In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, we were honored to host Justin Yifu Lin. Professor Lin was the Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, 2008-2012. Currently he serves as director of the Center for New Structural Economics, dean of the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development, and honorary dean at the National School of Development at Peking University. Professor Lin was visiting for a series of events; click here to read more about his stay at UM.
For more about Professor Lin’s background, check out this article published in the New Yorker by Evan Osnos. Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.
Couillard: It was a huge risk for you to defect from Taiwan to mainland China – that must have required a huge amount of courage. What drove you to do that?
Prof Lin: Well, it seemed natural to me. I’m Chinese. I wanted to make a contribution to my country, and that was the best way I saw to do so. It was a risk, yes, but I didn’t have any other choice.
Couillard: I read that you once said “My ambition is to die at my desk.” Do you still maintain that ambition?
Prof Lin: Yes! We need to work hard to pursue our goals, and this is a big goal. Even if I give everything I have, it still won’t be sufficient.
Couillard: How do you maintain that energy? How do you avoid burnout?
Prof Lin: On the one hand, there’s still so much I can do. On the other hand, the little things I have done have made some impact. So that gives me encouragement, which helps me to maintain momentum.
Couillard: Your ideas and opinions are often faced with a lot of opposition and resistance. How do you stay positive in the face of all that?
Prof Lin: Only because I’ve made so many observations that prove my ideas are right, for me anyway. And actually the opposition becomes a form of motivation as well – it pushes me to develop my ideas so more people can understand.
Couillard: You have such a strong and powerful vision. Where did it come from? Was it something you were born with?
Prof Lin: Almost! Actually all Chinese intellectuals were educated in this way – to be responsible for the modernization of the nation. It’s a historical tradition – we’re responsible not only for ourselves, but for our family, our community, and our nation. To me, the calling was natural. I just grew up thinking this way.
Couillard: What other aspects of Chinese traditional thought and history have influenced your ideology?
Prof Lin: When I was young, there were some heroes in history, such as Li Bing, who created an irrigation system to turn frequently flooded landed land into fertile soil for crops in the Sichuan and Changjiang region. He did this 2300 years ago, and it continues to benefit the people of the region today.
Also in the Ming dynasty, there was a philosopher, general, and official named Wang Yangmin, who taught the importance of integrating knowledge and action. He said the only way to really know something is to act on it – 知行合一. If I am convinced of something, I need to behave according to my conviction – otherwise I’m not actually convinced.
Couillard: I’d love to exercise the same courage, resolution, and ambition that you seem to embody in your life. Do you have any recommendations for how I can build up those characteristics in myself?
Prof Lin: We’re privileged to live in a society where we mostly don’t need to worry about things like food and shelter. So I think it comes down to pursuing something that will bring us true satisfaction.
Couillard: What is your main vision?
Prof Lin: I want to contribute to the modernization of China – not only for Chinese people, but also for the world. I’d like to see poor people be able to realize the same dreams I’m pursuing.
Couillard: Do you think that democracy is important for the modernization of China?
Prof Lin: It depends on how you define democracy. The democracy in the UK is different from Germany, is different from France, and so on. Certainly, with the rising income, people will have more of a voice in general society – and that should be a general principal. For example, in the 70s, Chinese people couldn’t really travel abroad. In the 80s only a very select few had this privilege. Now, over a hundred million Chinese travel abroad every year. And this type of freedom should be the basic content of democracy.
Couillard: Speaking of democracy, it’s election time here in the US, and some people in our community are wondering what your thoughts are on our two candidates. Which person do you think would be better for US-China relations?
Prof Lin: Well, if we judge from the past, we see that during the election, candidates are hostile towards China. But after the election, economic rationalities come into function. Hopefully this pattern will continue in the future. So I think whoever wins, it will be the same. Although sometimes tension will arise, I hope rationality prevails.
Thanks for reading – stay tuned for more interviews!