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British economist draws attention of common Chinese

Photo: the screeshot of John Ross's weibo

John Ross (罗思义), a seasoned economic analyst from Britain, is nowadays gaining popularity among China’s common people, although he challenges many of the prevailing views about the country’s economy. At the moment, he’s drawn over 73,000 fans on Sina Weibo, a twitter-like Chinese micro-blogging service, by posting about his perspectives and predictions on economic issues.

Meanwhile, as a British endowed with a specific sense of humor, his sarcastic jokes against neo-liberals seem to easily connect the expatriate with the average Chinese Internet users, and he can really make them laugh and then think.

A neo-liberal is also called public intellectual, a phrase coined in China to refer to those of a considerable academic background who tend to judge and comment on public affairs on the Internet and claim themselves to think about the public good.

‘Research is the most interesting matter to me’

Mr. Ross is a British academic, journalist, blogger, advisor to multinationals and economic commentator who previously was a socialist political activist. From 2000 to 2008, he worked as the economic and business policy director (the equivalent of deputy mayor in charge of economic matters in China) for Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London.

And now, he has just moved to Beijing—not from London but from Shanghai.

“I’m new to Beijing but I’m not new to China,” he thus began the exclusive interview with at the Wangfujing (王府井) office of a commercial company which has taken over what used to be the official promotional organization for London during the tenure of Livingstone. 

John Ross is with one of his class in Shanghai Jiaotong University (上海交通大学). Photo: provided by John Ross

In 2009, Mr. Ross became a visiting professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University (上海交通大学), and for the past four years, he would usually spend half the year inside China and half the year outside China, while leading research on China, the international financial crisis, and globalization.

“As the visiting professor of two major universities in China, would teaching be your primary job at the current phase?” asked the reporter.

“Not quite. In fact, I want to concentrate more on research which is the most interesting matter to me. I’m anxious to know what is happening in the economy, and what I actually do is to analyze the trend,” he explained, “In any moment, I intend to have a picture on my head—about the state of the world economy, and China’s position within it.”

‘Beijing and London are both interesting but in different ways’

“So, it seems you are especially drawn to China, right?” 

“Yes, China is the most exciting place in the world because the biggest changes in the world are taking place here. Never has any major countries in the world undergone such rapid growth as China—this is fact, no exaggeration.”

When being asked to compare Beijing and London, his hometown, Mr. Ross revealed the two metropolitan cities are both interesting but in different ways.

“London is interesting because it’s more diverse and international. Caucasians are just a minority now in London, and in the city, there are 300 different languages being spoken every single day. London is one of the best places in the world from which to see the world. And, considering Britain is no longer a very important country on the scale it used to be, London is like a Singapore which happens to be in Britain,” said Mr. Ross.

In his opinion, although Beijing is internationally connected, it is not yet very diverse by London’s standards, considering less than 1% of the population in the city is from abroad.

“Beijing is dynamic and representative of China’s extraordinary growth and huge impact on the world,” he said, adding “They are both very interesting but in completely different ways.”

‘When what is generally believed true is not true, I just make the attempt to be accurate’

When the current consensus is that China should transfer into a sustainable new economy, which is said to be driven more by domestic consumption and less by the country’s notoriously ‘inefficient’ investments, Mr. Ross goes upstream and alerts the Chinese policy makers and business owners to be more cautious.

“There is no economy in the world which is driven by consumption, because consumption doesn’t add anything to the economy. And another thing is investments in China are actually being used in a more efficient way than in the US.” He stuck to the idea on many occasions.

A few days ago, a disapproving audience questioned the veteran economic commentator in the middle of one of his speeches at Central Institute for Financial Studies, “It seems you always say good things about China. Why?”

“Because they are the truth,” Mr. Ross answered with a degree of surprise with the question.

“I do not especially say optimistic things about China. I only say realistic things. In economics, there is no virtue in being optimistic or pessimistic. So, the only thing that helps is to say what the real situation is, especially when I’m invited and paid to give my view on the economy—for example, when I say China has got the fastest rate in consumption increase than any other major economies in the world, that’s because I looked into the data and I know that’s the case,” Mr. Ross told

He revealed he is now writing a column for Sina Finance (新浪财经频道), “I’m supposed to point to trends which people haven’t noticed, and that is the way I make my money.”

Mr. Ross said, as an economic analyst, he is required to be accurate by his clients (multinationals or policy makers) and that’s what he has been doing till now. About China’s economy, as early as the year 1992, he had predicted its remarkable success which at the time was not foreseen by the majority; his article about the projections titled “China’s economy will succeed and Russia’s economy won’t” made him famous a few years later when he was proved to be right.

Some of his opinions challenge the mainstream thoughts now advocated by the media.

“I have to be more accurate than the majority opinion in the media, or people would just go to buy a newspaper than paying me to do the research. Sometimes what is generally believed is true, and the only time when what is generally believed true is not true, I just make the attempt to be accurate,” he said.

And then he mentioned neo-liberals (公知, public intellectuals) in the economics. “They say the Chinese economy is going to have a deep crisis. What do they mean by that? Is the economy going to stop growing or what? They have to be specific.”

“I have a general theoretical analysis of the world economy which has been developed over a 40-year period. And I would distinguish a problem, something that is not good, undesirable from a crisis, something that would stop the economy from growing fundamentally.”

The professor admitted there will be problems all the time—but a crisis, he doesn’t think so.

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