Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Civil society controls in China

The conflicts between the Chinese Catholic authorities and the Vatican have been in the news (China ordains new Catholic bishop). American media have also reported on the Christian house church movement and the official Chinese opposition to it.

The Communist Party and the Chinese government insists on being in charge of all civil society organizations, so we should not be surprised that it rigidly controls Muslim organizations as well. Michael Harvey pointed out this article from the Boston Globe. It does a good job of illustrating the forms those controls take place.

Muslim voices rising in China - Controls on Islam spur resentment among a restive minority

"On a recent Friday, the holy day of Islam, crowds swelled inside the antique Jame mosque, the largest in this ancient town in Xinjiang Province...

"The turbaned and bearded clerics who preached to the gathered faithful had all been vetted for their political beliefs by local Chinese authorities, who determine what sermons they can give, what version of the Koran they may use, and where and how religious gatherings can be held.

"The Chinese government forces all Muslims in China to adhere to a state-controlled version of their religion, and banners placed around town warn locals not to stray from the official faith. The imams are not even allowed to issue the call to prayer using a public address system...

"The Chinese government has tightened its constraints on the Uighur ethnic minority in western China amid official fears of a rise in militant Islam...

"To dissuade Uighur youths from inheriting their traditional Islamic culture, the government has banned children from entering mosques, studying Islam, or celebrating Islamic holidays...

"Resentment against Beijing has been building here since 1949, when Mao Zedong annexed the independent nation of East Turkestan and began to assimilate it into mainland China...

"Some Chinese officials say they are baffled by the criticism China receives for its policy on Xinjiang, where the nation's relatively small Muslim population of about 8 million is concentrated.

"'On the one hand the world complains that Pakistan doesn't do enough to control its madrassas, and on the other they complain when China does not allow them,' said one official, referring to Muslim religious schools. The official asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the press. 'We believe Islam can be an unbalancing force so we need to control it.'...

"Though Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate blend of Sunni Islam and Sufi mysticism... a rising Islamic mood is palpable in Xinjiang. More and more women are wearing veils, residents say, and mosques are packed on Fridays.

"Mostly this is due to a rising interest in religion that is common across much of China, where people are reacting to the intense atheism of the Maoist years. But in Xinjiang, rising Islamic sentiment has also taken on a political hue, with many separatists demanding the re-creation of an independent East Turkestan on religious grounds...

"Plainclothes policemen routinely roam the rustic mosques and bustling markets of Uighur towns. Human rights groups and local residents say anyone thought to be acting suspiciously is hustled away and often punished without a fair trial...

"Part of the reason China is tightening its grip on Xinjiang is its growing strategic importance. The province has been found to be rich in oil. It also borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and has become an essential launching pad for China's geopolitical interests in these areas, where the United States is also jockeying for influence..."

Policies like this attract attention of U.S. policy makers as well, and the Chinese are not pleased with the attention.

China strongly opposes being listed on U.S. religious freedom blacklist

"China refuted here Monday a recent U.S. report which listed China as a 'country of particular concern' with regard to religious freedom, saying the move constitutes blatant interference in the country's internal affairs.

"Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said China expresses 'strong dissatisfaction' and 'firm opposition' to being on the list.

"Recently, the U.S. State Department claimed to have listed China as one of eight 'countries of particular concern' with regard to international religious freedom in 2006.

"'The United States' action violates the basic rules of international relations, and constitutes a rude intervention in the internal affairs of another country,' Jiang said.

"'The Chinese government has always guaranteed citizens' right to religious freedom in accordance with the law,' she said. 'People of various ethnic groups and regions in China enjoy broad and adequate freedom of religious belief according to law,' Jiang added..."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Representative government in Iran

Democracy in Iran is not like democracy elsewhere. In fact, whether it is democratic or representative is open to question. That's a good beginning to discussions about what we mean by those labels. It's also a good beginning to considering whether other regimes are democratic or representative.

This article from the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty web site offers some observations about the upcoming elections for the Assembly of Experts. Don't be disappointed if you don't find much support for the headline's assertion that the elections are signficant because most of the article excerpted here discusses the results of the vetting process.

Iran: Assembly Election Significant Despite Heavy Vetting

"In less than a month, Iranians will vote in elections for one of the country's most powerful bodies, the Assembly of Experts. Vetting has already winnowed the list of hopefuls by two-thirds and left some candidates unopposed, begging questions about how much choice voters are being given. But the election is relevant for a number of reasons.

"The Assembly of Experts has the power to dismiss the country's highest-ranking political and religious figure, the supreme leader, and appoint a replacement. But even beyond statutory powers, victory in the Assembly of Experts race will either cement the fundamentalists' hold on Iran's elected institutions or initiate the reformists' return to political relevance...

"The Assembly of Experts has 86 members, all of them clerics. The field of candidates for the December 15 election has fallen sharply over the past month... A Guardians Council spokesman... announced recently that there were 144 eligible candidates... That represents less than 30 percent of the 492 prospective candidates Kadkhodai mentioned in mid-October... [He] said that 100 people had withdrawn their applications. He added that all the female applicants failed the written exam on religious interpretation (ijtihad)...

"The candidate disqualifications are likely to dominate headlines in Tehran for some time. But a prominent issue in the weeks before that announcement was the creation of election coalitions...

"Ultimately, coalition formation may not have much impact when there are so few candidates. Realistically, it does not appear that the Assembly of Experts race will be very competitive. 
"The lack of choice could reduce voter enthusiasm. 
"But the fact that municipal councils are being elected the same day could boost turnout figures. The competition for those seats appears to be more intense, and there might be greater flexibility in candidate vetting on the municipal level. 
"If voter participation is high as a result, officials are likely to tout these elections as a sign of support for the current system."

Monday, November 27, 2006

China's auto industry and public policy

The Beijing Auto Show brought out the foreign reporters, each with a story to tell.

Asia Times Online noted the booming sales of luxury cars in China. Business Week focused on the introduction of new "made in China" models. The Economist asked whether China's domestic market was sacrificing quality for quantity and lower prices.

In spite of the relatively small numbers of buyers for very high end autos, political scientists have to ask what effects this new socio-economic group will have on Chinese politics and government. Similarly, those political scientists would ask about what roles the government played in the creation of new auto companies and models. Finally, those same observers would ask about the public policies that encourage the production of cheaper and shoddier merchandise.

On the second day of the show, a Rolls-Royce Phantom on display was bought for 6.6 million yuan (US$838,681)

Luxury car sales booming in China

"Sales of luxury cars are booming in China, with the world's top luxury-auto makers viewing the country as an increasingly important market...

"China imports more than 100,000 cars every year, most of which cost more than $40,000, according to customs figures. Import figures reached 147,000 cars, valued at $4.84 billion, for the first eight months this year, up 56.1% and 71.8% respectively from the same period of 2005. The rise in unit price shows that luxury cars are now a key import sector...

"Some luxury-auto makers, including DaimlerChrysler, BMW, Audi and Volvo, have set up assembly lines in the country to take advantage of lower production costs...

"It is estimated that only 5% of Chinese can currently afford private cars, but that translates into 65 million people given the huge population..."

Business Week reported much the same information.

Chinese Luxury Cars Debut at Beijing Show

"At this year's Beijing auto show, China will introduce high-end vehicles it hopes will compete in both the international and the domestic markets

"The big trend to watch this year, analysts contend, is the arrival of some much awaited model launches by Chinese automakers. These companies are under considerable pressure from Beijing to develop their own competitive brands in the face of the rapid expansion of luxury models coming into the market... 'The biggest difference between this year’s Beijing auto show and previous auto shows in China is that many more luxury and super cars will be on display,' notes Hong Kong Citigroup auto analyst Charles Cheung...

"(Luxury car sales have rocketed upward about 24% during the first eight months of 2006.) Even high-end and small production-run automakers such as BMW’s Rolls Royce are expanding. Rolls is finding a buoyant market in China for its $380,000 super-luxury Phantom..."

The Economist asks in The fast and the furious, "Are Chinese carmakers trying to do too much, too soon?"

"Chinese firms felt confident enough to show off not just their newest low-cost runabouts, but also luxury and sports models, 'concept' cars showing possible future designs and even a few hybrid and electric vehicles. Local carmakers in the world's fastest-growing and third-biggest car market would appear to have come of age. But like a teenager trying to behave like an adult too soon, the rush for high-tech street-cred may not be so wise...

"How much of this miracle is the result of good business sense—rather than the special treatment granted to local firms—is not entirely clear... Yet this is arguably no different from the sort of support given to Japanese carmakers 40 years ago, or to South Korean firms 20 years later...

"According to the latest China Automobile Customer Satisfaction Index, the number of faults per 100 cars made in China rose from 246 in 2005 to 338 this year. Four out of five cars now experience a problem in the first six months of ownership. But with average retail prices falling by RMB10,000 ($1,250) a year, producers are racing to cut costs, not improve quality...

"Local carmakers in Japan and South Korea gradually came to dominate their domestic markets through a combination of cost competitiveness, nationalistic buying and technological leadership. Today, Japan's Toyota and South Korea's Hyundai make some of the most a

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Support for teaching

If you teach the Advanced Placement Comparative Politics course and missed the newsletter sent out last week by the AP program, here are some great ideas:

On December 11, 2006, Mehrzad Boroujerdi of Syracuse University will present an online, interactive session about the politics and society of modern Iran. Boroujerdi is the author of Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism and the founder of Syracuse's Middle Eastern Studies Program.

AP teachers should note that Dr. Boroujerdi is a member of the AP Comparative Government and Politics Development Committee. His influence can be seen in the course outline and in the AP exams.

Using strategies for the AP teacher as his framework, Boroujerdi will offer
  • historical and theoretical perspectives on such topics as Iran's cultural heritage
  • the country's class, ethnic, and religious divisions
  • the causes and consequences of the 1979 revolution and
  • the nature of the nation's post-revolutionary political system

This two-hour event, titled "Teaching Iran in the AP Classroom," will start at 6:30 p.m. (ET).

The deadline for registration is December 6.

For additional information and instructions for registering, visit AP Government and Politics Online Events

You can watch "Getting Ready for the New AP Comparative Government and Politics Course," an archived version of an online event that was offered last spring. Visit the Archived Events page for AP Government.

The newsletter also noted that all materials related to the 2006 AP Comparative Government and Politics Exam are now posted on the AP Comparative Government and Politics Exam page, including the free-response questions, sample student responses, scoring commentary, scoring guidelines, scoring statistics, and Student Performance Q&A. These documents join an extensive archive of exam information from past years.

Finally, if you are concerned about the AP Course Audit, the newsletter offers
  • a AP Course Audit PowerPoint(R) presentation you can download
  • District-designed AP Course Audit activities
  • a Syllabus self-evaluation checklist
  • Annotated sample syllabi
  • Free online presentations on the AP Course Audit process
    • December 14, the College Board will hold a live, interactive, online presentation with a walk-through of the AP Course Audit Web site demonstration
    • AP Course Audit Web site demonstration (available December 2006)

Go to AP Course Audit Information.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Economic insecurity and politics

Want to know how important economic growth is in China? This report from the Washington Post illustrates the potential for problems.

From a comparative perspective, this case is one to compare with economic growth in Iran, Nigeria, and Russia. The demographic and economic statistics necessary for such comparisons are available in the CIA World Factbook.

Students Grow Desperate Over China's Tight Job Market -- Tensions Erupt at Employment Fair; Bleak Prospects Seen for Many 2007 Grads

"A tide of more than 30,000 students with polished résumés and high hopes surged into a job fair here so eager to meet with employers that they shattered four glass doors and splayed the side walls of an escalator in what became a near riot...

"After years in which graduates were ensured of a good job in the fast-growing economy, the number of degree-holders has outstripped the number of jobs, and the guarantees have evaporated...

"An open-ended rise in living standards, particularly for the educated middle class, has been part of an unspoken pact under which the party retains a monopoly on political power despite the country's turn away from socialism.

"So far, the party has delivered on its part of the bargain: The economy has grown by more than 9 percent a year recently, and the main beneficiaries have been educated urbanites. Content to claim their share in the prosperity, most students have shown little interest in politics since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

"But a large pool of unemployed or underemployed university graduates, some analysts have suggested, could become a new breeding ground for opposition. An educated opposition, they said, would have far more organizational and ideological ability -- and present a greater threat to the government -- than the left-behind farmers who have been the main source of unrest in recent years.

"The Labor and Social Security Ministry estimated recently that as many as 4.9 million youths will graduate from universities by the end of 2007, up by nearly 20 percent over 2006. Another 49.5 million will graduate from high school, also a 20 percent increase...

"But indications have emerged that, booming as it is, the economy may not be able to absorb that many degree-holders into the jobs for which they are being trained..."

Friday, November 24, 2006

More on Ekiti and corruption in Nigeria

Journalists' accounts of politics in Nigeria are consistent in their descriptions of the corruption -- especially in the state governments. Lydia Polgreen's account in the New York Tiimes of campaigning with a candidate for governor in Ekiti offers some details that other reporters have neglected: like how revenue sharing works and how candidates appear to be captives of local party organizations. Both of those examples reinforce the idea that Nigeria's patron-client model of politics (sometimes called prebendalism) is running full steam ahead.

Money and Violence Hobble Democracy in Nigeria

"So lucrative is public office here that even in a backwater like Ekiti, a state of only 2 million people in a nation of 130 million, the state house and the spoils that come with it are apparently worth killing for. Of Nigeria’s 36 governors, 31 are under federal investigation, mostly on suspicion of corruption, and 5 have already been impeached, including Mr. Fayose in October. He is now in hiding...

"It has been seven boisterous years since Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and an anchor for the entire region, shed its military rule and ostensibly became a democracy. But the transformation has been slow and stumbling, hobbled by a political culture of graft and intimidation that has led to widespread neglect and disillusionment...

"New democracies naturally suffer from the letdown of high expectations, but the drop in Nigeria is virtually unparalleled on the continent...

"Nowhere is Nigeria’s democracy in deeper trouble than at the state and local levels, where the most bruising contests for power take place in a bloody, winner-take-all system in which the voters are all but superfluous...

"The leaders of Nigeria’s 36 states are princes of a political system that rewards executive power and does little to curb corruption. Governors get a check each month that represents their state’s cut of Nigeria’s booming oil fortune, and have almost no one to answer to for how they spend the money...

"'Money,' Mr. Kayode Fayemi [a candidate for governor in the tiny state of Ekiti in southwest Nigeria, at left] said. 'It is the language of Nigerian politics. As much as you want to get away from that, you also have to be mindful of those short-term things you must do.'"

NB: Example of Wikipedia problems.

The link to the article about prebendalism in the first paragraph is to an October 9th version of a Wikipedia article at Answers.com. That article no longer appears at Wikipedia. It seems that someone didn't like the version that was online. The prebandalism article has been changed 10 times this year. When I looked at it on 23 November, the article was a pale version of the one quoted by Answers.com, and not one that would be very useful to students of comparative politics. You've been warned again.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Making policy in Iran

The starting point for cooperation is agreement.

Nearly everyone agrees that non-theraputic drug use is a bad thing. But, the perceptions of causes, the beliefs about deterrents, and the context within which policies are made can complicate the process of cooperation.

Bill Samli writes on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty web site that those complications are exactly what Iran is facing in its fight against illegal drug use, production, and transport.

Ask your students to identify the problems in policy making outlined in this article. (The whole article has many more details than this excerpt.) Then ask them to compare this policy making arena with the policy making environment in another country: most similar, perhaps China; most different, probably the UK.

Iran: UN Helps Combat Drug Problem, But Bureaucracy Could Hinder Effort

"Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), announced a $22 million contribution to Iran during his November 7-9 visit to that country...

"For more than two decades, the Iranian government concentrated on interdiction as the preferred way to deal with drug abuse. Tehran insisted it was a supply-driven problem. Despite mounting anecdotal evidence, it dismissed suggestions that unemployment and a lack of constructive social outlets might be behind the demand for drugs.

"It was only in the final years of President Mohammad Khatami's administration (1997-2005) that a greater proportion of the drug-fighting budget was earmarked for demand reduction.

"The creation of new addiction-treatment camps suggests that the Ahmadinejad administration -- after some deliberation -- has decided to continue on that path.

"This emphasis on the demand side could help curb Iran's drug problem, as might the United Nations' recently announced financial contribution.

"But competition within the Iranian counternarcotics community could hinder success. A deputy national police chief, Colonel Seyyed Hassan Batouli, said recently that 13 organizations are involved in the drug fight, Mardom Salari reported on October 5. The state prosecutor-general, Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, noted that each province is conducting its own campaign, Hemayat" reported on October 2. 

"Resolving those bureaucratic issues could be as important as any funding from the United Nations. But it is unclear whether UNODC chief Costa addressed these problems during his recent trip to Iran."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Street Theater Politics

Executive transitions might be a valuable topic for a comparative study. Russia and Nigeria are scheduled to have new presidents soon. The UK is watching the final acts of Tony Blair's government. And Mexico has a crisis of unknown proportions.

James C. McKinley, Jr., wrote in the New York Times, "It remained to be seen if Monday’s political theater was a graceful exit for a candidate who could never acknowledge defeat, or truly the start of a unified left-wing movement to challenge the oligarchy of politicians and business executives who have controlled the country for a century." He added, "Forming a shadow government is astute politically, some analysts said, because it could keep Mr. López Obrador in the public eye during Mr. Calderón’s six-year term..."

Hector Tobar, in the San Jose Mercury News (and most observers), were less sanguine about Obrador's prospects.

Leftist declares himself president -- continued protests could destabiize Mexico's government

"Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist candidate who claims to have been cheated out of victory in July's presidential election, took an 'oath of office' Monday as the 'legitimate president' of Mexico in an elaborate ritual his many detractors ridiculed as a farce.

"The ceremony in this capital city came less than two weeks before the inauguration of the man who won the election, conservative Felipe Calderón. As many as 100,000 people attended Monday's event, in which López Obrador, the 52-year-old former mayor of Mexico City, also swore in a six-man, six-woman shadow cabinet...

"'He is not doing this to make sure that Calderon governs in the name of the poor; he's trying to make sure that Calderon can't govern at all,'' said Denise Dresser, a political analyst, of López Obrador's decision to create a parallel government. 'He is leading many Mexicans to believe that change in this country cannot occur through peaceful means.'...

"The newspaper Reforma published a poll that found two in three Mexicans believe López Obrador has 'little or no' credibility. But one in five respondents felt he was right to proclaim himself president...

"Much of the Mexican media, and many political observers, lambasted the inauguration as a 'caricature' and the desperate act of an egomaniac..."

Monday, November 20, 2006

A "Picture" of Lagos

The November 13 issue of the New Yorker included George Packer's article on Lagos,The Megacity. It offers images of life in Lagos and Packer's reaction to to it.

The article is not online, so ask your favorite librarian to find you a copy.

Packer's profiles of people in Lagos might offer teachers illustrative examples to use in teaching about Nigeria. Here are a couple quotations I think have the most relevance for studying government politics.

There's too much to excerpt here, but I have posted more than a dozen more quotes from the article at the Teaching Comparative Government and Politics online discussion site. For teacher background, this is a great article and I think you ought to find a copy to read.

Packer writes that, the Nigeria's capital will, in a few years, rank as the third-largest city in the world, behind Tokyo and Bombay, with 23 million inhabitants. Right now it’s the sixth largest and has 15 million residents..."where only 0.4 per cent of the inhabitants have a toilet connected to a sewer system." (It sounds like early Industrial Revolution London.)
  • "Begging is rare. In many African cities, there is an oppressive atmosphere of people lying about in the middle of the day, of idleness sinking into despair. In Lagos, everyone is a striver."

  • "Florian Gbadebo-Smith, the chairman of a district on Lagos Island [described] a distored picture [of Lagos] that flows back to the village. 'Come Christmas, everybody in Lagos -- the successful and the unsuccessful -- packs their bags and goes off to the rural areas to show off what they have achieved... Some achievements are real, for some it's just a mirage, but everybody's there showing off. So the young people in the villages very quickly come to the conclusion that 'Hey, I've got to go to Lagos, make enough to be able to come back here, and to show off.' In this way, the West African countryside is being rapidly depopulated."

    Lagos traffic is in a perpetual "go slow."

  • "Gbadebo-Smith [said] with forboding, 'We have a massive growth in population with a stagnant or shrinking economy... We're sitting on a powder keg here... If we don't address this question of economic growth... there is no doubt as to what's going to happen here eventually. it's just going to boil over.'"

  • "Adegoke Taylor, a skinny, solemn, thirty-two-year-old itinerant trader... kept trying various small-business plans, none of which had worked out, for a simple reason. 'There's no capital to start,' he said. For this, he blamed the Nigerian government. 'Most of the people who lead us embezzle instead of using that money to create factories,' he said."

  • "With [the] structural adjustments [in the mid-1980s], civil service jobs, the mainstay of the middle class... disappeared; meanwhile privatization often occurred at fire-sale prices, with the profits benefitting politicians or soldiers and their cronies." [Does that remind you of Russia in the mid-1990s?]

Sunday, November 19, 2006

An integrated state

Russia signed a new trade treaty with the U.S. and is about to join the WTO. Those successes for the Russian government focus more attention on the connections between the economy and the government.

Government control of companies and industries is growing. Combined with changes to election laws, it seems that the power elite in Russia are settling in for the long term and for broad control. No longer are Russian oligarchs free agents in the unrestrained markets of Russian capitalism. How does this compare with the integration of the state in China or Iran?

People like Berezovsky prospered because they stayed out of politics and then got out of Russia. People like Khodorkovsky ended up in jail because they began to get involved in politics. People like Putin seem likely to end up prosperous and in charge of a powerful state because they found the right combination of police, political, and economic power.

Peter Finn's report in the Washington Post outlines a case study of government takeover and asserts that the government is using its controlled businesses to achieve political goals.

Kremlin Inc. Widening Control Over Industry

"In industries such as energy, aviation, engineering, mining and car manufacturing, private companies that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union are being brought back under state control or consolidated in the hands of businessmen loyal to the authorities. Government ministers and Kremlin insiders now sit on the boards of the country's largest companies...

"The Kremlin defends the swelling economic role of the state as an essential element in the creation of powerful companies that can compete in the global economy. The takeovers are also officially called a necessary reversal of dubious privatizations in the 1990s that deprived the state of income and strategic assets crucial to Russia's security...

"Sergei Markov, a political analyst and Kremlin consultant, wrote in a recent article. 'Vladimir Putin's policy is becoming increasingly clear -- to promote the creation of a pool of major Russian companies that could become global players. That would enable Russia to preserve the independence of its economy and, amid free competition, to save the choicest morsels of the Russian economy from being acquired by foreign multinational corporations.'

"Others are deeply skeptical. 'We should differentiate between state capitalism and bureaucratic capitalism; here we have bureaucratic capitalism, groups of state bureaucrats taking control of companies,' said Nikita Belykh, leader of the small Union of Right Forces party. 'The attempts of the state to get control of various companies can be explained by the desire of officials to redistribute property. And the lack of transparency in these deals is scary and dangerous.'...

"The marriage of politics and business has led to charges that companies such as Gazprom have wielded their power to punish countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, which had drifted from Russia's orbit...

"'The state wants reliable people to head these corporations, loyal, patriotic people who will be very different from owners of the 1990s and act for the national interest as the Kremlin defines it,' said [Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior analyst at the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow]. 'And that coincides with the concrete interests of individuals around Putin who strengthen their own economic position as property is redistributed.'"

Saturday, November 18, 2006

First cricket, now golf

People who comment on and try to explain politics often use sports analogies. That includes academics and teachers. Yesterday, I used an article about cricket to make a point about the difficulty of understanding things (like government and politics) outside of our own frames of reference.

Today, I noticed an article about golf that could become a teaching tool. When the first Chinese golf course was built back in '84, I used it as an example of how much things had changed there after the death of Mao Zedong in '76. I also reported to my students in 1990, when there were reports that the disgraced leader Zhao Ziyang was seen golfing near Beijing. I was trying to point out that being out of power in the '90s was very different from being out of power during the Cultural Revolution.

Today's article, from Asian Times Online, offers the opportunity to discuss several of the major policy decisions facing the decision-makers in China today. If this excerpt looks promising, ask your students to
  • read the whole thing
  • identify the policy issues discussed or implied
  • suggest where in the Chinese state decisions about those issues are likely to be made and
  • hypothesize about what policies are likely to be made

China's poor take a swing at golf

"Playing golf has become a symbol of the newly rich and elite in China and as such it has also become a target of public anger and criticism amid a widening wealth gap in the nation.

"In the name of educating the social elite, many prestigious universities are beginning to make golf an essential course for students in certain majors and are even building golf courses on their campuses for training purposes. But in the face of fierce public criticism, some institutions, such as elite Peking University, have had to scrap their golf plans...

"Critics say the universities should devote their scarce resources to education for the needy, instead of on a luxury sport for the rich.

"Golf may no longer be regarded as a sport that is exclusively for the rich in the West, but it certainly still is in China. All but two of the country's 300 golf courses are luxury country clubs that provide services including dining, hotels and caddies.

"At the Shanghai Sheshan Golf Club... a membership costs 1.45 million yuan (US$181,250), about 10 years' salary for an IT professional, or about 100 years' income for a migrant worker...

"Despite the skyrocketing membership prices, golf has become trendy among the country's rich...

"New golf courses have been popping up everywhere in recent years, prompting the central government to impose a moratorium on golf-course construction in 2004 to protect the country's scarce land resources. The order, however, has not been taken seriously by regional governments trying to boost their local economies...

"Despite the controversy, golf is becoming increasingly popular among college students, who either regard it as a new, healthy sport or an entrance ticket to the business world where deals are often clinched on golf courses...

"With only 1.4 mu [0.25 acre] of farmland per capita, the Chinese government also worries that golf courses will take away too much land and water resources, with a standard golf course occupying 40 to 50 hectares of land, and using 3,000 cubic meters of water every day..."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Do you understand me now?

Just when I think I understand the English language and the way things work in general, an article like the one that follows comes along. What would your students make of this? Could you use this in a lesson about frame of reference, perspective, and cross cultural understanding?

Pakistan triumph despite Lara ton

[Can you make sense of that headline?]

"Brian Lara's 33rd Test century was not enough to prevent Pakistan strolling to a nine-wicket victory over West Indies on the fourth day in Lahore...

"Lara was at the crease on 28 when the day started, and added 137 with Shivnarine Chanderpaul for the fifth wicket.

"He was dropped in the gully by Hafeez on 48, with Umar Gul [below] the unlucky bowler, and he made Pakistan pay by reaching three figures off 180 balls, with 16 boundaries...

"Dwayne Bravo managed only two before he went leg-before to Gul, the pace bowler's eighth victim of the match, and leg-spinner Danish Kaneria then dismissed Denesh Ramdin for a single.

"Chanderpaul, who should have been stumped off Kaneria on 56, finally fell for 81 to leave West Indies on 278-8, still one run behind.

"A brave 15 from Dave Mohammed and eight from Jerome Taylor could only delay the inevitable as Pakistan paceman Umar Gul took 4-99 off 29 overs and Shahid Nazir ended with 3-63 off 20 overs."

Okay, it's cricket. And that game makes no sense to anyone except those who live in countries that were British colonies after the mid-19th century. (Says I, in an attempt at humor by exaggeration.) Much of the article is gibberish to me and most Americans.

I once had a personable Brit try to explain cricket to me on a bus ride from London to Salisbury and back. Even after the trip, I understood Stonehenge better than cricket.

Alert! American football is as bizarre and incomprehensible to most Pakistanis (and the rest of the world) as cricket is to us. The language we use to describe the game (and some of our politics) is gibberish outside our country. Even many Canadians don't understand American football. Imagine being as confused about American football as you were by the description of the test match between Pakistan and the West Indies above. Really imagine it. It's an important realization.

And, be aware that other bits and pieces of culture -- like, for instance, government and politics -- are as exotic to outsiders as sports. Many people in the world are curious about why George Bush is still president of the U.S. after last week's elections. They are familiar with parliamentary systems.

Did you think that Ahmadinejad's most recent statement was nonsense? Perhaps it makes perfect sense to many (most) Iranians in the context of Iranian politics. Similarly, Putin's consolidation of power in Russia might not have the meaning in the Russian context that Americans or political scientists attribute to it.

Successfully studying comparative government and politics requires that we try to understand all those perspectives. And that we try to understand what looks like gibberish as people describe and explain their own political systems.

And remember, if we don't speak Russian, Chinese, Farsi, Mexican Spanish, or English, things will be in translation, meaning we're another step removed from them.

Once we're cognizant of all that, then we try to apply academic analysis to the cases we study. We do try to be objective and logical. We are outsiders looking into alien worlds; often reading and hearing words translated from another language. We have to be sure we don't assume we're witnessing a free pass to first base when we see a batsman go LBW (leg before wicket) and get hit by a ball. We might be outraged that the batsman is out. And that won't help our understanding at all.

In this context, consider the creation of an English version of the Arabic television news channel al-Jazeera. (Al-Jazeera English hits airwaves, BBC, 15 November 2006)

Are there reasons to see a presentation of the news from a perspective different from our own? What makes a source legitimate even if its perspective differs from ours? What might deprive it of legitimacy? Can al-Jazeera earn legitimacy as a news source even if its editorial policies differ from those in Western newsrooms? Will al-Jazeera report on cricket?

I came across another cricket example, if you need one: The BBC reported recently that "A pair of Indian schoolboys have driven their way into the record books by scoring 721 runs for the opening wicket in a limited-overs match."

The report included these details, which might as well be in Hindi when it comes to my understanding of the report,
  • "Shaibaz scored 324 runs - with 57 boundaries - off 116 balls.
  • "His partner and close friend Manoj scored an equally scintillating 320 runs - with 46 boundaries - off 127 balls.
  • "A whopping 77 extras meant that the total from their partnership went up to 721 runs for no wicket.
  • "Interestingly not a single six was hit during the trail blazing innings."

Do you understand it now?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Business, Economics, and Public Policy

The article excerpted below caught my eye even though it's not specifically about government or politics. It's certainly relevant to comparative politics, since no matter what country you're studying, the economy and economic policy making are vital parts of the state and government (and often a regime).

This article begins an exploration of the connections between government, politics, and economics that could become a comparative study for your students.

If they begin with the current economic conditions and government policies, the comparisons between the countries under consideration should be fairly easy to do.

Economic statistics (like those in the CIA World Factbook) from the various countries about growth, distribution of wealth and income, balance of trade, and economic aid should help students to make some hypotheses about the results of the wide variety of policies formulated in the countries under consideration.

The BBC web site says this is the beginning of a series of articles looking at business in Africa. Be on the lookout for what comes next.

Challenges facing Africa's entrepreneurs

"Africa is often seen as a high-risk place to do business, but the continent is increasingly becoming a hospitable destination for investors.

"Africa's wars, coups and famines are constantly in the news - the image of starving children is what often comes to mind every time the continent is mentioned.

"But what about the men and women who are starting businesses, and risking their own money to build Africa's economies?

"Despite all the obstacles, growth rates across much of Africa are rising and there are successful ventures to be found everywhere from Mogadishu to Dakar.

"It is one of those seldom told stories - the success now being notched up by men and women doing business across Africa.

"The results are not hard to see. Economic growth has been running at a very respectable 4% in at least 15 African countries for the last decade...

"The absence of a strong business class at independence for many countries in the 1960s was a major inhibition to growth...

"It meant that fighting to control the levers of politics became a key way of winning economic advantage.

"And the results are plain to see. Doing business in Africa is still hard work, as a recent World Bank study indicated.

"It showed that out of the 35 least business-friendly countries in the world, 27 were in sub-Saharan Africa...

"As if that isn't bad enough, roads are bad, electricity unreliable and skilled labour in short supply..."

One example of new business in Africa, is the Lagos shopping center, The Palms. The web site has some good pictures of the development and background information on the developers.

According to a Minnesota blogger (The Scoop on The Palms, the First Mega Shopping Mall in Nigeria), President Obasanjo and the King of Lagos attended the opening of The Palms.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Background on rural China

A scholar and journalist who has worked in China for more than 20 years has reviewed an important book about Chinese peasants and government policy toward the farmers. on the Danwei web site.

I haven't read it, but it sounds like a good primer on rural China for teachers and a good source for student research. Maybe the school library should have a copy. It's available at Amazon.com for $16.50.

Will the Boat Sink the Water? a review by Göran Leijonhufvud

"It caused a stir when it appeared in 2003 and it is still dynamite. The profoundly revealing Life of Chinese Peasants (Zhongguo nongmin diaocha) had party bureaucrats at all levels running for cover...

"The book is now out in English under the title Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China's Peasants (PublicAffairs, London 2006)... Although some conditions have improved for the farmers, notably the lessening of their tax burden, the basic problems are still there. Impoverished peasants are treated like dirt by township and county cadres, and often even by their own village cadres.

"Yet, in the bigger scheme of things, it is the peasants that support industrialization, urban construction and the much talked about rising middle class. The peasants are supporting urban and industrial expansion not only by the added value created by their agricultural work, but also by being the actual workers in all construction projects. At the same time they are systematically discriminated against by the household registration system, and largely kept from enjoying the fruits of China's stunning growth. The authors use the expression One country, two 'nations' to describe the institutionalized disparity between the urban and rural population.

"[The authors] Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao are both from the countryside. They investigated conditions in 50 villages in Anhui province, one of China's poorest...

"Since the book was first published, the Chinese government has cancelled the agricultural tax. This is a remarkable departure from a 2,500 years old practice... Furthermore, township and village cadres are forbidden to charge other fees. This time, the policy seems to be more strictly implemented than earlier such central directives...

"[C]onflicts with peasants these days instead typically revolve around illegal land seizures and blatantly insufficent compensation when land is occupied for anything from necessary road projects to luxury villa developments or golf courses. Another reason for forceful farmer protests has been toxic emissions threatening not only their crops but also their very lives...

"The English title Will the Boat Sink the Water? is a play on a few words of warning from the Taizong Emperor of the Tang Dynasty more than one thousand years ago: 'Water holds up the boat; water can also sink the boat.' Water refers to the peasants holding up emperors and officials in the boat. The Tang Dynasty emperor never imagined that the boat could actually sink the water.

"Publisher's Weekly says, in part, 'What's most surprising about this exposé of the Chinese government's brutal treatment of the peasantry is not that it was banned in China, but that it got past the censors in the first place. The authors—a husband and wife team who have received major awards—recount how, in the poor province of Anhui, greedy local officials impose illegal taxes on the already impoverished peasantry and cover their tracks through double-bookkeeping...'"

Finally, the Queen spoke

The BBC reported on the Queen's Speech at today's State Opening in Westminster.

Blair plans final security blitz

"Plans to combat terrorism, crime and anti-social behaviour will dominate Tony Blair's final months in office.

"Tackling climate change and reforming pensions will also be key parts of the government's programme of 29 bills for the coming Parliamentary session.

"There will also be moves to strengthen border controls, prevent illegal working and push ahead with ID cards...

"Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said this Queen's Speech was 'remarkably similar to those which have gone before' and included too much legislation.

"'This is a prime minister trying to legislate his way into history,' added Sir Menzies.

"Later on Wednesday Conservative leader David Cameron, who warned against a watered down Climate Change Bill, and Sir Menzies, will give their reaction to the package to MPs in the House of Commons."

Full text of Queen's Speech

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Legitimacy and Civil Society

Here's a different take on Iranian government and politics.

Legitimacy and civil society are key concepts in the essay quoted below by Mehdi Khalaji [at right], a Shiite theologian trained in Qom and at the Sorbonne, who is the author of The Last Marja: Sistani and the End of Traditional Religious Authority in Shiism and is currently a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It was published on the Project Syndicate web site.

Can your students explain the argument Khalaji is making about the capture of the religious elements of Iran's civil society and subsequent loss of legitimacy by the government? I think you ought to ask them a concept-based, FRQ-type question or two based on this opinion piece.

Another understanding that this article might help students see is the revolutionary nature of Khomeini's "guardianship" ideas. The most senior clerics in Iran still don't accept that and refrain from participating in government or politics. The "political clerics" are younger and less educated and perhaps more secular than their elders.

(See Towards an Understanding of the Shiite Authoritative Sources by Dr. Mohamed Al-Saeed Abdul Mo'men and Fataawaa of Muslim Scholars on Khomeini by Wageih al-Madani.)

Iran’s Political Clerics

"Iran’s theocratic regime appears more confident than ever... But... the regime’s authority is in fact built on insecure foundations.

"The 1979 revolution, which ended Iran’s monarchical tradition, created a new political order based on Shiite theological foundations and giving absolute ruling power to a Shiite jurist/cleric. Throughout Iran’s long history, Shiite seminaries exercised great influence on Iranian society and politics, but they had been considered civil institutions. It was not until the Iranian revolution that the seminary establishment came to be considered a source of political legitimacy.

"The change followed Ayatollah Khomeini’s theory of the 'jurist-ruler.' In Khomeini’s view, the jurist-ruler could modify religious laws, depending on his interpretation of the needs of the regime. As a result, religious interpretation – previously, a highly decentralized function undertaken by various seminaries – was concentrated in the hands of a political leader. Accordingly, the seminary establishment was no longer a civil structure managing only religious affairs, but instead developed into a unified, ideological party serving the interests of the regime.

"That transformation was far-reaching. Traditionally, Shiite seminaries were rather unorganized, unstructured places, based on pre-modern styles of management. The concept of a decentralized religious establishment is difficult for Westerners to understand, given the highly structured administrative framework of Christian churches and ecclesiastical orders. But this fluid hierarchy, an absence of written rules and organizational order, allowed the various seminaries – and their different interpretive traditions – to survive despotic political regimes and resist intervention by different dynasties and monarchies...

"By 'modernizing' the seminaries following a single-party model, the revolutionaries gained control over them. The seminaries became little more than an extension of the political system.

"The death of Ayatollah Khomeini – and that of other religious authorities ( marjas ) like Ayatollah Abul Qassem Khoi in Najaf, Iraq – marked the end of the ideal of a ruler who had mastered both religion and politics. Iran’s current supreme ruler, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, whose religious degree was a focus of suspicion in the seminary and among the clerical elite, was not considered a jurist by merit. Consequently, Khamenei’s evident lack of religious legitimacy has pushed the government to assume full control over the clerical establishment, further depriving the seminaries of their historical independence.

"Ironically, it seems that theocratic theory in Iran has led to anti-theocracy. With the seminaries politicized and their independence greatly reduced, the religious establishment is no longer in a position to confer political legitimacy on the regime. Nor can it exercise its traditional functions in the religious sphere to provide support to civil society in the country..."

Queen's Speech on C-SPAN

C-SPAN has corrected its schedule.

The State Opening, including the Queen's Speech, will be broadcast Wednesday (15 November) live at 5:30 AM, Eastern Standard Time on C-SPAN (not on C-SPAN2 as originally listed).

The schedule says the broadcast will last about 90 minutes, but "The beginning and end of this live program may be earlier or later than the scheduled times."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Possible - Probable - Misinformation

The C-SPAN2 schedule lists the State Opening ceremonies, including the Queen's Speech, for broadcast at 5:30AM Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday, 14 November.

Parliament's web site still says, "The State Opening of Parliament for the 2006-07 Session will take place on Wednesday 15 November 2006."

I know there's a time difference between London and New York, but this is incredible. (It reminds me of Alan Moore's 6-word short story: "machine. Incredibly I'd invented a time")

I suspect that C-SPAN has jumped the gun to gather all the audience before Fox News steals it (or something).

Check the schedule again later to be sure. I'd plan on recording this beginning about 5:30AM on Wednesday morning. It ought to last about two hours.

Queen's Speech on Wednesday

The Queen's Speech, which marks the opening of a new session of Parliament in London. This year the speech is on 15 November.

In the past C-SPAN has carried the BBC broadcast of the ceremonies and the speech live (VERY early morning of the 15th) and then repeated it later in the day. I can't find the times on the C-SPAN schedule yet, but you can check at The C-SPAN web site.   Find the time, set your TIVO or DVD or VHS recorder and capture this.

I find the ceremony colourful and fascinating (and slow and tedious) and a great "picture" of one bit of British political culture. (Can you imagine the House of Representatives going through a ritual charade of refusing to open the doors to the President for his State of the Union speech until his "man in waiting" asked three times for the doors to be opened?)

The speech is a shopping list of items the government intends to pursue in the upcoming session of Parliament, and, given the nature of the parliamentary system, a list of things that will get done. The transcript is usually available very shortly after the speech on the BBC News or the PM's web site.

The transcript of last year's Queen's Speech is online at the PM's web site

A BBC article What is the Queen's Speech? is online at the BBC web site.

Parliament's web site has an article on the State Opening.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dogs and civil society in China

I really depend on other people's perspectives. As much as I try, I can't overcome the limitations of my own frame of reference.

Thanks for the second day in a row to Michael Harvey. He mentioned that he was going to use China's new one-dog policy and the protests that have followed as a case study of the formation of civil society.

That is a fantastic idea.

And it wouldn't have occurred to me. I had seen the headlines about the policy and the protests, but I had ignored the details, unable to see the implications for Chinese political culture. Michael saw those implications and thankfully taught me about them.

The Australian reported on the protests on Monday, 13 November.

Dog lovers arrested in rare Beijing protest

"IN an echo of the days when Chairman Mao denounced his foes as 'running dogs', hundreds of angry pet owners confronted the police in Beijing at the weekend to protest the regime's new 'one-dog policy'.

"Eighteen people were arrested in noisy scuffles as about 500 dog owners gathered in a rare unauthorised demonstration near Beijing Zoo...

"In cities all over China, dog lovers have been outraged as police have swept through districts killing unlicensed dogs and confiscating others...

"Most pets vanished during the cultural revolution, but there are now 550,000 registered dog owners in Beijing."

Even in this short report, there are real hints about the beginnings of an independent civil society: "hundreds of angry pet owners" "in cities all over China" "550,000 registered dog owners in Beijing"

If you find earlier news reports about the origins of the policy (like
China issues 'one dog' policy in Beijing
from the Boston Globe) and more complete reports about the protests, you, too, can use this case to illustrate the concept of civil society.

Then, use examples from other places to do a comparative study. How, for instance, do these spontaneous expressions of public opinion compare with the protests in Oaxaca? or the ultra-nationalists' protests in Moscow? or the kidnappings in Nigeria's delta oil fields?

Oh, and if you can teach me something, please do so. Send me ideas and questions. Use the comments link at the bottom of each of these blog entries.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Grassroots Politics in China

Thankfully, Michael Harvey, who teaches in Abu Dhabi. reads the Boston Globe. That's one of the news sources I don't usually get to, yet there are valuable articles that appear there. The story excerpted below is one of those valuable ones.

You could use it to discuss the emergence of civil society and independent political activity in China.

(Note that the activists described here would find themselves in re-education prisons very quickly if they were associated with an organized group. As long as they appear to be independent actors, they will "merely" be harassed and occasionally jailed. A Sun Yat-sen university professor is quoted in the article as saying that independents "are considered by local governments as being connected to subversion, manipulated by foreign forces or driven by ulterior motives...")

This article could also be a superb introduction to a comparative case study. Ask students to compare the candidate selection process in China with the one in Iran. They would have to do some research and they'd have to deal with the standards for a comparative case study, but those things are all wonderful opportunities. (See chapters 1 and 2 of Timothy C. Lim's book Doing Comparative Politics for guidelines on doing a study like this. You can also find Dr. Lim's PowerPoint presentations associated with those chapters online.)

Here are some excerpts from Audra Ang's Associated Press article from 10 November:

Activists challenge communism in China

"Cai Aimin says he was busily handing out homemade leaflets on the streets, campaigning for a seat in his city's legislature, when police officers swooped in and dragged him into an unmarked car. The platform outlined in his handbills called for exposing corrupt officials and protecting citizens from seizures of their property. The police, he said, did not agree...

"In the midst of an election season for local congresses, a tug-of-war is under way across China between social activists demanding a say in local politics and a communist leadership determined to maintain strict limits on the low-level democracy it has promoted for some years.

"The government allows direct elections of the largely powerless district legislatures and seems to be holding the upper hand over candidates it doesn't like...

"'I want to see freedom and democracy,' Wen Yan [a campaigner against soaring property prices in the southern city of Shenzhen] said in a telephone interview. 'But I was harassed by people from the community where I was living. They followed me and took back the leaflets and T-shirts I had distributed.'

"Despite the setbacks, the elections underscore a slow shift in China as people, given greater mobility and prosperity by free-market reforms, are challenging the Communist Party's political monopoly.

"The party has the power to harass candidates off the ballots, 'but the more significant point here is that it has to do this at all,' Bruce Gilley, a China politics expert at Canada's Queens University, said in an e-mail...

"The Communist Party dominates the congresses, controlling the credentials committees that vet candidates while trumpeting the system in state media as Chinese-style democracy. More than 2 million deputies are being elected to local People's Congresses over an 18-month period lasting until Dec. 31, 2007, according to the official Xinhua News Agency..."

Friday, November 10, 2006

Iran's Mundane Politics

For the past few days Americans have been preoccupied with the mid-term elections. When thinking about Iran, Americans probably think about its nuclear development program. But, within the context of comparative politics, it's important to understand how governing is done and how policy is made.

Bill Samli's summary of reports from Iran about personnel and policy changes within the government there offer glimpses of the structure of the government and the politics going on there. Students ought to be able to apply these observations to what they read in their textbooks and get a clearer idea of the regime there. This article appeared on the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty web site.

Iran: Government Shakeup Hits Many Levels

"Iran's executive branch is undergoing a major shakeup in what could be an effort by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration to realign its economic policy. The president has replaced two cabinet ministers, others are facing parliamentary scrutiny, and a score of top officials have quit. But the tremors could also reflect officials' dissatisfaction with policy or presidential frustration over unmet goals.

"Iranian lawmakers gave a vote of confidence to Ahmadinejad's choice to be the new cooperatives minister on November 5. Mohammad Abbasi [at right], a legislator from Gorgan, is a former university chancellor (of a branch of the Islamic Azad University) and deputy governor-general for planning affairs in the northern Mazandaran Province. He holds a doctorate in strategic management, a degree often given to military personnel...
"The same day that Abbasi was introduced to the legislature, October 29, lawmakers approved Abdul Reza Mesri as the new minister of welfare and social security...

"It appears that the presidential administration's grappling with difficult economic issues will continue to cause turmoil in the state apparatus -- particularly if the populist president persists in efforts to fulfill his campaign promises...
"At the top tier of government, the appointments... are only the most conspicuous changes. 
"Aftab news agency quoted an anonymous source on September 26 as saying the president has reviewed the one-year performance of each cabinet member... [and] reported that [two] ministers facing dismissal have reformist tendencies or have failed to fulfill their promises to the president.
"Other personnel changes have taken place below the cabinet level. About 20 mid-level officials, including deputy ministers, have either been forced to resign or have been dismissed... These changes mostly affect the economy.
"The president is not the only one who is unhappy with cabinet members' efforts...
"When Iranian media reported in mid-September that assessments of the ministers' performance had been prepared, legislator Said Abutaleb argued that those 'evaluations must certainly lead to some changes in the cabinet,' Mardom Salari reported on September 16...
"Meanwhile, in early October, more than 50 legislators signed a petition for the interpellation of Agriculture Jihad Minister Mohammad Reza Eskandari.
"One legislator, Dariush Qanbari, charged that Iranian 'agriculture is on the verge of collapse,' Mehr News Agency reported on October 9. He said 'farmers' crops [were] piling up in storehouses' while the country imports fruit from Pakistan. Qanbari also questioned the announcement of self-sufficiency in wheat production when 'at the same time we are importing 2 million tons of wheat every year.' He described the Agriculture Jihad Ministry as the most inefficient and uncooperative of ministries.
"But fundamentalist legislators blocked the interpellation motion...
"Governmental obscurity and a censored media ensure that it will be some time before the real reasons for the ministerial resignations and dismissals emerge. But it appears that the presidential administration's grappling with difficult economic issues will continue to cause turmoil in the state apparatus -- particularly if the populist president persists in efforts to fulfill his campaign promises..."

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Wikipedia as a source and a tool

John Smith from Los Angeles asked, "I wanted to get your opinion on Wikipedia. I have read reports written by students quoting this source that has vague or incorrect infomation. I read a report in my union magazine that warned of using this source for the same reason. You seem to endorse the site. Your thoughts??"

Here's a slightly revised version of my answer. I had to organize the thoughts I'd accumulated over the past couple years of watching wiki projects, writing articles for a couple, and reading other people's comments.

I have ambivalent feelings about Wikipedia. I'd never trust it for something important or cite it as a source in formal research. I'd never accept an unsubstantiated Wikipedia reference from a student. As a source, I think it has to be treated like a highly partisan one, since no one really knows who the authors or editors are.

I contributed some articles to Wikipedia a couple years ago, but quit when several partisans -- including one of the self-appointed editors -- insisted on using biased labels for historical events and fell back on arcane Wikipedia rules to support their bigotry. It was the prejudice of a few at work, not the wisdom of the collective. That might reflect popular opinion, but neither good history nor good human relations.

I do use Wikipedia for quick fact checks - dates and names, for instance, since errors in those easily verifiable things are likely to be correct or quickly corrected. (I just hope the errors have been corrected when I look something up. I really have no guarantee of that.) I am less likely to seek verification for information about chemistry, gravity, or demographics than about social science, religious, or political topics.

From what I've seen on Wikipedia, lots of data are copied by editors from the U. S. Census Bureau and other public sources like the CIA World Factbook. If students were to use that data for a paper, I'd want them to verify that the Wikipedia editors copied the numbers correctly. Then again, the U.S. Census Bureau data and the CIA World Factbook are online. An original source is preferred to a secondary one, so why would a student want to cite a secondary source when a primary one is equally available? (Wikipedia footnotes can be quick references to the original sources.)

In other words, as a source, Wikipedia has limited value and great limitations, but the ratio varies depending upon the context of the topic in question. Other sources, especially those vetted by librarians or other experts (disdained by Wiki enthusiasts) are more likely to be reliable.

I think the situation offers great teaching opportunities to get students to critically use sources.

You could assign students a variety of topics to look up in Wikipedia and then ask them to evaluate the value of the information there. That, of course, involves fact checking and verification.

It's like the lesson I wrote several years ago when I asked students to look at the web site for New Hartford, Minnesota and compare it to another small town web site, like perhaps New Ulm, Minnesota. Then I asked them to determine which town was real and which one was imaginary and how they could tell the difference. (New Hartford, like Lake Wobegon is imaginary.)

Then there's the topic of "wiki" software, like that used for the Wikiversity. It's a different topic.

The software allows the creation of a web site that anyone permitted by the site "owners" can add to or edit. I'd guess any school district server could host it, and the software is free.

The wiki software can record who does the adding and editing and if the rules require people to identify themselves relevantly, everyone can know who does what.

I think that would be superb as a class web site for summary, review, and collaborative study. I would prefer to limit participation to class members and maybe guest experts I'd invite (like a local professor, a textbook author, or another teacher). The web site would be responsive to students' perceptions and needs. Misunderstandings and gaps in knowledge would show up and could be addressed. By the end of the course, there could be a great outline and review guide. (Don Myers in Bellevue, WA is working on creating one of these for his classes. If you have advice for him, I'll pass it along.)

However, as wiki critics have pointed out, subtlety and ambiguity often get lost in the wiki writing process. I'd want to make efforts to see that considerations of context, "what if" questions, and complexity remained present in a course wiki. (After all, not all questions can be multiple-choice.)

Such a class wiki would be a valuable thing to have online if you taught a class first semester and then wanted to review for the AP exam in May.

That's my limited endorsement. Like book and movie reviews, someone could edit this and produce a tag line that looked like a rave or a pan, but it's neither and both.

The New York Times' Technology Section Q & A column by J. D. Biersdorfer offered these hints if you're interested in setting up a "wiki" for your course:

"Many people and business groups are finding wikis helpful for collaboration and project management. Like a blog or other kinds of Web sites, there are two main ways to start a wiki: You can use a software-and-hosting service on the Web, or you can set up the necessary software on your own Web server.

"Sites that let you set up your own wiki free include Wikispaces and Wiki.com. These sites, like the ones that offer to guide you through the process of setting up your own blog, can be helpful for beginners.

"But if you already have your own Web site or server, you can install free Wiki software like Twiki or MediaWiki to get your wiki running."

See also

DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism By Jaron Lanier

"My Wikipedia entry identifies me (at least this week) as a film director. It is true I made one experimental short film about a decade and a half ago. The concept was awful... It was shown once at a film festival and was never distributed and I would be most comfortable if no one ever sees it again.

"In the real world it is easy to not direct films. I have attempted to retire from directing films in the alternative universe that is the Wikipedia a number of times, but somebody always overrules me. Every time my Wikipedia entry is corrected, within a day I'm turned into a film director again. I can think of no more suitable punishment than making these determined Wikipedia goblins actually watch my one small old movie...

"The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots..."


The Free Range Librarian on Wikipedia

"Librarians are very open to all kinds of information, but when librarians recommend books, databases, websites, or other resources to patrons who are looking for specific information, we look for information we can trust...

"However, when gatekeeper is used as an epithet, as in "you anti-Wikipedian gatekeeper, you," it doesn't mean someone who is tending, but someone who actively prevents people from accessing information. So I'm prepared for that label when... I bring up my concerns about about Wikipedia...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What are the prerequisites for democracy?

What are the prerequisites for democracy?

It's an important comparative question to ask. The UK might be the exemplar, but if the features of Britain's history, political culture, and governmental structure are required for successful democratic government, then democracy will be limited to a very few states.

Dominique Moisi, a founder and Senior Advisor at Ifri (French Institute for International Relations), who is currently a Professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw, expresses fears that Russia is not moving closer to a democratic regime. Moisi raises questions that should provoke good discussion or analysis by students of comparative politics.

This opinion piece appeared at the web site of Project Syndicate, an international association of newspapers.

From People Power to Putin Power
by Dominique Moisi

"As I attended a small but dignified memorial ceremony in Paris last week in honor of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya... I was reminded of... [the] hope that Russia was on its way to becoming a 'normal country.'

"What the small crowd of intellectuals gathered in Paris was mourning was... the collective dream... for a Russia where freedom and the rule of law would... take root and bloom...

"What we are witnessing today is a totally different story...

"Whatever the enormous differences that may separate them, post-communist Russia and fundamentalist Iran have much in common. Energy wealth gives them a sense of unique opportunity, the conviction that time is playing in their favor, and that they can now redress the humiliations they have suffered from the outside world...

"As long as the oil money keeps flowing, most Russians will express no nostalgia for the democratic opening of the Yeltsin years, with its accompanying combination of chaos, corruption, international weakness, and disrespect for the state.

"Are Russians so different from us in the western democratic world, or is democracy a luxury that only old, stable, prosperous, and satisfied societies can afford? In their quest for post-Soviet stability, Russians seem to have found reassurance in Putin. He does not match Peter the Great in physical stature, but he has proven to be a gifted politician, capable of grasping, then controlling, the mood of the Russian people.

"For a majority of Russian citizens, economic prosperity and televised entertainment have become the modern equivalent of the panem et circenses formula of Roman times...

"Russia is rich, but Russians, at least most of them, remain poor, with a life expectancy that is closer to Africa than to Western Europe. Eventually, they will have to recognize that modern nations cannot live by power alone."

And at the fringes of Russia's political culture:
Russian marchers defy Moscow ban

"Ultra-nationalists and far-right demonstrators have rallied in the Russian capital, Moscow, defying a ban on their march by the city's mayor.

"Fewer than 2,000 protesters turned up - lower than expected."


Russians Recreate Legendary 1941 Parade

"Russian veterans, soldiers, and others on Tuesday recreated the legendary Red Square parade of 1941 in a simultaneous homage to Russia's World War II effort and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution...

"Parade participants on Tuesday were dressed in period costumes, with some riding horses and others marching in lockstep across Red Square.

"Some 3,000 Communists and others who want a return to the Soviet era later scuffled with riot police who prevented them from marching down a main street, relegating them to its sidewalk."

Supporters of the Russian Communist Party in Moscow during a flower-laying ceremony at the Lenin mausoleum on the 89th anniversary of the October revolution.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Backgrounder on Nigerian Politics

I found the essay excerpted here on the Angus-Reid web site where I expected to find reports on polling results. This is a good update to your textbook even if it's brand new. Save the URL and assign this reading to your students when they're learning about Nigeria. Remember, however, that the presidential election is scheduled for this spring, and events might make this obsolete. A follow up assignment could be to assign students (when they're studying Nigeria) to find out the status of the politicians mentioned here.

Nigeria seeks a historic accomplishment

"The African nation of Nigeria represents an enormous challenge for any politician. With 140 million inhabitants, it is the continent’s most populous country. In addition, its people are split in a northern zone dominated by Muslims, and a predominantly Christian south. Nigeria produces 2.2 million barrels of oil each day, so its global significance cannot be underestimated.

"Maintaining political order has been extremely complicated since Nigeria attained its independence from Britain in 1960. Power has never been transferred peacefully between elected administrations, and governance has been interrupted on several occasions by coups and rebel actions organized by elements of the military...

"The impatience on the part of some PDP members has caused a rift that almost recreates existing tensions within Nigeria. Vice-president Atiku Abubakar and former ruler Ibrahim Babangida were mentioned as the main presidential hopefuls. Obasanjo has not expressed his preference for either man, but Abubakar was recently indicted over alleged misuse of funds and embezzlement.

"Still, there are no early favourites and the list of prospective contenders—which is expected to grow—includes Obasanjo’s adviser Jerry Gana, Rivers State governor Peter Odili [pictured at right], Ebonyi State governor Sam Egwu, and former ambassador Elizabeth Ogbon-day. The opposition will be led once again by Muhammedu Buhari under the ten-party Coalition for New Nigeria (CNN). Buhari, who governed briefly from December 1983 to August 1985 after a coup, lost to Obasanjo in 2003...

"As the country awaits its ruling party candidate, security remains a big concern. Practically every week there are reports of kidnappings, usually of foreigners who work in Nigeria’s oil industry. The Niger Delta has been the scene of bloody battles between the Nigerian military and an armed group called Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta People (MEND), whose attacks have caused a drop in oil production this year...

"Nigeria’s other key problem is the lack of credibility of its electoral authorities... the National Assembly has accused the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of favouring the ruling party and exaggerating its operational costs. The main challenge for the last few months of Obasanjo’s tenure will be to allow the INEC to work adequately by itself, and ensure a transfer of power that is not only peaceful, but also fair."

Monday, November 06, 2006

Surveillance and Democracy

In 1990, I stood with a group of American teachers on the East Berlin side of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and gawked at the surveillance cameras still attached to the former East German government buildings. The cameras had been obviously disabled, but their presence spoke volumes to those of us from the "free world." The dead cameras were relics of the 1984 world of the Communist East.

Fast forward 16 years and we now live in an America where closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras are accepted and expected in nearly all public places. Law enforcement authorities (real and televised) look for secuity camera recordings even before they gather fingerprints.

But the US is far behind the UK when it comes to keeping tabs on public behavior. The average Londoner, it is said, is seen on CCTV cameras 300 times a day. (See Surveillance and CCTV in London.) Privacy International estimates that there are over 4 million surveillance cameras operating in the UK.

Does such surveillance of public activity affect crime rates? everyday behavior? civil society? the psychology of citizenship? political activity? People in the UK are asking those questions, and some of the answers have large political implications. Does surveillance undermine the values, trust, and sense of community necessary for the success of a democratic society?

Here's an excerpt from The Guardian (UK) report on 2 November.

Spy planes, clothes scanners and secret cameras: Britain's surveillance future

  • Privacy watchdog foresees climate of suspicion
  • Move to kickstart debate over level of monitoring

"...Today, Richard Thomas, the watchdog entrusted by the government to protect people's privacy, sounds a strong warning that Britain is 'waking up to a surveillance society that is all around us'.

"The information commissioner warns that technology is already being extensively and routinely used to track and record the everyday activities and movements of Britons, whether they are working, resting or playing. He is also warning that such 'pervasive' surveillance is likely to spread in the coming years...

"Mr Thomas is worried that many people do not realise that they are being watched, since the surveillance is often invisible or discreet. He has commissioned a report from experts to predict how technologies are likely to be used to keep tabs on people in 2016. The information commissioner wants to kickstart a debate on whether people are prepared to accept this level of surveillance...

"'Surveillance activities can be well-intentioned and bring benefits. They may be necessary or desirable - for example, to fight terrorism and serious crime, to improve entitlement and access to public and private services, and to improve healthcare. But unseen, uncontrolled or excessive surveillance can foster a climate of suspicion and undermine trust'...

"[Experts]... predict that older people will feel increasingly isolated as relatives use cameras and sensors to check up on them without paying them a visit. Electronic chips will be implanted in some of the elderly, letting carers and family members locate them more easily.

"Dr David Murakami Wood, who headed the study, said: 'Surveillance is not a malign plot hatched by evil powers to control the population. But the surveillance society has come about almost without us realising'.

"Although he emphasised its benefits, Dr Wood warned: 'It can create real problems for individuals - social exclusion, discrimination and a negative impact on their life chances. Unfortunately the dominant modes of surveillance expansion in the 21st century are producing situations where distinctions of class, race, gender, geography and citizenship are currently being exacerbated and institutionalised'.

And from the BBC on the same date: Britain is 'surveillance society'

"Fears that the UK would 'sleep-walk into a surveillance society' have become a reality, the government's information commissioner has said.

"Richard Thomas, who said he raised concerns two years ago, spoke after research found people's actions were increasingly being monitored.

"Researchers highlight 'dataveillance', the use of credit card, mobile phone and loyalty card information, and CCTV...

"Dr David Murakami-Wood told BBC News that, compared to other industrialised Western states, the UK was 'the most surveilled country'.

"'We have more CCTV cameras and we have looser laws on privacy and data protection,' he said.

"'We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us'...

Related sites to check out:

Friday, November 03, 2006


The Wikipedia is famous because anyone can sign up to write and edit articles in the online encyclopedia. Enthusiasts argue that the multitude of authors will ensure accuracy by correcting each other's mistakes and that all work is done transparently. Critics point out that articles can change by the minute and that common knowledge is sometimes common misconception. I think Wikipedia is a great way to teach students the necessity of verifying sources.

The software that underlies Wikipedia facilitates many projects. The CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies are using "wiki" software to create a system that allows all concerned actors to contribute to summaries of intelligence data. Corporations use the system to promote cooperation and sharing of perspectives. It has educational uses too.

For instance, ask your students to look at the Wikipedia article about their school. Ask them to critique it. Then ask them to look at the history of the article. What revisions have been made over time? What axes have contributors had to grind? And how have other contributors responded? (If there isn't an article about your school, look at an article about a nearby school. In a few days, an article about your school will probably appear.)

Well, here's an opportunity to use a "wiki" as part of an introduction to studying comparative politics. It's brand new and a blank page. It's at the Political Science School at the Wikiversity.

The Department of Comparative Politics was a blank page when I looked at it this morning.

This is a chance to set your students to work filling in the blank.

So what should go into the Department of Comparative Politics?

What is comparative politics? How is comparative politics done? What does comparative politics try to explain? What are the differences between good and better comparative politics? What are the areas of agreement and disagreement among comparative political scientists? What is scientific about comparative political science? What are the big ideas that comparative political scientists are concerned with?

Maybe there should be a special section about the Advanced Placement Comparative Government and Politics course.

Now's the time to begin.

(Thanks to Dr. Patrick O'Neil at Puget Sound University for pointing out the Wikiversity.)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

British Nationalism

Here's a bit of the political culture and values in the UK as well as a bit of the politics of generally "Euroskeptic" Conservatives (the Thatcher wing). The report of the poll comes from Angus Reid Global Monitor: "Britons Want Referendum on EU Powers."

"Many adults in Britain would like to vote on the reach of the European Union (EU) in their country, according to a poll by YouGov for the Speak Out Campaign. 77 per cent of respondents support holding a referendum on whether powers over fishing, farming, rules and regulations, lawmaking and borders should be returned to the British Parliament...

"Former Conservative parliamentarian Paul Sykes is one of the backers of the Speak Out Campaign. Sykes left the Conservative party in 2001 over disagreements with its EU policy.

"Polling Data
"Some people have called for a referendum on whether powers over fishing, farming, rules and regulations, lawmaking and borders being returned to the British Parliament from the European Union. Would you support or oppose a campaign to hold such a referendum?

"Strongly support:45% Support: 32% Oppose: 9% Strongly oppose: 3% Do not care: 11%

"Source: YouGov / Speak Out Campaign. Methodology: Online interviews with 2,206 British adults, conducted from Oct. 6 to Oct. 11, 2006. No margin of error was provided."

See also