Zhou Xiaochuan had one card handed to him. The opportunity to make a difference in steering the economy of the world’s largest country from that of a developing country into the sustainable export driven behemoth that it eventually became. Very few people will be able to say that they were able to bring into play everything about their own growing up, learning, orientation, temperament and personality to history in the way that Zhou did, and he aced his game with flying colours.
Zhou was governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) from 2002 to 2018, overlapping the most crucial period from about the time of China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) programme to its graduation into the world’s second largest economy. The GDP grew from $1.4t in 2002 to about $13t in 2018 without being derailed by inflation. That in itself is mindboggling.
All through that process, he effortlessly put on the table his own personality and convictions, negotiating adeptly between both Western and Chinese detractors. He was always his own man, a conservative promoting the rehabilitation and floating of state-owned enterprises without privatizing them and creating oligarchs as Russia had, a direction that the reformers wanted to take the country down. Ironically, when the US faced its banking crisis in 2008, China held the value of its institutional assets, giving US investors in China the chance to cash out and save themselves. Then the tide turned, China became a global investor. Many of his astute decisions were to have a profound effect on the shape of the Chinese economy we know today. At the time of retiring, he reinforced his belief that China should fully liberalize the renminbi, countering the conservative view of retaining control.
To have a ringside seat of this dramatic development of China as I grew The Asian Banker in the country since 2000, and the many friends I forged in government and the banks in the process, is the highlight of my own professional life. But most memorable of all was the opportunity to watch Governor Zhou in action – at conferences in China and in Washington, effortlessly sailing through any conversation credibly and congenially. Tall and lanky, he was a world class personality by any standard, but in an approachable manner. I watched him speak on stage as well as caught him in ambushed conversations with foreign officials along hotel corridors. His accessibility made the complexity of China appear simple and transparent.
So when I finally had the chance to sit and meet with him in May 2018, it was a singular honour, much more than meeting a president or almost any other dignitary dominating the world stage in my time. I was meeting a technocrat who transformed his country and gave it a place in the world. A highlight of my professional and personal career. Someone I truly respect and we sat down for a short chat.