On Monday, I attended the fifth annual Forecast of China's Economy at the New York Stock Exchange, an event organized by the National Committee on United States-China Relations which invites Chinese experts to discuss China's economic policy and its potential to influence the economy in the coming year.
The discussion was generally positive, though there were a number of looming dark sides that were covered, such as the out-of-control borrowing at the local level and potential cooling effects of tremendous inequality.
I even had a chance to ask Justin Lin, during Q&A, to suppose that I was a Chinese migrant worker, requesting that he tell me how recent reforms benefit me. He answered well, mentioning the loosening of the household registration system and saying that employment would rise through boosts to small and medium-sized firms.
But the two statements that stuck with me the most didn't come from the podium.
The large room was filled with investors, financial analysts, and other businesspeople intently focused on economic indicators out of the second largest economy in the world. Fittingly enough, one of the speakers, Tao Yang, a professor at Beijing University, announced that his school has one of largest MBA programs in the world.
I approached Tao after one of the sessions and asked him what I felt was a key questions, especially given all the talk of great and growing inequality in China: "Does the MBA program have an ethics class or 企业社会责任课 (corporate social responsibility class)?"
Tao's face contorted a bit to form a look that could be described as regret. He said, "We did in the past, but not anymore."
So the Harvard of China is training its MBAs in everything except how to respect society while making money? Isn't China supposed to be learning from the mistakes of the U.S.?
Find me a sweatshop
The second unforgettable memory I took away from this conference came from the audience. During the moments in-between sessions, an apparently white American man sitting in front of me got the attention of the apparently Chinese man sitting next to me: "Hey, I could really use your help. My friend is a fashion designer here in New York and is looking for a sweatshop in southern China." The man's tone suggested that this was not said tongue-in-cheek.
Since when did saying "sweatshop" while seeking out sweatshops for garment production become PC?
I must say that this conference took an unexpected turn for me. I did not expect to come out of this slightly more angry at the business community. Granted, I've talked to and worked with a good number of people in the business world over the past few years who seem to have their hearts in the right place. But the two instances above really disappointed me.