Forging an East-West Dialogue at INET Hong Kong

A three-day conference, hosted by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, the Fung Global Institute and the Centre for International Governance Innovation, has drawn to a close.

A major gathering of some of the world’s leading economic thinkers has ended in Hong Kong with a promise to transfer a more stable and sustainable world to future generations. In his closing remarks, Andrew Sheng, President of the Fung Global Institute, said, “This intergenerational issue is something we need to think through very hard. To give to our children and our grandchildren what our parents gave to us. This is a journey of generations.”

Many queries about past, present and future economic orders and strategies were addressed over the three day conference, entitled, ‘Changing of the Guard?’ The debates surrounded still pertinent and painful issues relating to the 2008 financial crisis, its continued aftershock in Europe and the United States – and where the Asia-Pacific region stood in response to this fallout, and its maturity into a potential leading economic and intellectual force in its own right.

The aim of the gathering was not to offer concrete solutions, but to propose a new landscape of discussion led by the wisest minds from global academia, business, policy and civil society, including Nobel Laureates, Michael Spence and James Heckman. As Sheng said, “This is a path we need to go together. Unless we learn from each other, unless we work with each other, we won’t solve these global problems which are truly the new norm.”

Rohinton Medhora, President of the Toronto-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, co-sponsor, echoed that sentiment at the launch of the event. “The issues that we face are more complex than they’ve ever been in several dimensions: size; scale; scope. And if someone asked me what might be the three big challenges in global governance, my top three would be…getting financial systems right, getting national resource management right, especially water and getting intellectual property right.” These were tough tests for the, albeit, distinguished audience who admitted they had travelled to Hong Kong in the spirit of curiosity and inquiry.

George Soros, billionaire businessman and Co-Founder of the New York-based Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), said in his opening statement that everything was up for debate after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. “That was an intellectual bankruptcy of an entire conceptual or axiomatic system on which a lot of the activities in the financial markets were at that time based. And I think economic theory has to be reconsidered from the ground up, because economics thought to pursue a goal which is unobtainable. It sought to produce universally valid generalisations which could be used interchangeably, reversibly, both to predict and explain phenomenon.”

What was transparent was that economics could no longer assume this orthodoxy. It had to reconceptualise itself and snap out of its intellectual ivory tower in order to first: survive; and second: reshape itself to the needs of the people.

In the words of Rob Johnson, the Executive Director of INET, the lead host, “We know we made the right move, coming to Hong Kong, working with Fung Global Institute, and beginning to build this investigation, conversation and a new thinking in Asia.” With that comes its own perfect storm of demands: population expansion and ageing; raising 800 million people out of poverty in India and maintaining sustainable growth to meet these monumental tasks, all while avoiding environmental degradation. It’s a key twenty-first century balancing act for the region.

It was a conviction shared by Victor K. Fung, Founding Chairman of the Fung Global Institute, on the first day of the gathering. As one of Asia’s leading businessman, Fung acutely understands the effort of constructing economic viability from the ground up. “This meeting in Asia is not about Asian triumphalism, which is neither inevitable, nor pre-ordained, but about the meeting of hearts and minds, East and West. Yes, after 250 years of Western economic pre-eminence which is likely to continue in our lifetime, the East is once again a hemisphere of growth and dynamism. But it was through the interchange of open markets and open minds that this happened. That has created what we have today – a truly global century.”

It was a reflection that fitted perfectly with Sheng and Johnson’s end promise to team up for the 2014 INET conference in Toronto. And if there were still many questions left unanswered, what was clear was a long-lasting relationship had been forged between two of the world’s leading think tanks.