The life of a Western economist in China

by on February 20, 2014 at 2:19 pm in Economics, Education, Law, Political Science | Permalink

For most academics not in China, it is difficult for them to understand the level of scrutiny and monitoring we face on regular basis.  Most professors have students assigned to monitor them and security officials approaching many people to report on our behavior.  Our email is widely acknowledged, even by students, as being read.  While there are some overt obvious forms of intimidation as I have detailed, much of it is also the “deal you can’t refuse” variety.  There are no overt threats but the message is clear.

There is much more here, from Christopher Balding (pdf of his vita), worth the read.

1 Ray Lopez February 20, 2014 at 2:23 pm

You wonder how the westerner got to publish this, I guess the censors were asleep. Just recently however the Economist pointed out that South Korea also censors the internet, mostly for porn, but also for politically sensitive topics.

2 AC February 20, 2014 at 3:02 pm

“The oppression that can be spoken is not the true oppression.”

3 david February 20, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Discussion of the censorship is not itself a censored topic. This is not a problem if there is no pretense that the censorship doesn’t exist.

4 RPLong February 20, 2014 at 2:28 pm

But, like, it can’t happen here, right? It’s not happening here. Our press and our academics are free as birds, right? No one’s watching. Glad that’s settled.

5 Hoosier February 20, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Are you saying there are similar stories- meaning over intimidation, computer hacking, and break ins- for economists in the US who criticize US companies? Are there examples that I missed?

6 RPLong February 20, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Over intimidation? Criticize US companies? Er, gee… I guess you’ve got me there.

7 prior_approval February 21, 2014 at 1:50 am

Since the New Yorker is not linkable here apparently, let me direct you to a discussion of how global companies deal with private citizens –

However, it is also true that the reason we know that this company did this is the result of actual legal proceedings, where the rule of law played a role in providing factual documentation as to what lengths a private company will go to.

8 C February 20, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Um … yes, relatively speaking, our press and academics are free as birds compared to those in China. Was that even up for debate?

9 Hoosier February 20, 2014 at 2:54 pm

It appears that some people on this forum think that US is no better.

10 RPLong February 20, 2014 at 3:03 pm

I don’t understand. There is no argument over the US surveillance state. “But it’s worse elsewhere” is no good reason criticize other nations when we don’t even have our own house in order.

11 Just another MR Commentor February 20, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Although US intelligence services DO have access to surveillance systems it’s handled in a very targeted, professional way. Unlike in China the government works closely with some of the best internet security experts on the planet at top Silicon Valley companies to implement these tactics and they’re targeted at known violent extremists and people with a high probability of criminal behaviour.

12 Nathan W February 21, 2014 at 5:52 am

Just another commenter, I 100% assure you that it is all too often handled in a highly unprofessional and not sufficiently targeted manner.

13 Nathan W February 21, 2014 at 5:53 am

If I’m a known violent extremist, then explain to me how writing letters to politicians and composing music puts me into that category.

14 Cliff February 20, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Actually, yes, that is a good reason to criticize.

15 Al February 20, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Criticizing other systems is a way of affirming principles that may or may not be applied domestically. It’s a method of looking within by proxy. But you are also correct that it can be a self-serving tool for temporary squirts of self-righteousness.

16 RPLong February 21, 2014 at 9:00 am

This was the best response to me so far. I figured part of what TC was getting at was to point to the disutility of living in a surveillance state, as a sort of comment on the US by implication. My original comment was continuing the thought along those same lines. I have no doubt that the surveillance state is bad in the PRC – I’ve been there and experienced it myself. But the surveillance state is growing in alarming ways right here at home, and this is where we ought to focus our condemnations. I consider this a hugely important domestic issue.

17 Eric Rasmusen February 20, 2014 at 9:24 pm

In America professors are fully free to criticize companies. Try criticizing homosexuality, though, and you’ll get lots of hate mail, you may well see your raises stop coming, and you’d be well advised to keep a careful watch on the security of your office. You may also have to worry about lawsuits, and can you count on the university helping you with them?

18 Tony February 20, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Or you could actually try being gay, and for no particular reason have a photo of you posted on bulletin boards and slashed with a knife, or have everyone in your neighborhood receive a letter saying you keep kidnapped boys tied up in your basement. Both of which happened to me.

All public figures receive hate mail, no matter what they criticize. This “homophobes are so oppressed” line is pathetic.

19 Nathan W February 21, 2014 at 5:51 am

Homophobes should be oppressed. Why? Homophobia is too oppressive. Lesser of two evils kind of thing – Message from a straight man.

20 derek February 20, 2014 at 10:58 pm

Ask the economists at S&P.

21 Finch February 20, 2014 at 3:34 pm

I know you’re alluding to our own government’s surveillance programs, but to more directly address the OP, it would be astounding if China were not reading American email.

Does anyone really think the NSA was the first entity to consider monitoring American internet and phone traffic?

22 Benjamin Cole February 20, 2014 at 11:44 pm


Exactly Right!

Eric Snowden was found out as he told people what he did. Same with the other person who gave the info to Wikileaks,

And Snowden was a private contractor!

Imagine if someone wanted to sell information, and keep it on the QT. If an Eric Snowden can do it—a relatively low-level private contractor…who cannot do it? There must be thousands upon thousands of people who can sell NSA information.

And…when will it become advantageous for intelligence agencies to “sell” information to US political parties?

If you are a GOP’er, let me ask you this: You do not think some Donks would exchange a larger budget for dirt on the GOPs?

Or, if you are a D-Partier, do you not think there is natural collusion between the GOP and military intelligence agencies?

23 Just another MR Commentor February 21, 2014 at 2:11 am

Eric Snowden was a high level Russia agent inside the US government. The fact that he went directly to Russia proves this. The contractors working for the US government go through a very very strict security processes which makes it almost impossible for corrupt or flakey contractors to get through. The only exception would be a sophisticated, trained spy such as Edward Snowden.

24 Just another MR Commentor February 21, 2014 at 2:11 am

I mean Edward Snowden I don’t know why I said Eric

25 Nathan W February 21, 2014 at 5:49 am

Yes, I think they were the first. As per The Puzzle Palace, the NSA has been engaging in such games for decades. The recent shenanigans are nothing more than same old tricks brought to a new level with new technologies. The Chinese probably learned a lot from them, and that’s unfortunate.

26 Hoosier February 20, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Why do you continue to work in such a place? Money and family I guess? What a horrible existence.

27 Just another MR Commentor February 20, 2014 at 2:29 pm

I think this is one of the reasons why it’s very important the US maintain economic supremacy vis-a-vis China. China has a deeply entrenched practice of mass, and total surveillance of civilians including phone calls and email. Which is why it China in its current political form cannot be allowed to surpass the US economically, we must ensure that the primary economic power in the world is a place where this sort of arbitrary monitoring does not take place.
Professor Miles Kimball of the University of Michigan has an interesting article about how we can do this

28 Peter Schaeffer February 21, 2014 at 2:10 pm


Did you actually read the article? Let me quote

“With a quarter-millennium of additional experience beyond what Franklin had seen, we know that America’s melting pot can make people from anywhere in the world (not just England) into Americans at heart within two generations.”

That’s exactly what we know isn’t true. After 4-5 generations the dominant immigrant groups coming to America still lag far behind the natives in almost all measures of success. That’s actually worse (tar worse) than it sounds, because the immigrants who came 4-5 generations ago, arrived in nation far better able to handle them. Back then we had a booming job market, no welfare state, middle-class unions (starting in the 1930s), English imposition, disciplined education, no multiculturalism, no bilingualism, no victimization ideology, intact families, rigorous law enforcement, etc. Beyond that, ‘Americanization’ (assimilation) was a widely embraced ideal and promoted heavily. Now we have the pernicious and very dominant ideology of ‘diversity’.

Can America sustain itself by importing immigrants who fail in our schools, lapse in criminality, embrace the welfare system with a vengeance, demand and need racial quotas, reject English as our common language, promote “La Raza” (The Race) rather than an America identity?

To ask the question is to answer it.

29 Peter Schaeffer February 21, 2014 at 2:15 pm


“Which is why it China in its current political form cannot be allowed to surpass the US economically”

Too late. China is already number one in.

A. Electricity production
B. Manufacturing output
C. Trade
D. Coal production (more than 3X the U.S.)
E. Steel production (6-10X the U.S.)
F. Cement production (10X the U.S.)
G. Foreign exchange reserves
H. Food production
I. Non-ferrous metals
J. Capital investment (by far)
K. Total energy consumption
L. Total energy production
M. Rail freight
N. Ports

Critically China is already ahead (way ahead in some cases) in the areas that constitute the sinews of global economic power. Where does the U.S. lead? We are still ahead in producing non-tradable services for domestic consumption. We also produce somewhat more oil and far more natural gas (partially offsetting China’s huge edge in coal).

30 RR February 20, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Interesting Vita. Coups narrowly avoided and Tropical diseases !

31 Mark February 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

I was at a conference a year ago – in the US – with Michael Pettis who teaches at Beijing U and blogs at who has been accurately pessimistic about the Chinese economy.
It was made quite clear before he spoke and then again when he took questions, that he was unable to speal with complete candor in public for fear of reprisal.

32 Roy February 20, 2014 at 5:44 pm

That is certainly the case for every foreign China scholar. You just find out you aren’t getting a visa next time you go. If you have spent years learning the language you suddenly find yourself becoming the world’s most useless HK and Taiwan expert. And honestly nobody except the ROC cares about Taiwan scholarship.

33 Peter Schaeffer February 20, 2014 at 6:19 pm


I have followed Michael Pettis’s work for years. He is (in my opinion) the single best writer on the Chinese economy publishing in English. However, he is also a notorious China bear. Clearly that can’t endear him to the Chinese government. For the record, I think he is far too bearish on China. For example, see

“Professor Michael Pettis Makes Predictions from now to 2020 including predicting a slowdown to 3% GDP growth for China” –

34 Mark February 20, 2014 at 6:41 pm

Understood. And yet, directionally at least, he has been accurate the last couple years.

35 Nathan W February 21, 2014 at 5:48 am

I’m sure they don’t mind all that much to have someone who continuously points out the downside risks without having to worry about the Chinese taking him tooo seriously (he’s a Westerner after all, and therefore inherently biased against the potential of China and Chinese, would be the general perspective).

36 Joe Smith February 20, 2014 at 3:44 pm

What part of “police state” did these feckless westerners not understand before moving to China?

37 Rahul February 20, 2014 at 3:52 pm

And why is he continuing to stay?

38 Just another MR Commentor February 20, 2014 at 3:58 pm

I hate to beat a dead horse, but this is a prime example of the current unfortunate policy of the US government limited H1B visas forcing people like this to stay in highly unproductive and undesirable locations rather than contributing their talents in the US.

39 Joe Smith February 20, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Given that Christopher Balding’s university education was entirely in the United States, H1B policies probably have nothing to do with it.

40 Mark Thorson February 20, 2014 at 4:34 pm

The lack of relevance has nothing to do with his motivation for posting.

41 Just another MR Commentor February 21, 2014 at 5:10 am

Oh, I didn’t check his CV. I guess I assumed Mr. Balding was a Chinese national.

42 Rahul February 21, 2014 at 6:32 am

@Just another MR Commentor

The name sounds Armenian.

43 Mark Thorson February 20, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Probably the food.

44 CD February 20, 2014 at 11:26 pm

What seems relatively new, is governments going after people over specifically *economic* analysis – I can think of recent examples in Greece and Argentina, but none more than a few years old. Can people cite other cases?

45 guest February 21, 2014 at 12:58 am

I wonder how much more his salary is when compared to an associate professor at a second tier university in America.

46 prior_approval February 21, 2014 at 1:36 am

So, links to the New Yorker are off the table here?

47 prior_approval February 21, 2014 at 1:44 am

Wow – it seems as if linking to the New Yorker in a comment leads to the same disappearance treatment as linking to a major fileshare site (and, oddly enough, the same treatment that links to the Mercatus Center received in the past).

I sure it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with a particular article by Jane Mayer, dated May 23, 2013, which was published in the New Yorker, discussing the effects of public television sponsorship on programming choices.

Just another one of those odds coincidences that abound in life. It isn’t as the New Yorker actually plays a real role in the intellectual life of the United States, at least in certain circles.

48 Peter Schaeffer February 21, 2014 at 1:56 pm


Many commenting systems are wary of links. Nothing to do with you or the New Yorker. Spam control.

49 prior_approval February 21, 2014 at 2:14 am

Well, the thought arises what is the difference between the tender sensibilities of a Communist Party boss and a private company?

We all know how official media organs in a Communist state respond to and report on criticism, especially how the more factually accurate the criticism, the more hyperbolic the response.

So, with the hope that at least this link will work, let us compare and contrast – ‘As campaigns and attacks against Koch Industries and its shareholders go, the one led by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker has been consistent, if nothing else – consistent in its left-leaning bias, baseless accusations, and numerous inaccuracies.’

Yep, private companies can hold their own when denouncing those they consider opponents.

50 Just another MR Commentor February 21, 2014 at 2:40 am


51 prior_approval February 21, 2014 at 6:51 am

Sorry, it is afternoon in Germany. And links to the New Yorker still seem impossible to post here, if a recent comment concerning Prof. Cowen’s post is a reliable indicator.

I never expected to see such simple empirical evidence of just how well General Director Cowen has learned the contours of ensuring that public discourse does not stray into the unallowed – and obviously, linking to the New Yorker is beyond the pale in discourse.

After all, the New Yorker’s claim to factual accuracy is so pre-digital era.

And it isn’t as if a tenured employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia has any obligation to link to a private organization devoted to journalistic enquiry.

52 Empirical Evidence February 21, 2014 at 3:55 pm
53 Nathan W February 21, 2014 at 5:44 am

As opposed to the West, where a few too many challenging comments in the wrong political places may land your life in hell, the Chinese are fairly explicit about what you can and cannot do. For example, employment contracts typically are explicit in forbidding interference in political activities or discussion, although in practice foreigners are still free to discuss Chinese political issues amongst themselves.

Basically, you can critique most things as long as you don’t construe it in a way that is a challenge to the CCP itself.

54 Milton Zhang February 23, 2014 at 3:03 am

I’ve read Christopher Balding’s blog many times before. I kept thinking of how brave he was for reporting on things Singapore and China would like to keep hidden. The whole time I read his blog he was dealing with intimidation tactics and passive-aggressive threats against his life. It should be noted that Chinese or Singaporeans are not brave enough to stand up to their own governments or corporations, it’s once again a Westerner.

55 nike air max 95 March 13, 2014 at 4:31 am

BEIJING, Feb. 21 (Xinhua) — A Beijing-based Tibetology scholar has criticized the Dalai Lama’s Friday meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House, saying it was another “anti-China farce.” “Once again, the Dalai Lama slipped into the White House Map Room for a so-called ‘unofficial meeting’ with Obama. This was another farce against China,” said Lian Xiangmin, a researcher with the China Tibetology Research Center, in a signed article.

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