Talk isn't cheap
Global Times | 2013-5-27 23:48:01
By Chen Yang
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Lang Xianping gives a speech in East China's Zhejiang Province in April. Photo: CFP
Lang Xianping gives a speech in East China's Zhejiang Province in April. Photo: CFP

 

Celebrity economist Larry Lang Xianping has his own rules when giving a speech: no audio or video recording, no media interview, and no spreading of the content of his speech on social media platforms. Only taking photos is allowed.

But these strict rules have not curbed his fans' enthusiasm.

Xiao Fengchi proudly posted a photo of him and Lang on his Sina Weibo account after he had gone to see the economist give a speech. Xiao paid 2,780 yuan ($453) for his ticket to hear Lang talk about the global and Chinese economy.

There were cheaper tickets available, but 18-year-old Xiao wanted a good seat so he could see and hear Lang clearly.

Xiao thought the ticket was worth the price, as he not only sat in the first row among entrepreneurs, but also got a chance to get Lang's signature, have photos taken with him, and have a personal chat with him as well.

"Noticing I was the youngest person in the audience, he praised my interest in economics and encouraged me to study hard," Xiao said.

Lang appears to be one of China's busiest economists. In May alone, he attended at least 10 commercial events organized by property developers, auto companies and banks.

Rising speaking fees

Lang is well-known for his sharp criticism of China's economic and social problems, and he is also well paid for expressing his views. His speaking fee is more than 200,000 yuan per event, an economic conference organizer surnamed Xia told the Global Times Thursday.

Lang will give a speech in Shanghai on June 8, and the ticket price ranges from 580 yuan to 3,880 yuan each person, according to the event's organizer Lecast. His ticket prices are even higher than those for the Backstreet Boys and Sarah Brightman concerts held recently in the municipality.

Lang is not the only celebrity economist in China who demands a high fee for speeches. Song Hongbing, author of Currency Wars - a bestselling but controversial book that has been criticized for promoting conspiracy theories - is paid between 100,000 yuan and 150,000 yuan each event, Xia said.

Economists with a government background also command high fees. The speaking fee for Li Daokui, a professor at Tsinghua University and a former academic advisor to China's central bank, starts at 100,000 yuan each event, according to Xia.

Zheng Ronghua, president of Zhejiang-based Kunlun Group's property development subsidiary, frequently attends business forums. He told the Global Times Thursday that economists who work at government-backed research institutions can sometimes offer details of policies that the authorities are considering.

"Those who like to criticize government policies are also popular as they cater to the public's dissatisfaction with a series of social problems, but what they deliver to the audience is just anger and pessimism," Zheng said.

Speaking fees for economists in China were mostly below 10,000 yuan per event before 2006, but have increased sharply since then. Fluctuations in China's stock market and the global financial crisis in 2008 have made people pay more attention to economists' perspectives.

But the fees also vary widely, depending on the event's quality and organizer.

"If it is a commercial event, economists always ask for a high price, ranging from 30,000 yuan to 100,000 yuan, and the organizer also needs to provide them with first class flights, five-star hotel rooms and gifts," a Guangdong-based company executive who declined to be named told the Global Times Thursday.

"If it is an official forum or a significant event such as The Boao Forum for Asia, then most economists are willing to give a speech for free, and sometimes they even pay for transportation and accommodation themselves," a former employee of PR agency New Alliance who wished to remain anonymous told the Global Times Thursday.

Controversial

Whether economists deserve such high speaking fees is a controversial issue.

Some hold the idea that the fees are decided by the market, and the economists should not be blamed. But others think differently.

"It is common for economists to attend academic-related activities, but nowadays they frequently show up at commercial events organized or sponsored by property developers, securities companies and banks," Zheng said. "When attending such events, most economists generally speak on behalf of a certain interest group."

Zheng also said many Chinese people have blind faith in economists, and do not pay enough attention to whether their perspectives are based on rigorous research and analysis.

"I think the saddest thing for an economist is that many people know your name but they have no idea about your research," he said.

In China, there are people who have only a basic understanding of economics and who build a reputation for themselves by expressing exaggerated views in the media, Gan Li, professor of economics at Texas A&M University, said in a Sina Weibo post on May 16. In the US, this kind of phenomenon is rare, Gan noted.

"Some economists have no experience of working in enterprises, so their theories are not much help for entrepreneurs. That's why some entrepreneurs such as China Vanke Co's Chairman Wang Shi went to Harvard University for further study," Zheng said.

Ma Yun, chairman of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, said during a speech at an e-commerce conference last September that entrepreneurs should be cautious about listening to economists, as they usually reach their conclusions based on research into previous business models. But entrepreneurs should have a sense of potential opportunities in the future, Ma noted.

Zou Hengfu, a senior Chinese economist who rarely appears in public, also criticized the phenomenon of economists' high speaking fees in his new book The Last Lunatic, published in April.

A group of so-called economists in China who lack understanding of economic theories and do not have a proper academic background are making money by misleading the public, Zou wrote.

Economists should not serve particular interest groups, he noted, but should assume more social responsibility and speak on behalf of poor people.

 


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