vol 3 issue 17

Ruled by engineers

7 October 2008
By Pelle Neroth
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Ruled by engineers poster

The red army

Look at the CVs of China's ruling body and you'll find a familiar collection of skills. So what draws engineers to the top of the political tree?

Thirty years ago, at the 21st Graham Clark lecture, Alan Cottrell, British metallurgist and physicist and Master of Cambridge University's Jesus College, made the case for more engineers (for there were and are very few) being involved in politics.

Talking about complex problems, such as future trends in world population and food resources (a subject still with us), he said so much was uncertain, not because people put different values on things but because so much of our knowledge of the world is sketchy.

What compounds the uncertainty is the sheer complexity of the world as a system. There are so many places where the shoe may pinch first, not only the obvious ones but the subtle ones of utmost importance in delicately balanced ultra-sensitive systems. The modern engineer has a great task here to provide the knowledge, integrate it into the assessment of life on Earth as a whole engineering system, and present the conclusions in a convincing way to the public, he argued.

Politicians think too much in terms of short-term solutions, which are inevitably partial. Consider this: a single advance in agricultural productivity which seems to be a great boon to a country with a hungry population may - if the response is a further rise in population up to and beyond the limits of the food supply - in the long-run cause even more people to die of starvation. Partial solutions are a danger: what you need is complete solutions which take in all the factors.

China: run by the profession

Cottrell's approach never took off in the UK, not least since the laissez faire revolution arrived shortly after, but in China there now is a technocracy following a blueprint of which Cottrell would surely approve.

All nine members of the standing committee of the Politburo are trained engineers, headed by president Hu Jintao. Academics and China specialists think this is why China has been so successful.

Unresponsive to short-term solutions of democratic politicians who have to listen to voters, the ruling technocrats have been able to work out a long-term strategy for what is best, based on scientific rationale to analyse problems, evaluate means and alternatives, and formulate achievable goals. In doing so, they (with the help of earlier efforts by Deng Xiaping, mentor for many of them) have brought China a long way from the country Chairman Mao nearly ruined.

A market economy was adopted in 1980, while the lid was kept on much else. Exports have boomed. China's technocrats have seen the economy grow at 10 per cent a year for two decades, and the country now exports more in a day than it did in a year in 1976.

With the world's largest reserves of cash, the second largest economy in the world by purchasing power has set about constructing a modern superpower on an epic scale, in record time. There are videos on the Internet, showing the glittery skylines of a hundred different cities, ringed with freeways, with populations in the millions, many with names no Westerner has heard of, and which may not have existed 20 years ago. It looks as grand as Singapore or Hong Kong. The world's largest cargo port is being built near Shanghai. There are plans to lay 62,000 miles of railway tracks by 2020.

In 1989, China had 189 miles of expressways, by 2010 it will have 40,000 miles and by 2020, 55,000 miles - more than the US.

The developed world takes its roads for granted but consider how the US changed and the economy grew after building its interstate highway system. The Three Gorges Dam in China is eight times longer than the Hoover Dam and will produce six times as much electricity; and scores of dams on the same size of the Hoover are being built along the Yangtse.

In each year since 2004, China has built enough power plants to supply all the electricity needs of a large European economy such as Spain. The country consumes half the world's cement and has half the world's cranes. Beijing is constructing the world's largest metro network, the world's first intercity maglev line, and the airport's new terminal 3 is the largest building in the world. Overseen by Arup engineers and designed by Foster Architects, the building, if super imposed upon Manhattan, would stretch across the width of the island. Such is the growth in air traffic, it is expected to run out of capacity by 2015, and a new airport will have to be built.

Spiritual gap

Yet, for all these successes, the current method of rule has led to three important failures.

It's almost as if it's an inherent tragedy in rule by engineers. The leadership tend to see politics as an engineering problem with a clear path to a solution, and regard interference by democratic input as unnecessary and destructive. The elite also have a fondness for enormous engineering projects to show off their expertise and, some suggest, allow them to dip their hands in the till.

Thirdly, with the focus on material prosperity as the benchmark for their success, the technocrats have little understanding for those whose spiritual needs go beyond atheism. Therefore, towards Tibetan Buddhism, Islam, Folk religions, the government has followed a policy of repression in the name of scientism.

Falun Gong, for example, a spiritual movement based on physical exercises, has been persecuted by China's actions for a decade - which have led to dozens of deaths, allegedly by torture, thousands of cases of abuse and the harassment of tens of thousands - and has blighted the human rights reputation of the government. Strange, you may think, for a movement whose millions of adherents before the ban in 1999 were weighted towards women over 50.

The background is this: by the mid-1990s, the unit residential system of life-long security was beginning to unravel under market reforms, so people were seeking certainty in a disintegrating social world. For the unemployed, the elderly, the infirm especially, Qigong - traditional breathing exercises carried out in groups at dawn - provided both a social network and modest health benefits. As it grew in popularity, there arrived on the scene Falun Gong, which combined breathing exercises with apocalyptic cosmology.

It soon proved even more popular - it filled a spiritual gap in the new technocratic China which had ditched Marxism. And it initially had the support of the party; like Qigong, it "gave the seniors something to do". Yet the movement was led by a man whose ideas were an anathema to any party member educated in modern scientific materialism. The main thesis of Li Hongzhi, a former clerk, was salvation through refinement of one's character until the body literally evolves into another form of matter. At that point, the saved person is capable of flying to paradise, which may exist out in the cosmos, or in another dimension. Many beliefs were even more unscientific.

Flourishing abroad in the last few years, the original Falun Gong movement has been all but destroyed in China - evidence that the Politburo has its problems with this variety of harmless spiritualism.

The engineer-trained leaders understand the power of manufacturing and the wealth it brings to any nation - but there is a good argument for variety in professions at the head of a country, not least lawyers.

USSR: failed by the profession

The Soviet Union had its successes and failures in science and engineering: the H-bomb; the Sputnik; the Tokamak fusion device set against the Dnieper dam, which displaced thousands; Magnitogorsk, whose iron ore was exhausted early; the White Sea canal, where 100,000 slave labourers froze to death and which proved too shallow.

One comparison that can be made is that both Soviet and Chinese authoritarianism followed this pattern: they were led by monsters (though Mao was arguably worse than Stalin - for one thing, he murdered many millions more and wanted to give the Chinese people numbers instead of names). Then, gradually, a technocratic elite of politicians trained as engineers took over. They at least aspired to put efficiency and pragmatism ahead of firebrand revolutionary politics.

In the Soviet case, this was a surprising ending given the terror against engineers in the 1920s, Stalin's heyday. According to the academic Kendall Bailes, in connection to the Industrial Party show trial, up to 7,000, or two-thirds of Soviet engineers with higher education were arrested - right in the middle of the crucial years of the first five-year plan.

The reason the Industrial Party trial took place - and the defendants proceeded to give long, ludicrously self-incriminating testimonies - was because Stalin feared the technocratic tendencies and professional ties that linked them to a common outlook. They were the bourgeois "old specialists", the leading engineers of the USSR who had received their training before 1917.

Hostile to the five-year plan and, with rapid industrialisation dependent to a large extent on their knowledge and rare skills, they saw an opportunity to develop a wider sense of social responsibility for their technical expertise.

Petr Palchinsky, a leading figure of the movement, who advocated more humane treatment of workers, talked about an international Techintern as opposed to Comintern.

Stalin gave these rivals long prison sentences, then went on to create a new generation of subservient engineers - low paid, drawn from the working class and narrowly trained in technical subjects.

New model group

When this stratum had been created, Stalin pronounced the technical intelligentsia, the new model group, to which the working classes should aspire.

A symbiotic relationship was established where the achievements of the intelligentsia legitimated the communist party, which in turn favoured the class with power and status, legitimising its role over the working class.

After the war, they became increasingly incorporated into the power elite and, by the 1970s, 90 per cent of the politburo had engineering backgrounds: think Brezhnev, Kosygin and later Yeltsin. Many engineers were among the most stalwart supporters of the existing order; the dissidents writing samizdat in the 1970s were typically natural scientists or members of the literary intelligentsia.

Why was the USSR ultimately a failure, given the technocracy's control? The usual argument is the Soviet Union's reluctance to adopt a market economy; but engineering writers see the causes embedded in the nature of Soviet engineering.

Intense rivalry in the profession - between those who favoured steam turbines and those who favoured hydro power, ended in widespread persecution and arrests, something unthinkable in the West or in the Czar's time. Such repression had a long-term effect on the USSR's inventiveness: suspicions of sabotage and political phrase-mongering came to hover over technology debates, stifling innovation.

Bailes says: "One can trace at least some of the most serious problems of the Soviet economy, including lags in agricultural output, lags in automation and use of computers, to the negative atmosphere created by the authorities in the 1930s."

Loren Graham, the author of another book on Soviet technology, suggests the narrow training of technocrats: "more technicians than proper engineers."

They believed the biggest enterprises were the best, had no sense of aesthetic - when Graham was a student in Moscow, he observed that everyone had identical overhead lampshades coloured in iridescent orange - and knew precious little about economics, psychology or sociology.

In the 1970s, the USSR produced more tractors and more combines than any other country in the world, yet all this equipment could not solve the motivational problem that continued to cause low productivity in agriculture and poor distribution of its products.

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Who's who: China's politburo

  • Hu Jintao, 62, president of the People's Republic of China, graduate of Tsinghua University, Beijing, department of water conservancy engineering;
  • Huang Ju, 66, graduate of Tsinghua University, department of electrical engineering;
  • Jia Qinglin, 65, graduate of Hebei Engineering College, department of electric power;
  • Li Changchun, 61, graduate of Harbin Institute of Technology, department of electric machinery;
  • Luo Gan, 69, graduate of Freiberg University of Mining and Technology, Germany;
  • Wen Jiabao, 62, premier of State Council, graduate of Beijing Institute of Geology, department of geology and minerals;
  • Wu Bangguo, 63, graduate of Tsinghua University, department of radio engineering;
  • Wu Guanzheng, 66, graduate of Tsinghua University, power department;
  • Zeng Qinghong, 65, graduate of Beijing Institute of Technology, automatic control department.

Engineers and power

Engineers are common in the politics of some other countries: in Iran, president Mahmoud Ahmadinajad has a doctorate in civil engineering and many leading figures in Iranian politics have engineering backgrounds. This could be one factor in the passion with which they pursue their nuclear programme.

France has an excellent engineering tradition - the world's best, according to some commentators. (TGV, aqueducts, nuclear power, Ariane, Airbus.) This is doubtless due to their engineering grandes écoles.

In the past, the European Commission was strongly influenced by the French technocratic tradition (when Brussels was just an outpost of Paris), but that has been diluted. The commission comprises 27 nations, after all, and the council and parliament - whose MEPs include teachers and journalists - dilute the technocratic tradition further, though it's still there. Think of the technocratic deafness to the quirks, concerns and prejudices of 'normal people' - witness the commission's profound bafflement at the Lisbon treaty "no".

The situation is very different in the Anglo-Saxon countries, where engineers stay out of politics - only four engineers in Congress, a handful in the Commons.

As the saying goes, they design everything but the laws (though Carter and Hoover, who launched the Hoover dam, had engineering backgrounds.) It's a good question whether political individuals choose engineering to get ahead, or whether the structure of other societies is conducive to leadership by the engineering mentality. At any rate, the low status of engineering doesn't help aspiring politicians. Thorstein Veblen wrote that the American public considered engineers a "somewhat fantastic brotherhood of overspecialized cranks, not to be trusted out of sight, except under the restraining hand of safe and sane businessmen." 

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