Former CIA director and retired Gen. David Petraeus, speaking at a USC roundtable discussion on China, called China’s leadership “remarkable” but noted it faces significant challenges in the years ahead. The event, organized by the USC Price School of Public Policy, was part of Petraeus’ recent slate of lectures and meetings with faculty and students from several USC schools on April 14-17.
At the April 14 roundtable, Petraeus was joined by Ren Zhifang, director of the political office at the Chinese Consulate General in Los Angeles. Participants also included USC Price professor Shui Yan Tang, professor David Kang of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences — director of the USC East Asian Studies Center — and USC Dornsife postdoctoral research associate Chin-Hao Huang. The conversation was moderated by Clayton Dube, director of the USC U.S.-China Institute.
Petraeus, Judge Widney Professor at USC, noted the decline of three primary drivers of China’s enormous growth over the past 20 years: It’s no longer the low-cost labor provider to the world, its infrastructure investment-led growth is producing diminishing returns and fewer people are migrating from rural areas to cities. The country also faces challenges including pollution and a demographic downturn of 5 million people per year.
Petraeus was complimentary of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who he said might be the most significant Chinese leader since Chairman Mao Zedong. “So you have all these different issues with which China has to contend, and they are very significant,” Petraeus said. “The question is: Can that remarkable leadership team with the remarkable powers, because of the structure of the state and political system, guide China through these extraordinarily challenging times, or will the Chinese miracle begin to unravel and ultimately come undone?”
Zhifang had an optimistic view of China’s economy. She compared China’s growth to a high-speed train that is shifting gears and slowing down to focus more on efficiency than only speed and size. Future Chinese growth will be driven more by innovation than by infrastructure and investments, she predicted. She also asserted that future Chinese economy will benefit from more trade and cooperation between countries, particularly the United States. Dube noted that China now has $36 billion of investments in the U.S., $26 billion made just in the past two years, and about $1.3 billion of that is in Los Angeles.
[O]fficials shouldn’t just be answering to Beijing, but also have a way of making them accountable to the people they serve.
Shui Yan Tang
Tang noted that China’s leaders are well meaning but added that wider accountability would be beneficial toward solving the problems facing the country.
“They can control the province or the big city, but going down to the township level problems are very difficult to solve because ultimately you have to develop some kind of horizontal accountability system,” Tang said. “The officials shouldn’t just be answering to Beijing, but also have a way of making them accountable to the people they serve.”
In addition to the discussion on China, Petraeus delivered lectures in five courses ranging from modern leadership to foreign policy, met with Reserve Officer Training Corps members and student veterans, spoke with social work researchers and attended student events covering topics from global business trends to politics. USC Viterbi School of Engineering faculty and students also shared recent progress on research underway on innovations such as 3-D printing, personal safety apps and drones.