Musical Chairs

Michael Pettis is a finance pundit by day, a Beijing rock impresario by (very late) night.

By James Fallows

The worse things have looked for the world financial system, the more the world has heard from a Beijing-based financial expert named Michael Pettis, whose blog, China Financial Markets (mpettis.com), is one of a handful I check for clues about what is happening in the Chinese economy. On the substance of Pettis’s views and why they are attracting attention—he writes op-eds for leading newspapers, and is quoted frequently—I will have more to say. But having sought him out to ask about finance, I became fascinated by what the other aspects of his life say about this moment in China.

Pettis is 50 years old but could be taken for a hard-living version of a man 10 years younger (think Sam Shepard, with thick, tousled black hair). He stays up late and sleeps late. He consumes a lot of coffee and a few cigarettes. His father was Greek American and his mother is French; because of his father’s work as a geologist, Pettis grew up around the world and became comfortable in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Urdu. “Unfortunately, not Chinese!” he told me with a laugh in a Beijing Starbucks.

Though not a musician himself, Pettis has always had an intense interest in music. In his 20s, while getting a master’s degree in development economics and an M.B.A. from Columbia, he started a record label and opened a club called Safety in Numbers, or SIN, in the East Village. “New York is a very snobby place, where artists are the top of the snob pyramid,” he told me. “Basically I started a club because I wanted to meet my heroes”—bands like Sonic Youth and Swans, which appeared at SIN.

By 1987, in his late 20s, Pettis had finished graduate school and begun work as a trader on Wall Street. Later he began teaching at Columbia’s Business School and School of International and Public Affairs. In 2001, on a whim, he came for a week’s vacation to China, a country that had never much interested him, and decided to change his life plans.

“I was so excited by what I’d seen that on the flight home I decided to see if I could get a teaching gig in China for a couple of years,” he told me. “My trading work was becoming cookie-cutter, so I thought I’d take a break and then come back to New York.” Within a few months, thanks to the intervention of a Chinese student who had taken his courses at Columbia, he had an appointment as a professor of finance at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China’s counterpart to MIT. After a few years, he switched to the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University, the next-door liberal-arts rival, to see how it compared. Seven years later, he has no foreseeable plans to go home.

Pettis said that from the time he arrived, he’d been looking for a way into Beijing’s nascent music scene. He went to clubs, heard bands that sounded like U.S. or European wannabes, and eventually decided to start a club and record label to give new, original Chinese talent and visiting foreign bands a showcase. The club, D‑22 (“I wanted to call it ‘Detroit’—urban, industrial—but that’s hard to say in Chinese”), opened in 2006 in Beijing’s student-ghetto area, Wudaokou, right between Tsinghua and Peking U, and has been a huge success, attracting young Chinese and international crowds. One of its hottest acts is the 23-year-old Chinese guitar virtuoso Shouwang, plus his band, the Carsick Cars. Recently the New Yorker critic Alex Ross named a solo performance by Shouwang at D‑22 as one of the top 10 classical-music events of the past year. In January a Beijing music magazine named Pettis the godfather of the city’s new-music boom.

Pettis still has his day job teaching finance courses—where, as with music, he’s part of an on-the-fly invention of new Chinese styles.

Anyone who has heard a standard Chinese university lecture knows how dull it can be. The professor drones, the students transcribe, and “education” means parroting the answers the professor originally served up. In his classes, Pettis has instead applied a Western model of engaged liberal education. He tells students not to take notes in his lectures (!) and not to worry about memorizing what he says for exams. Instead he asks them questions and tells them to challenge each other—and him. “I tell them it’s up to them to figure out what’s ‘right,’” he told me. “I say it a lot, because they’re not used to hearing it.” He has a standing offer of an automatic A in his courses, no exam required, to any student who will argue with him in class, and win. “Of course I could always ‘win,’ since I know more about the topic,” he told me. Plus, all discussion is in English. “Really all I’m looking for is an intelligent disagreement, catching me out on a point, which I consider a win.”

Seeing people, Chinese and foreign, work out new styles and lives each day: that is the part of China I will miss when I finally have to go home.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/03/musical-chairs/307281/