Zai jian – Goodbye – See you again: a look back on China's progress upon leaving the World Bank

This page in:

This is my last week in the World Bank, after working at the institution for 20 years, the last five as country director for China and Mongolia.
A few weeks ago I had the unique opportunity to camp out on top of the Great Wall, which was a fitting exclamation mark at the end of my five years as the World Bank's China Country Director. It was a cloudy, drizzly day as we started, but then cleared up and turned into a lovely evening. The large group of kids we had with us slept in one of the guard towers along the wall, but I and a few others opted to sleep under the stars. The next morning opened with some mist, but then turned into a spectacular blue day. Some long-term Beijing residents hiking with us noted that they couldn’t recall ever seeing the countryside so green.

Beijing’s dry climate sets a limit on how green and blue it’s ever going to get, but the improvement over five years is noticeable and is one of the two most striking achievements of China in this period. In many cities, air pollution has declined as a result of policies that include banning the use of coal in inner cities, strengthening public transportation, discouraging car use (gasoline now costs 50% more than in the U.S.), moving heavy industry out of inner cities, and more stringent enforcement of environmental regulations.

Of course a lot more could be done. After three years of the current five-year-plan, China is not even halfway to meeting its ambitious 20% target for increased energy efficiency. There is room for further energy price hikes (especially coal tax to reflect the negative effects of using coal) and even stronger policies to promote public transportation and limit car use. And while water pollution has declined, water scarcity in the Northern half of the country is an acute problem. I have seen a steady series of price increases that encourage water conservation, but recent World Bank studies have shown how development of water markets and more economic prices could prevent more serious water problems. I guess this is a case of the glass being half full of clean water!

In rural Gansu (one of the two poorest provinces in China) the abolition of school fees led to increased enrollment, especially of girls and ethnic minority children.
The other striking area of progress has been the efforts to improve health and education in rural areas and improve rural standards of living. The abolition of the agricultural tax contributed to a halving of poverty during the short period I have been in China. One of the last things I signed off on was an education study with a range of interesting findings based on field surveys. In rural Gansu (one of the two poorest provinces in China) the abolition of school fees led to increased enrollment, especially of girls and ethnic minority children. On a standardized math test, students of rural Gansu outperformed the international average (data mostly from high-income countries). There are still big gaps in spending and achievement between inland provinces and coastal provinces, but the progress in rural Gansu is still very heartening.

One reason that World Bank staff enjoy so much working on China is this combination of big challenges but measurable progress. It is rewarding to work together with local officials and communities who might actually take your advice and who have a thing or two to teach you as well.

This is my last week in the World Bank before taking up a new position representing the US Treasury in Beijing. My staff know me well, so one of their farewell presents was a book of all my blog postings on this website, collected under the title, “Dollar Speculation.” I said in my farewell speech that my happiest memories are of traveling to the field with our staff – who are a remarkably talented and dedicated group – to see the environmental restoration projects in the Loess plateau; to visit sewers (literally) in Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Chongqing; to ride the rails on our highly successful railway projects; to learn about urban transport challenges in Xi’an and Wuhan; to visit those rural schools and health clinics in Gansu; to see the devastation of the Wenchuan earthquake and the huge mobilization to reconstruct; to meet “left-behind children” in rural Sichuan benefiting from a local NGO’s effort to provide the kind of out-of-school support that other kids get from their parents; and to meet small private banks and their micro clients in Guiyang and Jiujiang. 

I also like to joke that traveling with our economics team is a special treat because the other units take me to remote and uncomfortable places to see poverty, whereas the economics team takes me to nice hotels in Beijing to talk about poverty! Just kidding: the economics team puts out the best regular report on the Chinese economy and I plan to rely on it constantly in my new job.

The nice thing about switching jobs but staying in Beijing is that I know I will continue to see many of the same central and local government officials as well as all my friends in the World Bank Office Beijing. So, all that’s left is to say, “zai jian,” which is the traditional Chinese “goodbye,” but is especially apt for me because it literally means, “see you again”!



Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000