Visions for the New Decade — Opening Speech at 16th Harvard China Forum

By Yueran Ma and David Pickerell, delivered on April 13, 2013 at Charles Hotel in Harvard Square

In the scope of China’s five-thousand-year history, one decade is all but transitory, comparable to less than two months in a typical person’s life. However, a decade in the span of our less-than-one-hundred-year journey in this world is rather significant, long enough to shape the direction of our trajectory. If you take a moment to recall where you were and what you were doing ten years ago, chances are the difference between now and then will be more than striking.

As a matter of reality, the experience of every person is not just determined by individual choices, but also fundamentally influenced by the society in which he or she lives. The general prosperity of the society defines the possibility frontier of personal endeavors and the overall level of personal well-being. 2013 opens a new decade in China’s political history, ushering in a new group of leaders who will make decisions that could affect one decade of life experience for every one of us. Thus, this conjuncture is a meaningful moment to envision the future of China and the future of our lives.Even for a vast country like China, many things could change dramatically in the time of one decade. Far back in history, the Shihuang Emperor of the Qin Dynasty made the most influential achievement in Chinese history–unifying the lands of and peoples of China–in slightly less than a decade. In the more recent memory, China’s Gross Domestic Product had tripled in every decade beginning in 1980, lifting 500 million people out of poverty, setting another unprecedented record in human history.

However, accomplishments of such grand schemes also tend to be particularly challenging. There are many other problems that we have not been able to resolve given the time of ten years or more. Looking back to the various problems that China was coping with ten years ago, one might be surprised by how similar they are to the ones we are still wrestling with. For example, in 2003, the Economist wrote: “at the same time (of unprecedented economic growth), China has produced income inequalities that are among the fastest-growing in the world. These are not just the natural consequences of China’s impressive economic growth. They are symptomatic of barriers to labor mobility and other legacies of the old planned economy…” These words will not stand out as peculiar if they reappear in the latest issue of the magazine.

Take another example, ten years ago it was the sandstorm that startled Beijing, with a purple sun shining in an orange sky. Today, the sand has been transformed into heavy smog, making the metropolis a hazy forest of buildings. Ten years ago it was the poisoned Jinhua ham that unnerved diners. Today, the swine legions were floating in the rivers before they could be turned into ham. The list goes on. The same ten years that allowed the unification of China and the massive scale poverty relief cannot have failed us at solving these remaining problems.

With the possibility for continued transformations, the decade to come bears plentiful of opportunities for China to keep changing for the better. However, it also inherits numerous challenges from the past course of development, many of which have become pressing concerns. The future routes of reform and development will not be abstract concepts, but decisions that matter fundamentally to the well-being of every single one of us living in this era.

Through the platform of the Harvard China Forum, we hope to envision what the new decade implies for the country and for everyone’s life and career. We are hopeful that the discussions can help us understand the essential elements that will make the coming decade meaningful for everyone who lives through it and remarkable when people look back many years from now. We also hope that, even with small chances, the conversations we have can inspire entrepreneurial, social, or academic endeavors that will contribute to the prosperity of the next decade and beyond.