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Book Reviews: Social Engineering

May 28, 2008

Two authors try to get inside the heads of China's leaders.
By Reviewed John Pomfret
The Washington Post
May 25, 2008; BW03

Beijing's Drive West and the Campaign To Remake Tibet
By Abrahm Lustgarten
Times. 305 pp. $26

By Mark Leonard
PublicAffairs. 164 pp. $22.95

China is ruled by geeks. For the last 30 years, engineers have dominated China's political system. After revolutionaries such as Deng Xiaoping kicked off its economic reforms, the techies took over and built China into the untested superpower it is today.

In 1987 the Chinese Communist Party first began welcoming engineers into its inner sanctum, the Standing Committee of the Politburo. By 2002, all of the Standing Committee's nine members were engineers, including President Hu Jintao, a hydrologist, and Premier Wen Jiabao, a geologist. Lower down the food chain, engineers continued their monopoly of power. China's central banker? A chemical engineer. Its top cop? A petroleum engineer. Last fall when the Standing Committee accepted its first new non-engineer member since 1987 -- a lawyer -- it was big news.

China's techie-emperors have had enormous influence on how the country has grown. It is a nation of builders, of grand schemes, of gigantism -- from the $30 billion Three Gorges Dam, the biggest project undertaken in China since the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, to a $64-billion adventure to channel water from the Yangtze River to the country's parched north. It's also a nation whose leaders have embraced the notion that building (read: economic growth) is the solution to even the most intractable of China's puzzles. How to ride herd over an increasingly complex society? Grow! How to deal with historically downtrodden minorities, such as the Tibetans? Grow faster! As Deng said: "Development is the only way."

Abrahm Lustgarten's fine book China's Great Train is one of the few works to bring the Western reader inside the heads of China's builders. Following the lives of two engineers and a doctor, Lustgarten chronicles an incredible feat of modern engineering: the construction of a railway connecting Tibet to the rest of China. Opened in July 2006, the line is known for its superlatives. It crosses the Tanggula Pass at 16,640 feet above sea level, making that section of track the world's highest; 80 percent of the entire line is above 12,000 feet; more than half the track was laid on permafrost.

But for Lustgarten, a contributing writer for Fortune magazine, the building of the railway is not just a great yarn. It's also a microcosm of how the Communist Party has refashioned China in the last 30 years. In chapters entitled "The Gambler" and "The Race to Reach Lhasa," Lustgarten translates the palpable excitement of being a builder in a nation where builders rule. He also accomplishes something more valuable: He provides insight into the seat-of-the-pants nature of many of China's massive schemes. Reading China's Great Train, we recognize China's engineers, and by extension its leadership, for what they are: some of the world's biggest risk-takers. Geeks with guts.

To begin with, the engineers had no idea how to construct a railroad over ground that is frozen most of the year but mushy in warm weather. "Fueled by a brash but justified sense of confidence," Lustgarten writes, "they knew that momentum was the key to seeing the project through. They were comfortable, in a sense, with winging it."

Zhang Luxin, one of the book's central characters, declared early on that he had solved the permafrost problem. But, Lustgarten notes, the claim was "born more of desire than of fact." Work went ahead anyway, led by a general director who had "never managed a railway before and knew virtually nothing of permafrost."

The team ultimately relied on bridges -- 675 in all -- over the least stable ground and on complicated cooling technology to protect the permafrost from being melted by the locomotives plying the track. But there were other gambles. In one of the biggest, the Chinese lowballed their estimate of the effect of global warming on the Tibetan plateau. If U.N. figures prove to be true, Lustgarten suggests, the railway could sink in mud.

China's great train project obviously was not built simply to satisfy the ambition of engineers. It was also part of a strategy to bind Tibet to the rest of China for geopolitical reasons as well as for internal security. Since Tibet was first incorporated into Communist China in 1951, the Roof of the World has rested uneasily on the Middle Kingdom. An anti-Chinese rebellion erupted in March 1959, prompting the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, to flee to India. Demonstrations in March 1989 to commemorate the first rebellion resulted in more bloodshed and the imposition of martial law.

In the early 1980s, China's leaders experimented with a softer policy toward Tibet, but by the time engineers had taken control in the late 1980s, the policy had toughened. The only way to deal with Tibet, China's engineer-leaders believed, was to develop the economy and encourage Han Chinese to migrate into the region, flooding Tibet's population of 2.6 million with a sea of Chinese. As the GDP rose, they assumed, separatist activity would fade.

Following several Tibetan families, Lustgarten shows that equation to be false. In developing Tibet, he writes, China's engineers have helped the Chinese, not the Tibetans. Tibetans were shut out even from the low-paying, back-breaking jobs building the railroad. As for mining and other big-ticket projects that are supposed to enrich Tibet, they are uniformly managed and staffed by Han Chinese. After reading Lustgarten's book, it's pretty clear why another wave of Tibetan protests against China's rule -- bigger and even more violent than the protests of 1989 -- swept through the region this March.

China's Great Train questions whether China's engineer-rulers are capable of navigating through the country's many social problems. In What Does China Think?, Mark Leonard seems confident they will make it.

Leonard is a professional contrarian; his last book was Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. For his China book, he spent two years traveling around the country, interviewing many of its leading thinkers on politics and economics. His main conclusion: China is not morphing into a democracy with a capitalist economy; it is creating its own unique system, with an authoritarian government and a mixed economy. The result, Leonard predicts, will be a fundamental challenge to the West.

Leonard believes that bright thinkers -- political scientists, economists and grand strategists, many of them schooled at U.S. universities -- are providing China's engineers with the framework for a novel political system that blends dog-eat-dog capitalism, a big state-controlled sector and one-party rule. They're succeeding, Leonard argues, where the Soviet Union, also led by engineers in its twilight years, failed.

"The most immediate consequence of China's rise is that the much predicted 'universalization of Western liberal democracy' has stalled," Leonard writes. But what's next is even more important, he believes: "The story of the next thirty years will be about how a more self-confident China reaches out and shapes the world."

China's geeks, Leonard argues, are not just building railroads, they're forging a brave new world. ·

John Pomfret is editor of The Post's Outlook section, the paper's former Beijing bureau chief, and author of "Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China."
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