NEW HAVEN – After my recent trip to Beijing to attend the 25th annual China Development Forum (CDF), the country’s most important public conference, one question keeps turning over in my head: What’s the point?

I raise this question as a CDF insider – as the longest-attending foreign delegate, having participated in all but the first CDF in 2000. I have witnessed this event at its best and its worst. I can say with certainty that this year’s gathering marked a new low – hence my question.

Former Premier Zhu Rongji conceived of the CDF as a forum for debate and exchange between senior Chinese leaders and foreign academics, think-tank experts, and business leaders. The timing of the conference – immediately following the National People’s Congress (NPC) – was deliberate: Zhu held the provocative view that the ministers of the State Council should engage with outside experts immediately after their internal deliberations at the NPC. It was, in effect, a stress test for senior Chinese officials.

Zhu practiced what he preached. At my first CDF in 2001 – a much smaller and more intimate gathering – I delivered a keynote luncheon address on the state of the global economy, arguing that a post-dot-com slowdown was at hand. Fred Bergsten, the founding director of the Petersen Institute for International Economics, challenged me in the discussion that followed. At the concluding session of CDF 2001, Zhu interrupted John Bond, then chairman of HSBC, during his summary of the three-day gathering, and instead called on me and Bergsten to recap our views. Zhu was more interested in the debate than in Bond’s commentary.

After the meeting, Zhu pulled me aside and said, in perfect English, “Roach, I hope you are wrong, but we will plan as if you are right.” At the following year’s CDF, he warmly greeted me with a simple, “Thank you.”

It is in that spirit and in the spirit of many subsequent years of active participation in CDF sessions that I bemoan the loss of what had been a vigorous culture of debate in China. The CDF has effectively been neutered as an open and honest platform of engagement. Word has been sent down from on high that there is room for only “good stories of China.” Anyone who raises questions about problems, or even challenges, faces exclusion from the public sessions.

That was certainly true for me. On the eve of this year’s CDF, the powers that be informed me that my recent comments on the Chinese economy “have generated intense scrutiny and even controversy” among the Chinese and international press, which suggested to them that anything I say publicly at the conference “will be misinterpreted and even sensationalized” by the media. I was told in no uncertain terms that this would not be in my – or China’s – best interest.

No surprise, then, that I was not given a speaking role for the first time in 24 years. Moreover, my background paper on Chinese rebalancing, which I had been invited to prepare as part of the CDF Engagement Initiative, was neither published nor distributed, as has always been the case for invited submissions in the past.

Nor was I the only one singled out: an economist friend whom I have known and respected for years was instructed before going on stage not to say anything negative about the economic outlook.

Political correctness can be bad enough. But censorship and attempted thought control, with the aim of stifling debate, are something else entirely. That led me to the seemingly pointless feeling of resignation. Why even bother?

My answer is both idealistic and admittedly naive. I went to Beijing in late March with the hope that the CDF would retain a sliver of its original spirit. As I wrote in my book Accidental Conflict, I am fully aware of the changes in Chinese discourse in recent years. Even taking into account recent efforts by Chinese authorities to tighten their control of the narrative, I clung to the hope that there may still be room for empirical research and analysis. After all, I was China’s “good friend.” My error was to presume that this seemingly special status allowed me to raise tough questions about China’s medium- to longer-term growth outlook.

CDF 2024 closed the door on that possibility. This year’s event was tightly scripted, with no debate, no meaningful exchange of views – not even at the smaller roundtables, which are designed for engagement. Yes, plenty of Western business leaders were in attendance, but mainly for shameless commercialized pitches of their commitment to China. Moreover, the truncated conference had a streamlined agenda. The normally high-profile Monday lunch slot was left empty, while the premier’s closing session was replaced by an opening speech that regurgitated the work report he delivered to the NPC on March 5.

It saddens me to watch the CDF become a remnant of its former self. But my admiration for the Chinese people and the extraordinary transformation of China’s economy over the past 45 years persists. I still disagree with the consensus view in the West that the Chinese miracle was always doomed to fail. Moreover, I remain highly critical of America’s virulent Sinophobia, while maintaining the view that China faces serious structural growth challenges. And I continue to believe that US-China codependency offers a recipe for mutually beneficial conflict resolution. My agenda remains analytically driven, not politically motivated.

In the end, I intend to keep showing up. In the spirit of Deng Xiaoping’s credo, “seeking truth from facts,” I will keep pushing for free and open debate in China. I am not giving up. Ultimately, that is the point of it all.

Stephen S. Roach, a faculty member at Yale University and former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China (Yale University Press, 2014) and Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives (Yale University Press, 2022).

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