How The Other Side Thinks

Chinese president Hu Jintao visited the White House this week. Much of the focus was on economic issues like currency manipulation, protecting intellectual property, and lifting the Chinese government preference for contracting only Chinese companies in aerospace and renewable energy fields. The goodwill between our nations was symbolized by a $45 billion export package. Obama addressed human rights only toward the end of his press conference remarks, prioritizing trade, global and regional security, environmental issues, and nuclear proliferation. Predictably, Hu focused on the latter, and discussed human rights only in terms of national sovereignty.

The media, on the other hand, zeroed-in on rights. Only two American reporters were given the opportunity to ask questions. The first reporter, from the AP, asked:

President Obama, you’ve covered the broad scope of this relationship, but I’d like to follow up specifically on your comments about human rights. Can you explain to the American people how the United States can be so allied with a country that is known for treating its people so poorly, for using censorship and force to repress its people? Do you have any confidence that as a result of this visit that will change? … And, President Hu, I’d like to give you a chance to respond to this issue of human rights. How do you justify China’s record, and do you think that’s any of the business of the American people?

Hu Jintao didn’t answer the question, not having heard it due to a technical translation problem, but the American press would not be deterred. The second (and final) question from an American journalist, from Bloomberg this time, reiterated: “President Hu, first off, my colleague asked you a question about human rights, which you did not answer. I was wondering if we could get an answer to that question.”

I was a bit surprised, given the zeitgeist themes of losing domestic manufacturing to overseas workers, the exchange rate issue, and the overall trade imbalance; that the media returned to censorship and political speech–a rather traditional scolding for an untraditional Communist state. Americans are, for better or worse, preoccupied with political rights (even for citizens of another country). Sometimes it seems more important for a politician to be Christian and pro-life/choice/guns/privacy than well-educated, competent, and possessed of a clear plan for the future. In college, students are expected to have a liberal arts education–in literature, philosophy, and history, but not necessarily in science, math, and economics. Our core values are in the humanities. It’s no surprise that our leaders reflect our values, and for their legislative and policy decisions to reflect their educational expertise.

I was curious to see whether this correlation between educational values and leadership carries for other countries, and did a little impromptu research. I looked at the top 9 leaders of each country, and found their undergraduate major and/or graduate field. I started with the U.S., China, India, Singapore, and Germany. I would be interested in seeing others; however, I lack the language skill or Googling will to look them up.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but perhaps it should come as no surprise, given the results, that the Chinese government is less concerned about humanitarian issues than economic growth, infrastructure development, and technological advancement.

United States (first nine in order of succession, modified Senate pres.)
Barack Obama President law
Joe Biden Vice-President law
Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House political science
Harry Reid Senate Majority Leader law
Hillary Clinton Secretary of State law
Tim Geithner Secretary of the Treasury economics and East Asian studies
Robert Gates Secretary of Defense history
Eric Holder Attorney General law
Ken Salazar Secretary of Interior law
China 9 members of standing committee of politburo
Hu Jintao President hydraulic engineering
Wu Bangguo Chairman of Standing Committee electrical engineering
Wen Jiabao Premier geology and engineering
Jia Qinglin Chairman of Nat. Com. Of CPPCC engineering
Li Changchun head of propaganda/media affairs electrical engineering
Xi Jinping Vice President chemical engineering
Li Keqiang First Vice Premier law
He Guoqiang Secretary of Central Commission for Discipline Inspection inorganic chemistry
Zhou Yongkang Secretary of Central Political and Legis. Comm. geophysical survey
India top 9 cabinet ministers
Manmohan Singh Prime Minister Economics
Pranab Mukherjee Minister of Finance law/history
P Chidambaram Minister of Home Affairs statistics/law/business
AK Anthony Minister of Defense law
Sharad Pawar Min. of Agri. commerce
Veerappa Moily Minister of Law/Justice law
SM Krishna Minister of External Affairs law
Virbhadra Singh Minister of Steel horticulture
Vilasrao Deshmukh Minister of Heavy Industries law/finance
Singapore
Lee Hsein Loong Prime Minister mathematics, public admin.
Teo Chee Hean Deputy PM, Defense electrical engineering, comp sci.
Wong Kan Seng Deputy PM, National Security business
Goh Chok Tong Senior Minister economics
Sunmugam Jayakumar Senior Minister law
Lee Kuan Yew Minister Mentor law
George Yeo Yong-Boon Minister for Foreign Affairs engineering, business
Tharman Shanmugaratnam Minister of Finance economics, public admin.
Mah Bow Tan Minister for Nat. Dev. industrial engineering
Germany first 9 in list of German cabinet
Angela Merkel Chancellor physics
Guido Westerwelle Vice-Chancellor, Foreign Minister law
Norbert Röttgen Minister of Environment law
Rainer Brüderle Minister of Economics economics
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg Minister of Defense law, journalism
Kristina Schröder Minister of Family Affairs sociology, history
Ronald Pofalla Minister of Special Tasks law
Thomas de Maizière Minister of Interior law
Annette Schavan Minister of Education education, theology
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18 thoughts on “How The Other Side Thinks

  1. Fascinating stuff, David. Great post.

    I suspect the divide between legally educated leadership and more scientifically technical leadership has deep historical roots, and probably roots that help explain America’s preoccupation with political rights.

    However, I wouldn’t necessarily jump to the conclusion that American journalists focus on human rights as a result of different national values. For one, I think arguing about human rights probably creates a more compelling news story than other economic issues. Second, I think there is a growing trend to demonize China. I have no idea if it is media fueled, or domestically fueled and then fed by the media — but either way, as more Americans come to grow china as a threat to our national interests, it doesn’t surprise me that China’s human rights shortcomings become a focus of attention. By chalking up China’s successes to its harsh government policies, it’s a little easier to ignore the many ways that the United States is failing itself.

  2. Really interesting post David. Excellent research!

    I would love for you to expand on this. Some random thoughts. The level of difficulty of entrance should be considered. If its far harder to get into a grad program for science in the US than in China but much harder to get into a law program in china than it is here, that could affect what is seen in the government.

    Another interesting point is why so many leaders have graduate degrees at all. It certainly doesn’t seem necessary to govern, yet, it seems to be ubiquitous, even amongst very different countries.

    Finally, I there is almost no representation of philosophy, which may actually be the most useful training for a politician in that it teaches you intellectual flexibility.

  3. This is a neat observation.

    However, I don’t think it’s about “core values” or national character so much as institutions. Lawyers become leaders in countries where power is mediated primarily by law. What sorts of countries are those? Speaking broadly: developed countries; countries with older systems of government; countries with democratic institutions; countries with competitive politics.

    This story explains the picture above very neatly.

    Germany and the US are developed democracies with millions of pages of law, where practically every facet of social (and, importantly, commercial) life is governed by law. These facts make law a road to power. No surprise that those in power studied law.

    China is a developing country where the rule of law is weak, and where many important social practices and institutions are completely new. The law is simply not that powerful a tool here. No surprise then that the ruling cadre does not include lawyers.

    India is a poor, developing country, but an extremely contentious democracy which long ago adopted legal institutions from a very old source (England).

    Singapore might seem like a problem case, as it is a rich country and a democracy, but has relatively few lawyers in the top echelons. However, it is a young country. Perhaps more importantly, it is a singularly uncompetitive (or “managed”) democracy. Because the PAP elite still has such a firm hold on power, the law has diminished importance — the classic “rule of man” vs. “rule of law” dichotomy. The cursus honorum in Singapore is still to join the government / party directly, I think. I think Singapore is really interesting actually — I wrote a brief post on Singaporean democracy here.

  4. Side note on Americans’ refusal to elect non-Christian leaders: has the Chinese leader ever been an ethnic minority? Deng was Hakka but I don’t think that counts.

    • Thanks for reading/commenting, Dave! A lot of interesting ideas. China in its present incarnation is a relatively young country as well, and has actually had only a small handful of presidents/”paramount leaders”–Mao, Hua Guofeng, Deng, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao–all of whom, as you point out, have been Han. I’m not sure, though, if it’s possible to compare Han vs. Christian, because one is simply an ethnic group, and the other contains certain ways of thinking and worldviews.

      I think you’re right that countries with a long history of common or civil law may inspire people to study the law in order to gain power. But though the judicial system per se is not as strong/independent in China, the populace is still controlled by a myriad of legal regulations, and studying law seems like a logical predecessor to law-making. It’s also interesting to consider that historically China had a long tradition of civil service with Confucian classics as a examination core text, and requiring the study of civil law, taxation, etc. During Mao’s era, almost none of the leaders had any formal education, having risen as revolutionaries/military heroes. I wonder if humanities academics were labeled as overly-intellectual during the upswing of Communism, and it was either advisable to study engineering, or existing engineers were more politically viable because they related to the labor/factory narrative. Incidentally, one of Hu’s possible successors is Li Keqiang, and he’s a lawyer/economist, so maybe with the relaxing of communist ideology we are going to see an increase in standing committee members with a legal background. Of course, another leading candidate is Xi, and he’s a chemical engineer.

      Singapore is interesting because you’ve got to think that the current PM was groomed by his father (the founder PM) to one day govern Singapore, and yet he studied Math (tho subsequently Public Administration). It’s fine to say that he didn’t *need* to study law because he was probably going to become PM regardless, but the question is why didn’t aspiring leaders think that the law would be helpful/important? I think there’s just a more technocratic mindset to what constitutes an ideal government, and students who want to become politicians don’t consider law to be a precondition, as I feel young Americans who dream of becoming president/senators/congressmen do.

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  8. Fuck off to the people who complain about Chinese not treating their citizens well. I was just there for a month and in terms of the amount of freedom and quality of life, I would say China is considerably better than the US.

    • Oooohhh!!! A whole month??? Really? You have so much experience living in that country…NOT!
      I am assuming you are a white adult male which the chinese bow down to. Of course you are going to think that! Go into the several thousands of brothels all around the country. Most of these girls are under 18, many between the ages of 11-14. Take your penis out of your brain.

  9. If the Chinese are so focused on “economic growth, infrastructure development, and technological advancement” rather than humanitarian issues, then it should come as no surprise that a great majority of citizens are dirt poor, that the government arrested parents peacefully seeking justice for their kids poisoned by tainted milk, that they then tried to throw a tarp over the milk incident, that disobeying the one-child law is ENCOURAGED so as to collect the tens of thousands of yuan in fines, that even well-to-do Chinese citizens are forced to cook their food in sewage oil, that the GOVERNMENT–rather than the people–are wealthy, and that great amounts of money is poured into constructing buildings that appeal to foreigners rather than to help the Chinese people up in the mountains living through winter without heating, etc, etc.

    Just listing a few of the benefits of Chinese scientist leaders! It doesn’t matter that there is no Constitution-like limit in China that would prevent the government from locking up a Nobel laureate for writing unfavorable things, or from confiscating anti-China books from even foreigners, or from censoring just about everything.

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