Last week World Bank president Robert Zoellick announced the appointment of Peking University professor Justin Yifu Lin as the organization's chief economist and senior vice president for development economics. Lin is the first person from a developing country to hold the Bank's top economist position, an accomplishment that makes China enormously proud. Lin's life story is nothing short of fantastic, and it's being told and retold by the Chinese media.
Born in 1952 in Taiwan, Lin was admitted to the elite National Taiwan University in 1971 and elected student body president. After attending a winter boot camp required of all able-bodied male college students, Lin asked to be transferred to the ROC Military Academy, a move that propelled him to instant celebrity status. In 1975 he graduated second in his class. The following year, Lin entered the MBA program at National Chengchi University on a defense scholarship.
Upon receiving his MBA in 1978, Lin returned to the army and was posted on the outlying island of Quemoy, which lies within shelling distance of the mainland. As dusk fell on May 16, 1979, using two basketballs as a flotation device Lin swam 2.3 kilometers and defected to China. He left behind a pregnant wife and a three-year-old son.
Both China and Taiwan kept mum on Lin's defection. One year after his disappearance, the Taiwanese military declared Lin "missing," and his family received the equivalent of more than $31,000 in compensation.
In China, Lin changed his first name from Cheng-yi to Yifu and earned a master's degree in political economics at the prestigious Peking University. In 1980, Lin served as a translator for Theodore Schultz during the Nobel Laureate's visit to Beijing. So impressed was Schultz that he arranged for Lin to enroll in the doctorate program in economics at the University of Chicago. While in the United States, Lin was reunited with his wife. In 1987, after a year of post-doctoral research at Yale, Lin returned to Beijing, where he was later joined by his wife and children.
As the first Ph.D. in economics to return to China since the country began instituting market reforms, Lin soon became a key advisor to the State Council (China's cabinet), specializing in rural development and the restructuring of state-owned enterprises. He is also the founding director of the China Center for Economic Research, a top government think tank.
While Lin has argued that the government's first duty is to remove all possible obstacles to the functioning of free, open and competitive markets, he also advocates a gradual approach in transitioning from a centralized to a market-based economy. This past November, while delivering one of Cambridge University's prestigious Marshall Lectures, Lin stated that "as long as the government is responsive to the needs of the people . . . an authoritarian government can still be very effective." You can see a video of Lin at Cambridge here.
In a letter written to his family in Taiwan long after his defection, Lin stated that "based on my cultural, historical, political, economic and military understanding, it is my belief that returning to the motherland is a historical inevitability; it is also the optimal choice."
In 2002, upon the death of his father, Lin asked the Taiwan government to allow him to travel back to his native land for the funeral. Taiwan issued an arrest warrant for him and the island's legislators plunged into a heated debate over whether the statue of limitations on his treasonous conduct had expired.
Lin sent his wife instead.
In an interview with Chinese media after the announcement of his World Bank appointment, Lin expressed a desire to visit Taiwan. He added, somewhat poignantly, that it was not up to him whether the trip would ever take place.