LI Hongbin: Just Because I Like It

I first met with Professor LI Hongbin, C.V. Starr Chair Professor of Economics and executive deputy director of China Data Center of Tsinghua University in his class. He was lecturing junior students of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University in one of the "honors program" courses.
According to the arrangement of the class, a student would first present his/her ideas on a designated classic research paper, followed by class discussion. Professor Li would only comment in the end to point out the essentials, and that was when I recognized him among a group of equally young individuals.
Professor LI Hongbin
"It's quite unfortunate to always be the youngest." Professor Li laughed. He was born in 1972, got his PhD in Economics from Stanford University. He is used to wearing jackets, jumpers and casuals, like a teaching assistant. But in fact, he was promoted to be full professor at the age of 34 by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and became the youngest chair professor in 2007 when he came to the School of Economics and Management, Tsinghua University.
Dramatic Experience of Studying Abroad
I interviewed Professor Li in his office. Except for the PC and laptop on the desk, the room was filled with piles of books and papers, which showed the casual personality of its resident. However, when making a reference to a book or a material, he could find it very quickly in the seemingly disorder.
Professor Li got his bachelor degree in 1993 from the School of Economics and Management, China Agriculture University. In 1995, while he was studying for the master's degree there, he went to America. Talking about his own experiences, he believed there was an element of luck. A field work after undergraduate study changed the course of his life.
In 1993, Professor Scott Rozelle of Stanford University, a renowned agricultural economist came to China with his doctoral student Albert Park to study on the economic development of rural China. They employed lots of students and teachers as researchers, one of whom was Li Hongbin. He was responsible for interviewing peasants on family status, production, income, savings, education and a list of other social economic questions on the questionnaire.
This experience enabled him to take a close look at the real rural China. It also triggered his curiosity on the indexes of the questionnaire: How are they set up? What are they for?
He raised those questions to Professor Scott Rozella and Albert Park quiet often. They appreciated his diligence and suggested that he apply for post graduate education in Stanford University. Professor Li said: "If it were not for Professor Rozella, I wouldn't have known Stanford University or thought about going to America."
Then he passed all required exams and got offers and scholarships from a number of universities in America. He chose the Food Institute at Stanford University at last to study development economics.
However, only a month after arriving in Stanford, the dean at that time, Mrs. Rice, who later became the Secretary of State believed, that the Food Institute had deviated from President Hoover's original idea to found it, so the institute was disolved. Li Hongbin faced the impasse of transferring to another department or even another school.
At that time, his alternatives are Agricultural Economics Department in Berkeley or Cornell, and Economics Department in Stanford, which has a very strong academic background, but requires a qualification test. Li Hongbin passed the test and got into the economics department. He said: "It's another time of luck, which enabled me to get into the best economics department without much effort."
"Knacks" to make up for economics background
Different from economics students, Li Hongbin got social experience first, economic practice afterwards; learned about data collecting first, economic theories and econometrics afterwards. These experiences enabled him a deeper understanding of economic theories, and sensitivity on social affairs and statistics because economics is in nature a study on human beings and society. However he still confronted lots of difficulties in the beginning.
Economic research requires lots of mathematical modeling, in which knowledge on math and economics is foundation. Li Hongbin had a weak background, and had forgotten the math knowledge learned in the freshman and sophomore years, plus he had to learn it in English, it is a triple difficulty. "This first year study is very hard, it feels like reading a wordless book, but I believed I could overcome it."
In order to make up for his weak background in economics, he applied for the TA position in economics department, and therefore could sit with undergraduates for the class. Up till now, he still couldn't forget the scenes of the course Principles of Economics: 1000 students sit in a huge hall, listening to John Taylor, one of the top economists in the world to lecture. He benefited from it a lot.
"Usually I would find interesting economic phenomenon and organize a basic economic story first, then I process the data to form an economic theory." Now Professor Li still believes that the cultivation of economic intuition and the reaction to economic phenomenon is more important than research skills. "Economic research should be based on the interest of human beings and society. Skills and tools alone, without original ideas would never yield great research achievements".
Research needs independent thinking
After getting his PhD, Li Hongbin decided to go back to China. He was offered a very good position in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. After 5 years, he was promoted to full professorship.
The reason why he chose the School of Economics and Management, Tsinghua University was Dean Qian Yingyi. He taught once in Stanford and Li Hongbin used to be his student. So when Professor Qian invited Li Hongbin to teach in Tsinghua, he accepted the invitation without hesitation.
Not only the job, Professor Qian Yingyi also influenced Li Hongbin in the idea of cultivating talents. "Professor Qian always says that we should cultivate curiosity, imagination, and critical thinking of the students. It's relatively easier for the critical thinking part, and harder for the curiosity and imagination part. They need to be trained from childhood". In class Professor Li attached great importance to curiosity. He even said to the students:"Economics students need to be more gossipy, so as to dig out all the stories behind the papers."
Another influence was his experience studying in America. “In America, research is the student's own business. My advisor would help of course, like raising research funding, commenting and criticizing on my work and so on. But research topic and methodogy should be decided by oneself. Therefore I could adapt to independent research after graduation very quickly, because that's what I was doing during study.”
Professor Li has received funding from the Changjiang Distinguished Scholar Program and National Outstanding Youth Fund, and published a large amount of papers in top academic journals like JPE, EJ and ReStat during his teaching in Tsinghua. He followed the practice of his PhD advisor and asked his students to choose topics and research independently. "To my pleasure, my students are doing very well."
Interest energizes me
Now Professor Li teaches undergraduates, doctoral students, CEO students and master's students. He is also the executive deputy director of China Data Center of Tsinghua University; editorial board member of Comparative Economics, China Economic Review; member of consultancy of China Agricultural Economics Review; researcher of IZA in Germany; senior researcher of Morris Economic Research Institute of Beijing University. He is never burdened by those jobs. When asked about why, he said “just because I like it."
Recently, Professor Li and his research group published a report titled College Graduates-from the Elite to the Common. The motivation behind the research was his continued interest in education. According to their research, the average starting salary of college graduates was ¥2153, in which 211 elite university graduates got ¥2427, while graduates from common universities got only ¥1903. The highest salary level was in the transportation industry, then came IT, media, sport, electricity, finance and manufacturing industry.
It was also pointed out in the report that, for a long time we have been cultivating students on how to get better marks, providing them with internship opportunities. Though they were all important, the talents required by a market economy could not be provided by books. It's more important to equip the students with English skills, network ability, cooperation and communication ability, data processing, problem solving and other comprehensive abilities.
Professor Li has insisted on doing the things he likes since childhood. Now he still tells his students to choose the major they like and the job they are interested in.
Beside job, Professor Li had another interest, which is accompanying his child. He tries to see the world from children's angle and communicate with them in their simple language. Before long, he was invited to lecture on economics in the primary school where his daughter was in. He used the most beloved cartoon Happy Sheep and Grey Wolf as the background to tell the kids about the basics of economics through stories.
Professor Li teaches kids economics
"I will do what I'm interested in, and I do not ask for results. I'm happy every day because I'm doing what I like" Professor Li said. (Published on Chinese Social Sciences Weekly, June 6, 2012. Reporter: SUN Chenhui; Correspondent: TANG Yunduan)