Image of Photo of Prof Dwight H. Perkins

Challenges to sustaining China's economic growth

The China Centre lecture on Wednesday 13 October 2021 was delivered by Professor Dwight H. Perkins, Harold Hitchings Burbank Research Professor of Political Economy, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.

Professor Perkins’ lecture addressed the economic challenges that face China. He emphasised that China has essentially resolved its housing and transport challenges. He focussed on two key issues. Firstly, he examined the human resources challenge. In Professor Perkins’ view, ageing is not the main human resource problem facing China. China has a low retirement age and raising the retirement age would do much to avert an ageing crisis. Instead, he considers that education is the principle human resource challenge. China has achieved a rapid increase in the share of the population in tertiary education. However, a large share of the working population has only achieved lower middle school education level. As labour demand shifts towards more knowledge-intensive employment, a large uplift in the general education level will be necessary.

The second issue he examined was the ecological and environmental challenge. He emphasised that China has made enormous progress in expanding solar, wind, and nuclear generating capacity, as well as upgrading the grid system and developing electric vehicles. However, he emphasised that even though the share of coal in China’s electricity production is falling, the absolute level of coal production is still high. Professor Perkins explored a range of possibilities for the contribution of coal to China’s electricity production and the challenges these would pose for China’s carbon neutrality goal. He stressed that the rate of technical progress across the energy value chain is a key element of unpredictability in calculations about the future role of coal in China’s energy structure.

A range of issues was explored in the Q&A session. These included the implications of a shift towards the service sector in China’s economic structure; the role of competition policy in China; the significance of China’s ‘common prosperity’ policy; the nature and extent of wealth distribution in China; and the comparison between public goods provision in China and the USA.

Dwight H. Perkins is the Harold Hitchings Burbank Research Professor of Political Economy of Harvard University, where he joined the faculty in 1963. Previous positions at Harvard include Harold Hitchings Burbank Professor of Political Economy, 1963-2006; Associate Director of the East Asian (now Fairbank) Research Center, 1973-1977; Chairman of the Department of Economics, 1977-1980; Director of the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID), the University’s former multi-disciplinary institute for research, teaching, and technical assistance on development policy,1980-1995; and Director of the Harvard University Asia Center, 2002-2005.

Professor Perkins has authored or edited twenty-five books and over one hundred articles on economic history and economic development, with special references to the economies of China, Korea, Vietnam and the other nations of east and southeast Asia. Topics include the transition from central planning to the market, long-term agricultural development, industrial policy, the underlying sources of growth in East Asia, and the role of economic and legal institutions in East Asian growth.

He has served as an advisor or consultant on economic policy and reform to the governments of Korea, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. He has also been a long-term consultant to the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, various private corporations, and agencies of the U.S. government, including the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (then chaired by Senator Henry M. Jackson). He has been a Visiting Professor or Scholar at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, the University of Washington, and Fudan University in Shanghai. He also served as a Phi Beta Kappa Lecturer at eight colleges and universities around the U.S. in 1993-94. In 1997 he taught for a semester at the Fulbright Economic Training Program in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and has continued to teach in that program for several weeks each year since 1997. He and has given individual lectures to numerous audiences in the U.S., Asia, Europe, and elsewhere.

Dwight Perkins served in the U.S. Navy (active duty 1956-58), received his B.A. from Cornell University in Far Eastern Studies in 1956, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University in 1961 and 1964. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society and of various professional organizations in the fields of economics and Asian Studies.