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Dr Kerry Brown on Chinese political personalities

Just got back from an interesting talk by Dr Kerry Brown, head of the Asia program at Chatham House, on politics in modern China. It was an open question and answer session, and one of the threads that got my attention the most was about the personality differences between Chinese politicians and those in Europe and America.

Obviously it required some big generalisations, but the main point was the difference in how people come to be politicians in most Western countries compared to how they do in China. Dr Brown described how a group of politicians in the UK would likely represent quite a wide array of backgrounds and interests, and would have taken various routes to arrive at their current position.

In China, though, politicians tend to go through a prescribed path from graduation which includes, most interestingly here, a huge quantity of technical training. The result is that Chinese politicians in general form a body of ultra-informed experts trained in one political discipline, compared to the diversity seen in most Western countries. This certainly isn’t universal, and there’s a large amount of inappropriate appointments, but at least in contrast the trend is pretty clear.

Now, there are some obvious drawbacks to this arrangement (I won’t bother to trot out the usual stuff about China lacking ingenuity etc.), but it does seem to me that it also has some massive advantages over the system we have here. Dr Brown pointed out that the Chinese political system finds quite a lot of strength in this ability for analytical detail, explaining how Hu Jintao, in particular, is known for his academic approach to politics, his memory skills and his measured self-control. “Hu Jintao makes Gordon Brown look like a pop star” was the summary of this.

Dr Brown continued the contrast with Chinese politicians’ lack of communication skills and charisma. He compared Hu Jintao, whose speeches are “devoid of personal content” and who “lacks ego”, to European politicians like Berlusconi; it’s an extreme example but the point is clear. Apparently Hu Jintao only ever made one joke (that the way he keeps his hair black is the only secret China is willing to share with America, apparently).

It seems to be the general understanding that this is a disadvantage for China, but to me it almost seems the ideal for politicians. I don’t want pop stars with egos, I want dull administrators who are competent at running a country. I’m not putting China forward as some sort of utopia of well-raised politicians (哈哈…), but it does annoy me that our media nearly always present China’s political system as inferior to ours and lacking basic necessities, when there’s actually something to be said for a system that, at least ostensibly, focuses on competence and not personality. China may have a bigger corruption problem than we do, but at least Hu Jintao isn’t telling people to hug hoodies.

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