[OUTLOOK]Student chastises the teacherLast week, the JoongAng Ilbo hosted the JoongAng Economic Forum in Beijing. I was not too thrilled to attend an international event where debates are translated by interpreters, but the four-hour forum on the economic development process of Korea and China was surprisingly interesting. At first, both Korean and Chinese representatives were reserved, but as the discussion heated up, the panel members spoke freely and created quite a bit of tension.
The star of the forum was Pi Shenghao, head of China’s Zhongxin International Studies Institute. In his presentation on China’s perspective on the problems of the Korean economy, he pungently criticized the economic structure of Korea. “I am not an expert on Korea,” he started humbly, but he made his points by attacking the faults of today’s Korean economy and making precise references to the “affluenza” and Korea’s obsession with democratization and politics.
In short, Korea is not yet a rich country, but its citizens have adopted lavish spending habits and are suffering from increasing credit card debt. He also pointed out that Korea’s wage levels are higher than wealthier countries such as Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Koreans have a crooked obsession with democracy, and labor unions ignore law and order and frequently stage protests and walkouts. A couple of former presidents ended up in jail, and the National Assembly passed a bill to impeach an incumbent president.
How can such government lead the nation forward? The government can encourage small and medium businesses, but it is too harsh on the big conglomerates that are actually leading economic growth. Opening the financial markets is a good idea, but how can the government respond to national emergencies after handing over banks and financial firms to foreigners so easily?
Mr. Pi even mentioned the streets of Seoul in the afternoon. He asked how the Korean economy could function when there are so many people wandering around during the day when they are supposed to be working hard at their offices and factories. He did not hesitate to describe the Korean economy as on the verge of collapse in international competitiveness. To revive the slumping economy, Koreans should once again have the determination and spirit that made the “miracle on the Han River” happen.
Having visited Korea nine times since 1988, Mr. Pi is, in fact, a pro-Korean economist. He played a crucial role with Korea before Seoul and Beijing set up official diplomatic relations. Listing to his presentation, I wondered whether he was urging Korea to go back to the authoritarian regimes under Park Chung Hee or Chun Doo Hwan. He sounded like he was representing the grumbles of conservative economists or spokesmen for large conglomerates.
Aside from the validity of his claims, Mr. Pi was confident and uninhibited in pronouncing his diagnosis of the Korean economy. Frankly, I was quite shocked by his presentation. It was not because his diagnosis and analysis were distinguished or because he came up with new ideas.
My amazement comes from the fact that a Chinese scholar could criticize the Korean economy so openly and bluntly. Even if he had not used such frank language, Koreans there could feel that he was looking down on Korea, condescendingly asking what made Korea so proud when China was changing day by day. As he mentioned the miracle on the Han River, Mr. Pi’s speech sounded like an admonition urging Korea to get itself together. If not, he warned, it was only a matter of time before Korea is beaten by China.
Until recently, Korea has been an excellent teacher and a success model for China. Beijing in fact has benchmarked the policies and systems of the Korean economy in many fields. Today, the tables have turned and the student is giving advice to the pitiful teacher. The neighbor is condemning the mind and spirit of Korean citizens and denouncing the fundamental framework of government management.
It had been eight years since my last visit to Beijing. This time, I could feel how rapid and intense the changes have been just by looking at the city. Visits to a few Korean companies operating in Beijing validated my impressions. I also felt ashamed that I had not visited Beijing for the last eight years despite being a business writer for a newspaper.
What will I witness if I return to Beijing after another eight years? I am frightened of China’s transformation.
* The writer is the chief economic correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chang-kyu