Does the Educational Background of China’s Leaders Matter?

Posted on October 24th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

One of the most curious facts about China’s current leadership is is comprised almost entirely by engineers. This thought-provoking Facebook post by Kaiser Kuo reminds us that the academic disciplines of the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo are: hydraulic engineering, electron tube engineering, geological engineering, electrical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, geophysical engineering, chemical engineering, and law.

By contrast, here is the distribution of the seven men Reuters reports will comprise China’s next Standing Committee: chemical engineering, law, history, math, teaching, economics, and economics. As a caveat, Kaiser notes that Zhang Dejiang’s economic degree came from a university in North Korea, so he probably isn’t going to be quoting Milton Friedman anytime soon. But this change seems significant. Will it have any effect on policy?

Deng Xiaoping’s accession to power in 1978 transformed China’s government from being primarily ideological to being primarily technocratic, and engineering seemed to be an appropriate background for dealing with China’s immense developmental challenges.  Much of the work of the Chinese government was simply building the country up from its destitute, agricultural base. With China now the world’s second-largest economy, though, a government run by social scientists may be better equipped to manage the country’s increasingly complex relationship with the outside world. An engineer may know how to build a railroad, but can he also manage a central bank? Perhaps yielding to economists and lawyers is the change China needs.

However, while the changing academic backgrounds of China’s incoming leaders presents an intriguing story line, there’s less there than meets the eye. China’s top political leaders are all “career politicians” rather than actual working professionals, and reaching the pinnacle of the Communist Party requires years in the trenches. President Hu Jintao, for instance, made his reputation as a no-nonsense Party chief in Tibet in the late 1980s and other leaders similarly got their start in minor outposts far from the center of power. The idea that an ordinary citizen can vault to high political office in a short period of time is totally alien to China, as I discovered when Chinese friends found the idea of a “Governor Schwarzenegger” totally incredulous.* Not having popular elections frees the Communist Party from worrying about disruptive upstart figures of the sort that routinely win elections in places like  The Philippines, Haiti, or Argentina.

*To be fair, so did a lot of other people.

As a result I’m skeptical that China’s new leaderswill govern any differently simply because of their social science backgrounds. Political constraints within the government prevent any one leader from exercising too much influence, and what one chose to study as a young man tends to matter very little in later life. When George W. Bush was running for president in 2000 for instance, much was made of the fact that he attended business school rather than law school and would thus govern in the style of the “first MBA president”. When all was said and done, Bush’s graduate school experience turned out to be one of the least meaningful aspects of his presidency.  The same, I suspect, will be true of Xi Jinping and his Standing Committee colleagues.

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