Hu Angang 胡鞍钢 is a Tsinghua University-affiliated economist who is regarded as a leading figure in what could be translated as ‘China National Exceptionalism Studies’ 国情研究.
Working under Zhou Lisan 周立三, a pioneer in the field, at the Chinese Academy of Sciences beginning in 1985, Hu made his way up from a researcher to the director of Tsinghua University’s Center for China Study 国情研究中心. Often presented in the media as an public intellectual, Hu is believed to be a member of a small group of elite economists who are tapped by senior Chinese leaders to be heavily involved in the formulation of China’s public policy. The annual reviews that Hu compiles provide one of the most comprehensive assessments of China’s state capacity 国力 and power status and have been regularly incorporated into China’s Five Year Development Guidelines.
As an economist who spends much of his time concocting forecasts of China’s future, Hu is noted for his consistent optimism about the country’s socioeconomic transformation and historic reemergence as a world power. Since at least early 1990s, he has been touting the idea that China will eventually ascend to the status of superpower on par with the US.
A proponent of the idea of peaceful rise, Hu contends that such a goal can be achieved without adopting the belligerent policies seen during the rise of most other powers. In his book China in 2020, A New Type of Superpower 中国2020：一个新型超级大国, Hu contends that timing, geographic location and popular sentiment are in China’s favor, and he exuberantly states that ‘history is now providing China with the same opportunity to thrive that the United States enjoyed between 1870 and 1913, Japan between 1950 and 1973, and Korea between 1965 and 1996.’ Hu’s optimism, undiminished by the serious challenges facing the country, leads to triumphalist statements that sometimes verge on callousness. In 1998, when a devastating flood swept southern China, Hu wrote an article arguing that the natural disaster was beneficial because it boosted demand and helped to pull China’s economy out of stagnation.
Hu is often called a statist and a New Leftist for his pro-SOE (state-owned enterprises) statements and for his advocacy of a strong and powerful state. As a reaction to the government’s radical liberalisation ushered in by Deng Xiaoping, the New Left emerged as an intellectual trend in the early 1990s and presented the strongest rhetorical challenge to economic libertarianism. The latter’s central viewpoint, which holds that the state must shrink its control of economy in order to facilitate a growing market economy, is criticised by members of the New Left for its potential to cause negative outcomes such as large-scale layoffs, a rising income gap and the collapse of the socialist welfare network. Hu has expressed his belief on multiple occasions that a strong state is necessary for market reform and that China should develop an alternative to the liberal market economy and build a welfare state that would include the 800 million-strong rural population who have not reaped the benefits of China’s reform to the extent their urban cousins have. In response to recent criticism claiming that SOEs are growing too fast and often at the expense of the private sector, a situation summed up in the expression ‘the stage advances while the people retreat’ 国进民退, Hu contended that the relationship of the two is a mutual beneficial one rather than a zero-sum game.
Recent years have seen Hu switching his focus toward China’s energy policy. He believes that energy consumption is becoming a bottleneck preventing China from fulfilling its aspiration to become a superpower. Quipping on former leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous cat metaphor, Hu argued in an article for the 21st Century Business Herald on 6 March 2010 that China has become world’s biggest ‘black cat’ – the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide – and it should strive to be a ‘green cat’ by achieving great energy efficiency.
Hu Angang also withdrew his support for population policy and began to urge the government to loosen birth control in order to prolong the demographic dividends of the reform era (for more on the ‘demographic dividend’ and its limitations, see Jane Golley’s chapter in China Story Yearbook 2012 online here).
A fierce defender of China’s political institutions, Hu argues that China’s current political model deserves more credit than reformists who urge speedier democratisation often allow. The proof for this, according to Hu, lies no further than the economic growth of the past decades. In an article published on the front page of the People’s Daily’s Overseas Edition on 3 July 2012, Hu called China’s Politburo Standing Committee a ‘collective presidential system with Chinese characteristics’, as opposed to the ‘Western individual presidential system’. After elaborating on the merits of the two, he concluded that the former is superior. China is too big and too complex for the Western ‘bipartisan system, tripartite system, presidential system and bicameral system’, which are ‘too simplistic, too limited and too defective’. A collective presidential system, with multiple leaders heading different leading state organs, not only guarantees a wider consensus ‘through sharing of decision-making wisdom and expertise’”, but also ‘prevents an individual from making decisions on major issues and allows timely correction of mistakes’. (For a more detailed examination of Hu’s political analysis in a historical context, see Geremie Barmé’s essay Cicero’s Advice to China’s Would-be Leaders in The China Story Journal, 7 November 2012.)