Kathleen DeBoer discusses economic relations between OECD and China

Kathleen DeBoer, deputy head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Washington Center, hosted a discussion on economic relations between the OECD and China last night at 8 p.m. in Cabot Intercultural Center. The lecture, titled “Economic Cooperation Between the US and China,” was co-hosted by the new Sino-US Relations Group Engagement.

DeBoer, who has worked with the OECD for eight and a half years, started off the lecture by speaking about her personal relationship with China and her desire to visit the country when she was young.

“I feel like I had something inside of me, some destiny, to go to China,” she said.

DeBoer explained that she first traveled to China in 1993, before returning to teach English in Nanjing in 1994. She noted that the relationship between the OECD and China was quite different at that period.

“When I came back from teaching in China, I found this job at the OECD, and in those days, in 2006, OECD engagement with China was … not as deep as it is today,” she said.

DeBoer explained that as a grounding principle, the OECD is committed to open, transparent market democracies.

“If it’s really an autocratic type of country with no kind of representative democracy function, it’s not going to be a member of the OECD,” she said.

China does not necessarily meet these qualifications, however, according to DeBoer.

“It’s basically they select, they don’t elect,” she said. “That’s not to say they don’t often select good people.”

DeBoer added that as of yet, there has not been a very serious push for a democratic transition in China.

“There is not a groundswell of enthusiasm on the mainland for democratic elections,” she explained. “It seems to be pretty low on peoples’ list of priorities, if it’s even on their list of priorities.”

Given the size of China’s economy, however, it is necessary for the OECD to incorporate Chinese data into their work, according to DeBoer. She noted that around the time that the OECD was founded, member countries accounted for about 96 percent of the world economy; now the organization represents closer to 64 percent of the world economy, given the rise in countries such as China, Russia and Brazil. 

DeBoer added that the OECD has a program of Enhanced Engagement with key partners such as China that help facilitate their relationships, and she noted that Chinese government officials often want to participate in such programs.

“At the OECD, China does not have any voting rights, but it can have observer status on some committees and also it can feed us data into our work,” she explained.

The OECD, for instance, has been able to provide research and data for tax information in China, according to DeBoer. She noted that the OECD has helped demonstrate the prevalence of cheating on income taxes in China.

“Income tax is probably not the best way for them to collect revenues,” she concluded.

DeBoer said that some information has been more readily available to the OECD from China, such as data on trade, foreign direct investment and exchange rates, but data about factors such as public expenditure on healthcare or unemployment have been more spotty.

DeBoer explained that the OECD works with member countries on a wide variety of things, except, notably, defense, human rights and national security.

“Our mission is really to do things that enhance economic growth,” she said. “We’re very much a measuring and comparing organization, and then we bring that data to the policy debate.”

DeBoer also noted the importance the OECD has recognized for education and healthcare in countries surveyed, underscoring in particular the power of education for women and allowing women to own property.

“Countries that invest in education and health have better economic growth,” she said.

The OECD, which was founded in 1961, is an international organization of 34 member countries that promotes economic development and world trade. The OECD evolved out of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation, which was founded in 1948 to manage foreign aid through the Marshall Plan for reconstruction in Europe following World War II.