An economist on China

By Chen Weihua in Washington | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-03-10 11:36

 An economist on China

  David Dollar, then Beijing-based World Bank country director for China and Mongolia, plays mahjong during a break at a World Bank-financed project in Chongqing, in a file photo taken around 2007. Photos Provided To China Daily


David Dollar has spent a lifetime studying China, including nearly a decade living and working in China as a professor, World Bank official and US Treasury emissary

David Dollar was about to graduate from high school when US President Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China in February 1972. He enrolled in Dartmouth College to study Chinese language and history.

Now a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center of the Brookings Institution, Dollar recalled that Nixon's trip caught a lot of attention on television in the US "in the sense that China was starting to open up".

"It was the beginning of a new era. So I think that influenced me to study Chinese language and Chinese history," he told China Daily in his Brookings office.

Pictures on the wall show his close connection with China, such as ones with his family on the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall outside Beijing, playing mahjong during a break at a World Bank project site in Chongqing, and a 2006 group photo of him with then Premier Wen Jiabao and other recipients of the Friendship Award, the top prize for foreign experts working in China.

At Dartmouth, Dollar studied Chinese history and politics, everything from the communist revolution to the founding of the People's Republic.

He liked the small classes with specialized faculty at Dartmouth. Some classes had five or six students. The Chinese language was difficult, he admitted.

Finishing Dartmouth in just three years, Dollar received a fellowship to study Chinese at a university in Taiwan. He spent the academic year living with a local family and spoke Chinese every day. "Back then, my Chinese was mamahuhu (so so), not bad," he said.

Taiwan just had a new leader Chiang Ching-kuo, son of former leader Chiang Kai-shek who passed away in April 1975. The Taiwan economy was taking off and exports were booming, very much like what would happen on the Chinese mainland a decade later.

"That was when I got interested in economics, watching the export boom in Taiwan," Dollar said.

Returning to the US, he went in the PhD program at New York University, focusing on international trade and investment. He remembers the macroeconomics exam on balance of payment back then is still quite relevant today.

First trip to China

After graduating in 1984, Dollar went to teach economics at UCLA, a school that had quite a few collaborative programs with China. In 1986, he made his first trip to the Chinese mainland, teaching for six months at the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

China was still relatively poor then. There were no elevated roads in Beijing and the Third Ring Road was just under construction, he recalled.

Dollar found that China's economic reform at the time had a major impact on the countryside, but not as much in big cities. China had not yet got rid of the rationing system and dual currency system. He had a little booklet to show the stores that as a foreign expert working in China, he could pay with renminbi (RMB) instead of FEC (foreign exchange certificates). But he found the stores were not always happy hearing that.

In his early 30s then, Dollar spent a month travelling around China, from Sichuan, Yunnan to Guangdong and the east coast. There were no airports at Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan province then, so he had to travel from Kunming by bus.

He travelled between Suzhou and Hangzhou in East China on an overnight barge on the Grand Canal. "That was unbelievable," he said.

Travelling around the country, Dollar found ordinary Chinese were very friendly. "I told them I was an American, they had very positive attitude. That was nice," he said.

He also saw a lot of enthusiasm in the countryside about economic reform. "That was visible. People's lives were getting better," he said.

He was impressed how open China was, recalling a lot of interesting discussions with his students on topics ranging from Taiwan and US-China relations to China's economic reform.

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