Social Engineering

By Reviewed John Pomfret
Sunday, May 25, 2008


Beijing's Drive West and the

Campaign To Remake Tibet

By Abrahm Lustgarten

Times. 305 pp. $26


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.

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