Chinese Character

In the swim of things

Justin Lin returns to China after retiring from World Bank

In the swim of things

Lin: noted economist and holder of five degrees

In 1810 the British poet Lord Byron put down his pen for a moment to swim the Hellespont. After his dip, he became the first known person to swim between Europe and Asia.

And over in China, another composer of poems also liked to prove his virility with a burst of front-crawl. In 1966, Mao Zedong made headlines when he swam the mighty Yangtze river at Wuhan, allegedly covering nine miles in just over an hour.

The lesson learned: you can’t beat a dramatic swim for gaining attention.

Lin Yifu – also known as Justin Lin – evidently understood this too. In 1979 he swam the 2,130-metre strait from a Taiwanese archipelago to Jiaoyu, on the Chinese mainland. Lin wasn’t in search of exercise. Instead he’d made the (then highly unusual) decision to defect to the People’s Republic of China.

Not surprisingly Lin’s swim to the Fujian coastline was treated as a great coup by Beijing. All the more so as the Taiwan-born economist left his wife and child behind.

This was the stuff of great national sacrifice, reckons the Changjiang Daily. The newspaper wrote this month that Lin, “like many with an insight into history”, was thinking only of “how to make China strong and prosperous”. He knew he could not serve “the motherland” from Taiwan, Changjiang Daily acknowledged. But Lin swam that cold stretch of sea because he knew that the “two sides will eventually be unified, for only in this way can the Chinese nation rise”.

Lin himself talks less about why he opted to leave Taiwan. But he has been rewarded for his aquatic adventures. In 2008 he was nominated by China to be the World Bank’s chief economist and vice-director. Western officials have tended to dominate the top roles at the IMF and World Bank, so when it was announced that Lin got the positions it was a coup – he became the most senior Chinese official to crack the supranational glass ceiling, and much was also made of his being the first chief economist from a ‘developing country’.

This won him plaudits at home. Over the years Lin has impressed with an outlook that is “steady and straightforward, polite and humorous”, writes Beijing Business Today. And now he is retiring from the World Bank, having “successfully concluded his four-year term”.

Lin is returning to Beijing and will resume teaching at the National School of Development at Peking University. But there’s speculation his political ascent will continue.

Lin was born in 1952 in the small Taiwanese county of Yilan and attended the island’s best university, National Taiwan University, where he studied agriculture and industry. Military service followed, and he was earmarked by the top brass as having officer potential. Accordingly, he was sent to the National Chengchi University Institute of Enterprise Management, where he got one of Taiwan’s first MBAs.

On graduation Lin was sent as company commander to the Kinmen Mashan Sentry Barracks, on an island closest to the Chinese mainland. On the evening of May 16, 1979 he told his men there would be an exercise that night, and if they saw anyone swimming in the water, not to shoot. Thus he made his escape. (Taiwan’s military have subsequently played down his defection swim, suggesting that it was low tide and that much of the two-hour trip could have been waded).

Lin’s arrival in Deng Xiaoping’s China was well-timed. He began studying economics at Peking University, before getting another big break. When Nobel laureate Theodore Schultz visited China in 1980, Lin was assigned as his translator. Schultz was so impressed that when he returned to the University of Chicago he arranged for Lin to get a full scholarship to study for a doctorate in the US.

In 1982, Lin arrived in America, and spent the next four years studying agricultural economy under Schultz. Subsequently he did a postdoctoral degree at Yale (by WiC’s count, Lin has five degrees from five different seats of learning).

Then in 1987 Lin – who was reunited with his wife and family in America – became the country’s first overseas Ph.D in economics to return to China. His first job was at the Institute of Development Studies – a body under the State Council – where he served as deputy director. Three years later he was promoted to vice- minister status and in 1994 he returned to Peking University where he founded the China Centre for Economic Research.

This body soon became a focal point for Chinese economics, holding annual meetings attended by the nation’s leading economists.

Lin’s growing influence became clearer when he helped draft the Tenth Five-year Plan. Others have lauded his reputation overseas, suggesting he is the most likely Chinese candidate as Nobel laureate in the field of economics. For example, local media have enjoyed pointing out that Lin was the first Chinese speaker to give Cambridge University’s Marshall Lecture (which he did in 2007). Named after the British economist Alfred Marshall, 14 of the previous 60 speakers have won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Lin’s World Bank role only seemed to confirm his status as the country’s most high-profile economist. During his tenure he published Demystifying the Chinese Economy and remained vocal on China’s growing role in global affairs. Last December, he told the People’s Daily that the US and EU should “heed China’s wisdom” if they were to deal with their economic difficulties, as well as praising the “political wisdom” of China’s own leadership. A year ago he also told Xinhua that China could avoid “the middle income trap”, forecasting that it is “highly possible” that its economy will experience 20 more years of 8% GDP growth.

It’s unclear whether Lin’s colleagues at the World Bank shared his bullish China stance. After all, in its recently published China 2030 report (see WiC140), the World Bank made plain its view that China was at risk of falling into the middle income trap, unless it initiated a new wave of market reforms. For example, the report suggested that the growing influence of state-owned firms needed to be scaled back in favour of a more dynamic private sector. It called for a boost for the rule of law and property rights, and it proposed autonomy for the central bank (to name but a few of its suggestions). The report seemed to indicate that China had little choice but to change its current economic model.

Indeed, the South China Morning Post speculates that Lin’s former colleagues may have found him “somewhat over-bullish” on China, adding that “his views did not always resonate well with Western officials”.

But the Hong Kong media is speculating that Lin’s career is now set to reach new heights in China itself. The prediction is that he’ll soon be appointed as head of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, as well as vice-chairman of the CPPCC (the advisory body to China’s legislature). That will make him China’s highest-ranked Taiwan-born official.

One place he won’t be going is Taiwan. Should he return to the island, Lin faces trial for defection.

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