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Interview with Professor Wang Jianye
Please give a background on yourself.
Towards the end of the 1970s, I enrolled in the Economics Department of Peking University. Soon after obtaining my Bachelor’s degree there, I went as a Fulbright scholar to study at Columbia University, where I received my PhD in economics in May 1989.
I joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) upon graduation, initially working on African countries and transition economies in the former USSR and Eastern Europe. I was the IMF’s first Resident Representative in the Republic of Georgia (1994-1996) and witnessed firsthand the collapse of the Soviet economy. We worked together with the authorities to stop hyperinflation, introduce the national currency, and eventually stabilize the economy. I spent part of my IMF career on debt negotiations and rescheduling for developing countries, including debt relief for highly indebted poor countries (HIPCs), many of these were in sub-Saharan Africa. I also led IMF missions on macroeconomic policy consultations and structural adjustment lending to member countries.
I returned to China in 2008 after being away from the country for nearly 25 years, and joined China Exim bank as its Chief Economist and Economic Counselor. At China Exim Bank, I was entrusted to lead the Bank’s crisis response task force while facing an unfolding financial crisis in the U.S. and a turbulent world economy. During this period, I was interested in issues related to currency, debt, and structural reform, which are not only relevant to China, but also important for our work around the globe.
Can you tell me about your work with the Volatility Institute in Shanghai?
The Volatility institute at NYU Shanghai (VINS) was formally launched on November 27th, 2014. Our mission is to create opportunities for research and collaboration on the study of risk in the Chinese financial market and markets around the world.
As the Chinese economy develops, we see rising demand for monitoring and analyzing financial risk. This in part reflects the ongoing change in China’s financial structure, from a system dominated by a few large state-owned banks to a system where securities markets, or more broadly non-bank financial intermediation, and small private institutions play a larger role. Rising demand for empirical research on financial risk also reflects the gradual opening of China’s capital account and financial market.
China has been a high-saving country, with large foreign assets. Over time, private holding of foreign assets will become significant, outward investment will exceed inward investment, and China will become a net capital exporter. Domestic corporate entities and households are increasingly interested in investment opportunities and risks abroad. In addition, the RMB will also see wider use in international transactions. The VINS will facilitate academic research, and support studies to understand changing financial markets.
Economics has taken you all over the world and brought you all kinds of experiences. What initially interested you in economics?
I was a worker in my hometown of Guangzhou before going to college in Beijing. Our factory produced telephone parts, not for Samsung or Apple, but hand-cranked phones, as you may find in an old movie. I held some leadership responsibilities, managing a workshop of more than a hundred workers at a time, but the technology was backwards, productivity was so low, and the factory generated little value. I did not see hope there. I sensed there was much more I needed to learn, that we had to learn from more advanced economies in areas that went beyond technology.
Thanks to the Reform and Opening up after the Cultural Revolution, the government launched the process of selecting college students based on nation-wide exams. I passed the exam and was selected to go to Peking University, one of the best in China. My factory experience helped me to make up my mind on what I want to do in my life and how best to use my time at Peking University. I initially I thought about studying math or engineering, but I felt that economic management was one of the key areas that was holding this country back. I didn’t know much about economics, but I’d encountered economic puzzles back when I was employed in the workshop.
The word “economics” in Chinese is jingji which is short for jingshi jiming, jingshi means “to make the economy work”, jiming means “to benefit the people”. I thought this was a great cause. So I felt it was something I wanted to learn. That’s why I chose to study economics.
Have you enjoyed teaching at NYU Shanghai?
I learned a lot from this experience. The students certainly belong to another generation. They are aware of what’s going on abroad because of the Internet, and sitting in the classroom with classmates from all over the world. From a cultural perspective, the Chinese students are quite different from my generation because they have much smaller gap with their foreign counterparts.
Our students are energetic, smart, and many of them motivated and hard working. Since all of them were born after 1990, I strongly feel they need to know what has happened in this economy as well as the world economy in the past, particularly over the last three or four decades. This should help them to better understand where we are today, perhaps to think about the future and what they are going to do with their educations.
A college education should ideally cultivate a well-rounded person who is constructive, innovative, creative, who possesses critical thinking skills, and can be confident in a globalized world. A college education should result in someone who is more than a worker possessing some in-demand skills and is ready to enter the job market to earn a salary. I see education as a process of instilling values which will perhaps be more lasting and useful for the rest of their lives.
I know that a lot of students who come here don’t want their jobs to define them, or just be a skilled worker in a corporation. So what would you say to them, what kind of advice would you give them drawing upon your own experiences? What are the elements or what is the element about yourself that has allowed you to have these experiences?
Compared to many in my generation, I’m probably among the luckiest. To be able to move from Guangzhou to Beijing, from Beijing to New York City, and then from Washington DC to all over the world in my IMF years, travelling to countries rich and poor. To our students, I would say, keep an open mind, try to enjoy your college years as much as possible, read broadly, do not just focus narrowly on the textbooks. The way this world developing, I hope our students realize that the shelf life of individual pieces of knowledge is getting shorter. What’s important is to develop the ability to learn and adapt, the ability to think critically and creatively.
What do you think of the progress of NYU Shanghai?
I think the school has made very good progress in a short period of time. In November 2014, the students held the Hackathon. Some of the students participating in the Hackathon have only been here for three semesters, but there have been some amazing contributions. As these students become juniors and seniors and become even more enterprising, we’re going to see more amazing achievements. So you tell me, how is NYU Shanghai doing?
We’ve had a marked influence on higher education in China. It’s about cultivating a generation of students that are innovation driven. Not only should they be able to talk, they should be able to do. Not only should they know how to pass exams, they should have a strong sense of responsibility with a moral backbone.