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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Book Review: Social Engineering

June 5, 2008

The Washington Post (USA)
Posted by John Pomfret
June 3, 2008

This book review of mine appeared in the Post a week ago.
Lustgarten's book is worthy not so much for his stuff on Tibet but
for the access he got to the engineers who built the railroad. That
made it, for me at least, enlightening.

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

WHAT DOES CHINA THINK?
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.
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