leader. It is only beginning to learn international investment and diplomacy and engagement in one area (as the US knows) produces backlash elsewhere. Already some major investments in Latin America and Africa have produced negative results and this will continue and get more complicated over time.