The new rock stars

Hard to believe, but economists are the ‘hot ticket’ in China these days

The new rock stars

School of rock: economists are making a packet from speaking tours

According to Confucius, “Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and star.”  If you are looking for stars in China today, look no further (surprisingly) than economists. They have become celebrities.

And in one of the biggest recent events – a visit from Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman –the audience was to get another surprise. Krugman was unable to make any predictions about where the Chinese economy is going. In fact, he claimed not to know very much about it: “China is a country that is more difficult to make sense of what is really happening than other places.”

All the more surprising to get such an honest response when audiences are paying big bucks to hear ecomomists speak. In Krugman’s case, tickets were changing hands for as much as Rmb58,000 ($8,468).

Despite his China blind spot, Krugman’s China tour still hit the headlines, with audiences interested in his musings on the worsening global economy and the financial crisis.

Other, more local, experts are keen to get in on the action too. Lang Xianping, a popular mainstream economist in China, now commands Rmb150,000 per speech. That is, if he’s available. “I am very busy; I have to go to Beijing tomorrow to give a lecture, followed by a dinner. I’m too busy to deal with this,” Lang told a reporter at New Culture View who had asked for an interview.

Economists have become the commercial stars of the intelligentsia, says China Daily, and can now bill 50 times what they were charging in speaking fees three years ago. Why? The public are desperate to get a sense of where the economy might be heading.

With their new-found fame, some of the economists even seem to be lapsing into diva-like behaviour. Many will only give interviews to the national press, for example. Yu Mengmeng, a public relations representative that works closely with many prominent economists in Beijing, also reveals demands for first class flights, executive assistants (to deal with press requests and dole out medication) and five-star hotel accommodation. Not bad for a group once content with a life of chalk and blackboards.

Critics are now worried that all the appearances on speaking tours mean that university economists are neglecting their primary responsibilities – research.

Liu Gexin, member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee, lambasts the economists for not attending to their day job: “These experts are travelling and giving lectures everyday, how do they find time to research and teach students? Without doing research, how do they reach the right conclusion about the country’s economy? Is this why none of them have correctly predicted the financial crisis?”

Liu may have a point. According to New Culture View, none of the mainland economists foresaw the global financial meltdown.

And the knives are out for many of those now hoping to profit from the troubled times. Zhou Hengfu, an economist working at the World Bank, even sniffs that many of these “celebrity economists” are largely unknown in the international community.

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