The New York Times' David Brooks on China

The New York Times recently stopped charging extra for access to its roster of Op-Ed columnists. I can imagine that it was difficult getting people to pay to read guys like David Brooks.

His most recent column, with a Shanghai dateline, is an imagining of the lifecycle of an elite Chinese communist apparatchik as a way to look at China's "meritocracy." Aside from being written in a weird second-person voice, the article has a variety of other distortions and cliches:

He starts with the old saw of the "little emperor complex".

"Let's say you were born in China. You're an only child. You have two parents and four grandparents doting on you. Sometimes they even call you a spoiled little emperor."

Fair enough, many Children born under the one child policy have been spoiled. However China's elite "corpotacracy" that becomes the focus of the column has zero members of the one child generation, the oldest of whom are just beginning to turn 30. By the time these kids are running China who knows what the country will look like.

"You learn that it takes phenomenal feats of memorization to learn the Chinese characters. You become shaped by China's intense human capital policies."

Learning Chinese characters is certainly difficult, but it is just a matter of time and practice. If it took "phenomenal feats" to read Chinese, I don't see how over 1 billion people have done it without a problem, especially since hundreds of millions of them grew up in households with incomes of not much more than a dollar a day. As far as "intense human capital policies", this phrase is so open to interpretation, that I'm not sure how he is relating it to Chinese elementary school.

"The Chinese ruling elite recruits talent the way the N.B.A. does, rigorously, ruthless, in a completely elitist manner."

Anyone at all familiar with the cronyism rife in Chinese society realizes that if N.B.A. personnel matters were handled in the Chinese manner, there would be more than a couple drunken midgets warming benches in the league.

"Roughly nine million students take the tests each year. The top 1 percent will go to the elite universities. Some of the others will go to second-tier schools, at best. These unfortunates will find that, while their career prospects aren't permanently foreclosed, the odds of great success are diminished. Suicide rates at these schools are high, as students come to feel they have failed their parents."

There is no society in the world where getting into an elite University does not greatly enhance one's prospects for "great success". But failing to test into Tsinghua or Peking University hardly chokes off your chance to have a decent life or even get rich in China. Of course, it is difficult to get rich in China, and most of the population is still poor with very difficult lives. However, in the current climate of free-for-all capitalism in China, possibilities exist for a wide range of people, and I would be very surprised if most of China's huge class of nouveau riche attended elite Universities. I will stress again though, that the majority of Chinese are still struggling just to make ends meet.

"But you succeed. You ace the exams and get into Peking University. You treat your professors like gods and know that if you earn good grades you can join the Communist Party."

From what I have heard of Chinese Universities, professors are often treated poorly by kids who believe they have made it by merely testing into University. I have also heard many stories of trading gifts for good grades and large-scale cheating with authorities looking the other way. Chinese university life is hardly a cog in a ruthlessly efficient meritocracy. Also here, Brooks makes it sound like everyone is striving to join the party. Most university students and upwardly mobile twenty-somethings I know have no intention of or interest in joining the party.

"Westerners think the Communist Party still has something to do with political ideology. You know there is no political philosophy in China except prosperity. "

Brooks gets this right, though it is hardly a new insight.

"In one sense, your choice doesn't matter. Whether you are in business or government, you will be members of the same corpocracy. In the West, there are tensions between government and business elites. In China, these elites are part of the same social web, cooperating for mutual enrichment."

In this regard China does not strike me as so different from America where government and business elites certainly cooperate for mutual enrichment, where Democrats like Robert Rubin and Republicans like Dick Cheney slide from the corporate boardroom to being cabinet officials with ease.

"In the back of your mind you wonder: Perhaps it's simply impossible for a top-down memorization-based elite to organize a flexible, innovative information economy, no matter how brilliant its members are. That's a thought you don't like to dwell on in the middle of the night."

Despite the awkward way he poses this question in this strained second-person voice, this last paragraph has some validity to it, though, again, he is hardly bringing anything new to the table here. In an alternate reality Brooks might have a) led off with China's difficulty in becoming an "innovative information economy", then b) analyzed the many ways in which the one-child-policy generation's coming of age process is totally different from that of the current leadership generation and finally c) made an analysis of how these changes might effect leadership, politics and business in China's future. But I guess that would be expecting Brooks to have something new or interesting to say about China after a three-day whirlwind tour of Beijing and Shanghai.

As it is, all I see here is a series of interesting, valid, and much chewed over, issues, and a lineup of the same old cliches trotted out to illuminate them.

Luke @ 17:13 | .(4252) |

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