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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Chinese Currency Revaluation is Overrated

I am always frustrated by the amount of China-bashing that goes on in the United States media. Robin Hanson recently blogged about his survey of the top articles on China written in the NYTimes and Washington Post. He concluded:

Yup, top US newspapers are in full fledged China bashing mode.  Anyone think a list of the last ten articles about Britain or Canada would be nearly as negative? The odd thing is that this media tries so hard to appear objective.  Yet they are blatant about the most obvious bias one should expect from national news: a bias toward negativity about rival nations.  Apparently we are most blind to our most obvious biases.

China has a lot to be criticized for, to be sure, but is all the scrutiny deserved? Its human rights record lags far behind that of the United States and other European countries, yet there are far worse (where’s the daily coverage of Sudan these days?). It’s portrayed as obstructionist in climate change, yet the U.S. is just as unwilling to engage in substantive reform, and we’ve blogged in the past about what the U.S. should be doing even without Chinese cooperation. It’s China’s fault that we had this housing crisis; if only their obsession with saving all the time didn’t provide us with so much cheap credit! China’s investment fuels our deficit spending… not our wildly spendthrift Congress. Most disappointing is how much the U.S. worries about China, when we should be spending more time worrying about ourselves: our education system, our economy, our civil rights record. Whatever happened to personal responsibility?

The most common criticism of China that seems to pop up everywhere I look is China’s policy of keeping its currency, the RenMinBi (RMB), or Yuan, pegged to the U.S. dollar. According to some economists, including Paul Krugman, this keeps China’s exports artificially competitive, and according to less scrupulous minds, hurts American manufacturing and is responsible for our giant trade deficit. But as you suspected from reading the title of this post, those claims are overrated.

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