China’s “Engineer Politicians”

In between bar exam prep, I just finished an interesting report on China’s leadership strategy that may explain the country’s massive and rapid economic and political rise (aside from sheer ruthlessness and all that).

Under Deng Xiaoping’s rule in the early 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to recruit new members from different social and occupational backgrounds into leadership positions, hoping to adapt to the changing environment by recruiting fresh talent and thereby obtaining new legitimacy. During the past decade, China has in fact been ruled by technocrats—who are mainly engineers-turned-politicians. The three “big bosses” in the so-called third generation leadership—Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and Zhu Rongji—and three heavyweights in the fourth generation—President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Vice President Zeng Qinghong—are all engineers by training. Among the seven members of the 15th Politburo’s Standing Committee, China’s supreme decision-making body, six were engineers and one was an architect.

This pattern continued throughout the State Council and the ministerial and provincial governments. Even more remarkably, all nine men on the current Politburo’s Standing Committee are engineers by training. The elite transformation that has taken place in China in the post-Mao era is part of a wider and more fundamental political change—a move from revolution to reform in Chinese society. Turning away from the emphasis on class struggle and ideological indoctrination that characterized the previous decades, Deng and his technocratic protégés have stressed fast-paced economic and technological development at home and increased economic integration with the outside world.”

The short version: China has made a deliberate effort to appoint scientists and engineers at all levels of government—especially at the subnational level—and to diversify the experience and expertise of government officials beyond the lawyers (and to a lesser degree businesspeople) that dominate in many other countries.

To be clear, this is not itself indicative of the government’s integrity or efficiency. Corruption and human rights abuses remain rife in China, with the latter especially worsening in recent years under Xi Jinping (who studied chemical engineering). The report notes a growing rift within both the political leadership and broader society between those who went to elite schools and everyone else. (Interesting how universal that issue is.)

While the report does not draw this conclusion outright, I do think it is worth pondering to what degree China’s rise is owed to its relatively high reliance on scientists, engineers, and other non-lawyers. Do they provide a certain degree of pragmatism and problem-solving skills different from the typical legal and business oriented political class? Do they help inform policy through their diverse and unique perspectives (assuming the repressive state system does not dampen them)?

Whatever the case may be, I for one think the U.S. (among other places) can use diversity of profession, background, experience, and the like when it comes to law- and policy-making. It’s especially more imperative in a democracy where politicians should ostensibly be representing their constituents—but in most cases could not be further removed from who they claim to represent experientially, socioeconomically, and even by age. (More on that whole other topic in a future post.)

What are your thoughts?

A Timeline of the Iraq War

Unbeknowst to most Americans, today is the 10th anniversary of the launching of the Iraq War. In recognition of this sober and increasingly forgotten observance, ThinkProgress has published a great timeline of the Iraq War that recounts all of the details of this understated conflict from beginning to end (including its somber consequences).

It’s remarkable how far removed most of us are from that conflict, even a decade later. Even I’ve had to remind myself that it was going on, and technically still lingers in some form or another (as it likely will for some time). Of course, the same amnesia and apathy does not apply to the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who took part (or their families), and especially to the millions of Iraqis who have been killed, maimed, traumatized, and exiled by the subsequent breakdown in society. Needless to say, the social, economic, and political consequences will likely remain both sides of this conflict for generations (albeit in different ways and degrees).

But given that it’s a busy day at work, I’ll keep my own musings brief. Please feel free to share your own reactions, thoughts, and opinions. At the very least, try to (re)familiarize yourself with this dangerously misunderstood and forgotten war.

Death of a Tyrant

As many of you probably already know, Muammar Qaddafi – the self-styled the Brother Leader, Guide of the Revolution, and King of Kings- – has been killed. He was one of the longest-ruling despots in over a century, and his oppressive reign was brought to an end in less than 300 days of rebellion – an insurrection that was hardly guaranteed to have succeeded in the first place.

Admittedly, like many people, I was beginning to let this recede into the back of my mind. I paid cursory attention to it, but I felt it was pretty much dying down as my over-saturated mind made way for more and newer news. I never did let it go entirely though. I kept revisiting it, hoping it’d turn out for the best.

The moment Qaddafi’s forces massacred the peaceful protests that called for more freedom – riding on the wave of similar demonstrations elsewhere in the Arab world – there seemed to be little hope: this would be one of a long list of failed popular protests against entrenched dictators. Experts and laymen agreed that Libya was unlikely to be liberated. Like most tyrannical regimes of the modern world, it seemed a perpetually blighted state.

Yet against all odds and the pain of death, the momentum grew. The people resisted. They kept dying but they kept fighting. The next thing the world knew, a wave of defections from both his government and military had strengthened the resolve of the people, and placed Colonel Qaddafi on the unexpected defensive. The people he regarded as rats to be slaughtered (though he simultaneously claimed they really loved him) managed to band together, not only to stop him but to form the closest thing they had to a real government.

Dramatically, he met his end in his final stronghold, the small town of Sirte where he was born. Though details are unconfirmed as of this writing, there seems to be enough evidence that he was indeed captured and killed (along with his son, who had acted as a commander). An article in the Huffington Post noted the caution that other media outlets were taking with respect to making any direct claims, though Al-Jazeera  produced some graphic but seemingly credible proof of his passing.

With his death, the pockets of resistance will likely dissipate, though some holdouts might still carry on the fight (albeit much reduced in number and spirit no doubt). There is some concern that his family, most of whom fled to neighboring states, may foment insurrection and division in revenge: they’ll certainly have learned a lot about how to do that from the patriarch of the family. But it’s hard to say what, if any, influence they may still carry. In any case, the country looks as secure as it could possibly get.

It’s hard to believe Qaddafi is truly vanquished. The man held an iron rule over this people for over four decades. He was unparalleled in his erratic behavior, eccentricity, and delusion of grandeur. He saw himself as a brilliant visionary and revolutionary, and to that end supported numerous militant, terrorist, or rebel groups across the world, especially in Africa. He counted many warlords and autocrats as his allies, and often supplied both material resources and advice.

But much of that probably doesn’t matter to the beleaguered people of Libya, of whom 30,000 to 40,000 have been killed, and many more wounded (in a country of just 6 million). They suffered under one of the most Orwellian and totalitarian regimes in the world, and barring the admittedly high basic standard of living, they were forced to live a stifling existence devoid of cinemas, public assemblies, and free expression. They defied impossible odds and almost single-handedly took back their country, with the controversial assistance of a previously irrelevant NATO. Not since the fall of  Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania has such a feat been pulled off.

I’ll admit to much romanticizing on my part. It is something I cannot help despite my years of IR studies and news addiction, which usually temper my tendency for idealism (though I’d rather fall between the two than on one side or the other). I know this conflict wasn’t as black and white as it seems – nothing involving humans ever is. I also know that despite this well-earned and courageous efforts, the fruits of this hard-fought liberation are still tenuous.

If there is one thing that history has taught me, it is that the aftermath of any violent or dramatic change is harder than the process itself. Transitioning to normality is a difficult and contentious task. Almost from the beginning, the leadership of the National Transitional Council, since recognized by 100 governments and most major regional bodies as a legitimate government , have tried to prepare for the inevitable and difficult transition into a functional state. It’s something every revolution faces: the fighting was the easy part, but what comes after is harder. Even our own Founding Fathers went through this process. We had it luckier than our French and Russian counterparts.

Within Libya, there seems to be a genuine push for a democratic civilian government. But it’s hard to say, given that Libyans have never known anything remotely akin to a functioning government (even by authoritarian standard, Libya lacked any veneer of government, and there is no foundational political apparatus to build upon). Resurgent Islamist elements are present and gaining gound, though they claim to be open to a pluralistic democratic system, and it’s hard to determine their motives and sincerity.

Furthermore, the rebels have been functioning as virtually autonomous militias from the start, and there have been noted riffs between themselves as the civilian leadership (which is composed largely of former Qaddafi ministers). They  might not be too keen on giving up their weapons to such a government either, given what the last regime put them through. It’ll be a tough task that will require a lot of unity and trust in a land unaccustomed to either, and riven with tribal, regional, and ethnic differences (not to mention a history devoid of much solidarity).

But I must hold out hope. The rebels accomplished an amazing thing. They formed a viable, functional government in the midst of a chaotic and often losing war. They kept it together despite noted differences and clashes between them. They formed a unified and relatively effective civil service and military, and managed to take back their country piece by piece through arduous and bloody skirmishes. And now they’re expressing an intention to form a truly democratic state, one which will no doubt be imperfect at first, but still has a chance to grow and thrive.

I have my doubts and fears. But I want to believe there might be something positive out of this. There isn’t much else I can do but hope for the best, especially as I look at all the human faces that are celebrating their first taste of freedom in their entire lives.

Lastly, and this might seem absurd of me, but I can’t help but feel a bit of sadness when I look at pictures of Qaddafi’s mangled and bloodied face. He was an evil man, no doubt about it, and he arguably deserved what he got, especially as he refused to relent or flee when he had the chance. But I pity evil men. I get sad when I see that this is what has to happen for people to be free. I know that’s just the way the world is, but I can’t help but remain weary of it.

I guess that explains why I’m trying hard to be optimistic on behalf of the Libyan people. I hope all this death and suffering amounts to some positive change. It came at quite a toll.

Failed States and Postcards From Hell

Foreign Policy Magazine, a familiar source to my regular readers, has recently posted it’s “Postcards from Hell” photo-essay for this year. It’s an annual collection of images gathered from some of the words bleakest and most miserable places, a somber look at what life is like for a frightening proportion of the world’s population.

Hear the words “failed state,” and a certain unshakable set of images likely floods your vision. There is poverty, insecurity, and a disregard for human dignity. Families fight for their survival, and political regimes fight to extend their rule. Some weak states are simply geographical aspirations on a map, filled with destitution and squalor. Others are, if anything, too strong; citizens of Zimbabwe and Syria might be better off if their countries’ security forces weren’t quite so good at repression.

This is the world of the fragile state — a world that is a grim reality for an alarming percentage of the global population. A quarter of the world’s human beings live in the 60 worst-ranking countries on the 2011 Failed States Index (FSI), which examines the year 2010. Here’s a glimpse of their daily existence.

The Failed States Index is another grim annual undertaking that was posted recently (and to which the photo-essay is linked). It’s difficult task is to rank the world’s most blighted countries based on several metrics, such as population growth, political stability, disease burden, and so on. The report is prepared by the non-profit research organization, Fund For Peace and also published by Foreign Policy.

As the map below shows, this year’s index does not look promising. It appears a growing number of people are living in states that are precariously close to collapse (or in some cases – such as Somalia – are already there).

While some have disputed the findings as being too alarmist, I think it’s safe to say that they’re accurate as far as identifying the many environmental, economic, and social pressures that are starting to strain even once stable countries. Many of the booming developing nations, such as China and India, are among those listed as “borderline” cases – those in which progress is present in some areas of development, but enough major issues remain to potentially slide them back.

I know it’s a cliche thing to do, but I can’t help but look at all these things and tell myself how lucky I am. My years studying international relations, both on and off campus, have hardly shaken the impact of this stark reality. It’s hard to imagine that basic amenities for me – like indoor plumbing, good roads, and access to food and healthcare – are, for most people on Earth, either virtually unheard of or painfully difficult to obtain. Even our jobs crisis can’t compare to the 40% to 80% unemployment rates that are prevalent in some areas (especially among the youth).

While few people in the rich world wake up thinking they might get killed today, that is the morbid possibility that is regularly faced by millions of people living in state wracked with perpetual violence.

This isn’t to say that we’re not entitled to complain about our lot in life, nor am I suggesting that we should remain complacent with the status quo, which has problems of its own. I just want to point out or reiterate just how fortunate we are to live in those small parts of the world that are, for the most part, untouched by this level of misery (at least for now). By a mere accident of birth, I was born in a stable and peaceful place  –  despite, as the sobering map shows, the odds being stacked against me.