Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

An interpretation of Iranian politics

Michael Harvey wrote from Abu Dhabi that an op-ed piece in his local paper, the Gulf News, offered thoughtful observations about Iranian politics.

It's written by Amir Taheri, an Iranian author based in Europe. The analysis is not unexpected from an overseas Iranian, but when it's published in an Arab newspaper, it earns a bit more importance. It might be a reminder that Iran is not an Arab country, and that not all Iran's neighbors are pleased with the theocracy there. In any case, this analysis is a useful addition to studying how politics works in Iran. I suspect it offers a good counterpoint to textbook accounts.

Taheri even offers a bit of comparative politics by alluding to Deng Xiaoping and changes in China.

Ahmadinejad is firm in the saddle

"As the Tehran leadership prepares to go to the wire in its confrontation with the international community over the nuclear issue, one thing is clear: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerges with his position within the Khomeinist establishment strengthened.

"Just a couple of weeks ago we were told that Ahmadinejad's star was on the wane, and that 'moderate mullahs' had persuaded the 'Supreme Guide' Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to restrain the firebrand president...

"Ahmadinejad has the great merit of seeing the problem for what it really is.

"Some... have tried to present Iran's uranium enrichment programme as a technical issue. Others... have even advised acceptance of what they regard as fait accompli.

"For Ahmadinejad, however, the issue is political in the grand sense of the term with nothing less than the survival of the Khomeinist regime at stake.

"The Khomeinist revolution of 1979 had three slogans: independence, liberty, Islamic government. The regime that emerged from it tried to build its legitimacy on that basis.

"Over the past quarter of a century, however, the Khomeinist regime has failed to deliver on its triple slogan.

"In all practical terms, Iran today is more dependent on the outside world than before the Khomeinist seizure of power...

"As for liberty, the second item on the triple slogan, it is clear to most Iranians today that they are much less free, especially in social and cultural terms, than they were before the mullahs seized power...

"The third item of the slogan, Islamic government, has also remained a chimera. Many genuinely religious Iranians, including some Shiite clerics, see Khomeinism as an 'evil innovation' (bed'aah) because it violates a fundamental principle of the faith by pretending that it can create a truly Islamic government before the return of the Hidden Imam.

"Ahmadinejad is conscious of the massive loss of legitimacy that the Islamic Republic has faced at least since the early 1990s. He knows that he cannot rebuild the regime's legitimacy by offering greater liberty to the Iranian people...

"The radicals are left with two options: thickening the Islamic colouring of the regime, and emphasising its claim of independence.

"Ahmadinejad has tried to thicken the regime's religious colouring by casting himself in the role of the proverbial Islamic Ghazi (holy warrior) who will ride his white horse into Occupied Jerusalem to liberate it from the 'infidel'.

"The regime's claim of independence is best illustrated by its refusal to kowtow to the diktats of the major powers, especially the United States...

"If the Khomeinist regime emerges victorious from the current confrontation, it would move to a higher degree of radicalism, thus, in effect, becoming a new regime.

"The radical faction would be able to purge the rich and corrupt mullahs by promoting a new generation of zealots linked with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the security services. It would also move onto the offensive in the region, seeking to reshape it after the Khomeinist revolution's geo-strategic interests...

"If, on the other hand, the Khomeinist regime is forced to back down on this issue, the radical moment would fade, while the many enemies of the regime regroup to either topple it or change it beyond recognition as Deng Xiao-ping did with the Maoist regime in China.

"What we are witnessing is the start of what could be a long and complicated conflict..."

Labels: ,

Understanding Perspectives

So, how do your students sort out contradictions and conflicting interpretations? Here's a good exercise. You could ask them to discuss or write about this one. How well could they make sense out of these differing perspectives?

The following story was buried in one of the front page menus on the Xinhua (the Chinese News Agency) web site. In its entirety, it consists of 21 short paragraphs that pararphrase Premier Wen's statement. (So, the comments on democracy are overemphaiszed in this excerpt.)

Premier Wen: promoting fairness, social justice is a major task

"While developing productive forces and immensely increasing material wealth, China needs to gradually secure fairness and social justice, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in an article released on Monday.

"He called them "two interrelated and mutually beneficial tasks" that will run through various stages of socialism for a long period.

"In the article, which is about historical tasks in the primary stage of socialism and China's foreign policy, Wen said without sustained rapid growth of productive forces, it's impossible to finally secure fairness and social justice that lies within the essence of socialism.

"Without gradually promoting fairness and social justice in step with development of productive forces, it's impossible to bring the initiative and creativity of the whole society into full play and thus impossible to secure sustained rapid development of productive forces.

"The essence of socialism is to "emancipate and develop productive forces, eliminate exploitation and polarization and eventually realize common prosperity", Wen quoted the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as saying.

"Wen said that 'China is and will remain to be in the primary stage of socialism for a long time'. The primary stage is an 'underdeveloped' stage characterized by underdeveloped productive forces and a socialist system that is still not perfect and mature enough.

"He said China's socialist market economic system is till not perfect enough. The democratic and legal system is still not perfect enough and there still exist social injustice and corruption. The socialist system is still not mature enough.

"He said today, China is still far from walking out of the primary stage of socialism and remains a developing country...

"While economic development has been China's central task for years, the country never slackens efforts in enhancing its political and cultural system and building a harmonious society...

"Wen said that China shall develop the democracy in its own way. The socialist system is not contradictive to democracy, and a highly developed democracy and a complete legal system are inherent requirements of the socialist system and an important benchmark of a mature socialist system.

"The country has the full capacity to establish a nation of democracy governed by laws within the framework of socialist system, Wen said.

"He pledged to develop democracy, improve the legal system and continue to push forward political system reform."

How was this relatively minor (according to Xinhua) story reported elsewhere?
Here are some headlines:

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Russian Politics

The analysis of Russian politics in the 24 February Economist (pp. 62-63) matches those of other journalists. It's almost as though we're back in the days when Kremlinologists tried to determine what was going on the "black bag" of politics by giving meaning to the changing bulges in surface of the bag.

Remember, you can find the catalog of blog entries about Russia at the CompGovPol del.icio.us page.

The hollowing out of politics

"... the wider political situation in Russia... is part of what Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent member of the... Duma, describes as a political zachistka (purge)...

"The 5% threshold to win seats in the Duma, already set high enough to keep out all the liberal parties at the 2003 election, will be raised to 7% for the parliamentary poll later this year. Parties are barred from forming coalitions to get over it. Candidates may come only from party lists; in the previous system half were directly elected by district (that enabled Mr Ryzhkov, for example, to survive). Candidates can be debarred for 'extremism'; that includes slandering a public official. Minimum turnout rules have also been scrapped, as has the option of voting 'against all'. So boycotts and protest votes can no longer be used to register dissent.

"Dirty tricks are common. Halls booked for opposition party meetings become suddenly unavailable. Rallies and protest marches are easily banned, and smothered by riot police when they are not.

"'All our actions', Mr Putin said recently in Munich, 'are designed to strengthen a multi-party system in Russia.'...

"... television—from which most Russians get their news—is... dominated by flattering coverage of Mr Putin's day. All the main channels are in effect controlled by the Kremlin...

"The mystery is why, popular as he is, Mr Putin bothers with all these superfluous instruments of control. Part of the answer is: because he can. But another part is that his worry is probably not defeat in stage-managed elections, but rather unrest on the streets (hence the creation of a pro-Kremlin youth movement). That, plus infighting or palace coups inside the Kremlin, where Russia's real political competition takes place.

"The need to maintain a balance between rival Kremlin clans seems to explain Mr Putin's other main personnel move last week, which was to shift Sergei Ivanov... to be a first deputy prime minister. That rank is also held by Dmitry Medvedev... Some now speculate that the 2008 presidential contest will be between two approved candidates. But the main benefit of the change is to Mr Putin, who has reasserted his grip on the succession process and shored up his power..."

Labels: ,

Food for thought for teachers

I know the temptation. I often watch television with my PowerBook on my lap to fill those empty moments (like advertising). I also know I miss things when I multitask. And our students?

From the Washington Post

Teens Can Multitask, But What Are Costs? Ability to Analyze May Be Affected, Experts Worry

"... Call it multitasking homework, Generation 'Net style.

"The students who do it say multitasking makes them feel more productive and less stressed. Researchers aren't sure what the long-term impact will be because no studies have probed its effect on teenage development. But some fear that the penchant for flitting from task to task could have serious consequences on young people's ability to focus and develop analytical skills.

"There is special concern for teenagers because parts of their brain are still developing, said Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke...

"Whatever the consequences of multitasking, they're going to be widespread. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that when students are sitting in front of their computers 'studying,' they're also doing something else 65 percent of the time. In 1999, 16 percent of teenagers said they were 'media multitaskers' -- defined as using several type of media, such as television or computers, at once. By 2005, that percentage had increased to 26 percent. The foundation also found that girls were more likely to media multitask than boys.

"The current generation of teens 'is trying to do lots of multitasking because they think it's cool and less boring and because they have lots of gadgets that help them be more successful at this,' said David Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. 'The belief is they're getting good at this and that they're much better than the older generation at it and that there's no cost to their efficiency.'

"Meyer, a psychologist and cognitive scientist who studies multitasking, has doubts...

"Researchers say there isn't any answer yet to whether multitasking helps, hurts or has no effect on teens' development.

"'Given that kids have grown up always doing this, it may turn out that they are more skilled at it. We just don't know yet,' said Russell Poldrack, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, who co-authored a study that examined multitasking and brain activity...

"Multitaskers 'may not be building the same knowledge that they would be if they were focusing,' Poldrack said. 'While multitasking makes them feel like they are being more efficient, research suggests that there's very little you can do that involves multitasking that you can be as good at when you're not multitasking.'..."


Monday, February 26, 2007

When non-teachers write tests

Making policy is a tricky business. If policies achieve the purposes for which they are made, they are successful from the perspective of the policy makers. Of course, the policy makers might not be the only people who need to be satisfied.

If policies fail to achieve their goals, there are many possible reasons for failure. How many reasons for failure could your students identify in this example from Iran reported by Robert Tait in The Guardian (UK)?

What would your students say about the educational objectives of the test writers? (You'll have to see the whole article for more sample questions.)

Could your students describe who might think that this examination was going to be successful? Could your students describe a realistic scenario to describe how this test was created and how it became a political issue?

As a teacher, I noted a couple things: the choice of the assigned reading and the focus of the quoted questions on details of facts. Since the book's author was a philosopher, I'd expect to see some questions about ideas. Of course, there might have been some and the news reports didn't include them. (And that might raise journalistic questions.)

Iranian MPs enraged over test accused of mocking Muhammad

"Iranian MPs have demanded an apology from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after teachers were given government-sponsored tests deemed 'insulting' to the prophet Muhammad.

"The exam - sat [taken] by teachers seeking promotion - provoked outrage by posing questions which appeared to degrade Islam's holiest figure by alluding to personal habits and proclivities. Most of the 40 multiple-choice questions have been judged so mocking that Iran's state-controlled media has refrained from publishing them.

"One less offensive question, reproduced by local newspapers and websites, lists four choices when asking how Muhammad compared himself with the prophet Joseph. They are: 'A) I am more beautiful than Joseph; B) Joseph is more beautiful than me; C) I am cuter than Joseph; D) Joseph is more beautiful than me but I am cuter than him.' Others refer to his hair and beard colour..."

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 25, 2007

How to reform China?

Joseph Kahn has once again written about China's legal system. This time he profiles two lawyers in the "rights defense movement," and tries to provide some context for the disagreements between the two. We might find this useful to consider as we attempt to classify the Chinese political regime.

After his previous reporting about the role of courts, however, I suggest we reserve judgment on his analysis, and look for confirmation or contradiction from other sources.

Rivals on a Legal Tightrope Seek to Widen Freedoms in China

"Li Jinsong and Li Jianqiang are Chinese trial lawyers who take on difficult political cases, tangle with the police and seek solace in the same religion, Christianity.

"But like many who devote themselves to expanding freedoms and the rule of law in China, the two spend as much time clashing over tactics and principles as they do challenging the ruling Communist Party.

"The two Mr. Lis are part of a momentous struggle over the rule of law in China. Young, well educated and idealistic, they and other members of the so-called weiquan, or rights defense, movement, aim to use the laws and courts that the Communist Party has put in place as part of its modernization drive to constrain the party’s power.

"The informal network of rights defenders may be the only visible force for political openness and change in China at a time when the surging economy and the country’s rapidly expanding global influence have otherwise strengthened party leaders... 18 years after the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, China quickly crushes any organized opposition...

"... rights defenders have had notable victories, mostly by calling attention to problems at the local level that more senior officials move to fix. They have exposed corruption, illegal land seizures and labor and environmental abuses that have prompted policy changes or at least made many Chinese more aware of the concept of human rights...

"They divide into camps on the fundamental question of whether to try to improve the current Communist Party-run system by supporting well-intentioned party leaders, or to seek an end to Communist rule. 'Some of us are waiting for a good emperor, some kind of Gorbachev, to come and fix the system,' Li Jianqiang said. 'Many of the rest of us think that is a waste of time. We need to be building a civilization outside the Communist Party.'

"That debate is a delicate one...

"China’s top leaders... have promised to conform to human rights norms and to run the country 'according to law.'

"The Communist Party often does not subject itself to the laws it enacts, prompting cynicism about its real intentions. But many rights defenders say they can help bring about meaningful change because the party and government bureaucracy is not monolithic.

"Top party leaders, according to this way of thinking, hope to use the legal system and the news media to check abuses of power at the local level, which they view as threats to their own popularity and longevity...

"Li Jianqiang calls it a 'peasant mentality' because farmers since feudal times have looked to the emperor, presumed to be benevolent, to solve problems they say are caused by venal local officials.

"He contends that President Hu, who once talked as though he wanted to expand constitutional rights and strengthen the legal system, has more recently done the reverse...

"Mr. Hu has clamped down on lawyers and journalists and tightened the party’s control over the courts...

"'The strategy of submitting petitions and using legal actions to draw the emperor’s attention is a proven failure,' Li Jianqiang said. 'It ends up encouraging rule by man, not rule of law.'..."

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 24, 2007

How should we classify the Chinese regime?

Someone recently asked how we should classify the Chinese regime. As I was rethinking this, it occurred to me that regimes most similar to the Chinese one are in corporations.

An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report in 1999 said, "Corporate governance is [1] the system by which business corporations are directed and controlled. The corporate governance structure [2] specifies the distribution of rights and responsibilities among different participants in the corporation, such as, the board, managers, shareholders and other stakeholders, and [3] spells out the rules and procedures for making decisions on corporate affairs. By doing this, it also [4] provides the structure through which the company objectives are set, and the means of attaining those objectives and monitoring performance."

Is it possible to see China as one of the largest and fastest growing corporations in the world, China, Inc.?

The Party monopolizes the government and the government controls the state. This regime controls [1] "the system by which... [the country is] directed and controlled... [It] [2] specifies the distribution of rights and responsibilities among different participants... and [3] spells out the rules and procedures for making decisions... By doing this, it also [4] provides the structure through which... objectives are set, and the means of attaining those objectives and monitoring performance."

The Party Politburo can be seen as the corporate board of directors and its standing committee as the executive committee of the corporate board.

The government's State Council, headed by the Premier, is the group that includes the top executives of China, Inc. The party cadres are managers and the government bureaucrats and workers are supervisors and labor.

Where this comparison begins to break down is probably in the hints of corporate democracy in the recognition of shareholder rights and expectations. Shareholders can, in limited ways, affect the governance of corporations. Can Chinese citizens do as much? Similarly, government and civil society can impose upon corporations and make demands as stakeholders. When government is the corporation, it is an arm of corporate policy, not subject to government policy. And stakeholders outside the Party and the government have few legitimate ways of influencing the policies of China, Inc. The inabilities of environmental groups to sway policy decisions are prominent examples.

And what about the fiduciary responsibilities of the corporation and its executives? is the Politburo held responsible for accurate accounting? Will the State Council ever be called to a hearing of the Peoples Congress? Will a president every not be reelected?

The campaign against corruption may be a hint that there is some sense of responsibility, but so far it's only a hint. And the targets of anti-corruption prosecutions are likely to be political opponents of the top executives.

The party and government in China are actively developing commercial and property legal systems to facilitate economic investment from outside China. But there's little in the way of guaranteeing individual rights or actually allowing democracy.

As China, Inc. grows and grows more complex; as China, Inc. takes on more new foreign partners; and as China, Inc.'s stakeholders become more able to assert their self-interest (if only through markets), the governance system might begin to resemble more familiar political models. For now, the corporate model is probably an instructive one.

Labels: ,


Jim Lerch who teaches at the American School of Yaounde in Cameroon, sent the AP EDG a great suggestion about finding podcasts in iTunes.

I have suggested [here] looking at YouTube for video images connected to the countries you're teaching about, but I hadn't thought about looking for audio as well.

Wikipedia defines podcast as "a media file that is distributed over the Internet... for playback on mobile devices and personal computers." (As far as I know, that's a valid definition.) Note, that in spite of the name "podcast" you don't need an iPod to use these "media files." You can download them to a computer and listen to them.

iTunes is one bit of software you can use to access and playback music and podcasts. If you don't have iTunes software, it's a free download at the Apple Store, and it's available for PCs and Macs. I'm sure there is other software you can use, but I'm a clueless rookie on this topic. Tell us if you know more.

When you use the software and open the iTunes online store, you'll find a catalog of available Podcasts. The News and Politics catalog at the iTunes store includes Podcasts from a wide variety of mainstream media sources and at least two Democratic presidential candidates.

There are other sources as well. National Public Radio has it's own catalog of podcasts, as does CNN, the the New York Times, BBC News, Yahoo!, and many more organizations. Search the Internet with your favorite search engine to find them.

Jim mentioned he'd found Podcasts of
  • NPR's Fresh Air for February 1, 2007, which is "an interesting interview with Michael Specter, who just wrote an article for the New Yorker called Kremlin Inc.; Why are Vladimir Putin's Opponents Dying?"

  • The Changing World from BBC and PRI  has two good podcasts; both of them are in two parts.  The first one is on macho men.  It compares macho men in Nigeria and Mexico.  It is very interesting and I think it will be of high interest to students.  

  • The Changing World also has a two-part podcast on Iran.

  • The Economist has podcasts that are in the 5-10 minute range that cover broad issues concerning Britain, China and Mexico.  For the amount of time they take in class, they are well worth the time.  

  • Finally, the Council on Foreign Relations has a podcast in which Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies Ray Takeyh discusses his new book, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.

As Jim suggested, the short, specific topic items probably have the most potential for use in class. Play a clip, discuss, ask questions. A report might be a prompt for a writing exercise.

And, all the ones I looked at (or should say listened to) are free except for some of the Times Select items from the New York Times.

In fact, this might suggest an alternative to the "clip an article from the newspaper and write about it for the class" assignment. What if students were assigned to find a Podcast related to each week's topics, bring it to class, play it, and then lead a discussion or answer questions about it?

Or even better, the students could produce their own podcast using audio bites from the original that they are reporting on. And, what if two groups produce podcasts on the same source? Would they represent the ideas in the original identically? Could the class analyze the differences?

Oh, the possibilities of technology. Use them.

Thanks, Jim.


Friday, February 23, 2007

Challenges and policy responses

States are challenged by external forces and domestic circumstances. The BBC reports on a situation that will require some action in Russia. What will the policy responses be to men's health, social, and economic problems?

Russia tackles mortality 'crisis'

"The Russian government is discussing how to tackle the problem of falling life expectancy, especially among men...

"The health ministry says average life expectancy for Russian men is less than 60 years - about 15 years lower than in most other industrialised countries.

"Life expectancy for Russian women is about 72.

"Diseases, murders, suicides and intravenous drug abuse - the rates of which in Russia are also among the highest in the world - have contributed to what many experts consider to be a health catastrophe...

"The demographic crisis is an extremely sensitive matter politically... much of Russia's health crisis is the result of unhealthy life-styles, especially very high rates of smoking and alcohol abuse.

"Yet there is still no concerted effort to persuade, or force, people to adopt healthier ways, our analyst adds.

"There are also environmental issues - last year, a survey by an American research centre said that half of the world's most polluted places were in the former Soviet Union."

See also the RAND Corporation Policy Brief, Dire Demographic Trends Cast a Shadow on Russia's Future


Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Cite Wikipedia?

Trevor Burnham is a student at my alma mater, Carleton College. He was the primary actor in the founding of CarlWiki, a Wikipedia-like site about the college. Recently in his blog, Burnham offered some good thoughts about Wikipedia.

Educators need to pay attention to Wikipedia and learn about its assets and liabilities. They need to teach their students about the appropriate academic uses of Wikipedia. Burnham's thoughts are a good start:

Wikipedia and the price of free information

"In December of 2005, the journal Nature published a survey of forty-two science articles, comparing the factual accuracy of the versions in Wikipedia and Britannica. The difference in errors between the two was insignificant, and the Wikipedia articles generally included all of the Britannica information and then some. Good for them.

"The article led many in the academic world to take Wikipedia more seriously. The problem? Some find the study's methodology to be flawed; and referring to it as a 'study in the journal Nature' is something of a misnomer: It was an informal survey printed as a non-peer-reviewed news piece.

"But perhaps most importantly, we're talking about the science 'sector' of Wikipedia, where the facts are clear and rarely change. Extending that evidence of accuracy to, say, articles on politics and current events is absurd. Very different people edit those entries, and for very different reasons.

"The truth is... you should never, ever use Wikipedia as a cited source... It was never the intent of Wikipedia's founders to make professional researchers and fact-checkers obsolete.

"When I pay to read a quality opinion piece printed in a magazine or newspaper, I demand that the facts in it be thoroughly investigated. However, Wikipedia is a great starting point for virtually any research.

"Increasingly, facts on Wikipedia are linked to credible sources on other sites (current events stories, for instance, are flooded with links to newspaper articles, allowing facts to be verified in a single click)...

"For too long, we have lived in a society that is superstitious in its epistemological beliefs. We still have the idea, somehow, that 'if it's printed in a book, it must be true.'... Wikipedia's link-to-primary-sources-when-possible methodology is the wave of the future, as long as primary sources allow free online access. That's reliable—even more reliable than the print medium allows. Until that happens, and even after, I'm going to continue happily paying for opinion pieces by professional columnists who check their facts with reliable sources. I just hope they'll realize that it's not the source in and of itself that's important; it's the source's sources."

And I would add, our students need to be aware of similar benefits and liabilities to Wikipedia's other projects: Wiktionary, Wikibooks, Wikiversity, Commons, Wikiquote, and Wikisource.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Wealth, politics, guanxi, and anxiety in China

Maureen Fan, a Washington Post correspondent in Beijing, did a great job of summarizing recent Chinese political trends in the article excerpted below. Her description of guanxi deserves a bit more explanation, but her accounts of life styles of the rich and hopefully not famous in China might help keep students' interest in the topic.

Cashing In on Communism: In the land of Mao, getting rich is finally glorious. It's also complicated.

"After the 1949 Communist revolution, private wealth became a huge social liability...

"China's 'opening and reform' period began in 1978, thanks to Deng Xiaoping...

"The earliest Communist-era entrepreneurs... were mostly people on the margins of society... who knew little about the market but had nothing to lose by risking denunciation or the scorn of their neighbors...

"Any early belief that increasingly free enterprise would lead to political liberalization was crushed in the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators...

"Much, but not all, business came to a standstill, until 1992 when Deng took a now-famous tour of the south, a trip that generated hundreds of newspaper articles and at least 20 books... He thought fair competition would stimulate business and allow some people to get rich, which would slowly spur others to follow suit... [H]is push for economic reform became enshrined in the constitution and in Communist Party literature...

"Since then... about 175 million, or 13.5 percent, of consumers have become what many Chinese scholars consider to be middle class... Another 320,000 to 500,000 people report enough income... to put them into an upper-middle class... A far smaller, but more visible, group are the super rich...

"Recently, President Hu Jintao has responded to the growing gap between rich and poor by demanding that more attention be paid to a "harmonious society."...

"The urge to flaunt economic success competes with the desire to keep a low profile. While many Chinese are flattered by the prestige of landing on various 'rich lists,' they also fear the publicity and the extra scrutiny from tax collectors, who seem to follow no known assessment standards.

"Even so, wealth is beginning to bring other privileges. In Jiangsu province, just north of Shanghai, authorities announced last year that 'large taxpayer' entrepreneurs who pay the government more than $375,000 a year get to help decide whether an official is dismissed or promoted...

"It is difficult to separate wealth from power in China. A recent report in the Hong Kong-based Sing Tao Daily said research from China's State Council, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the research office of the Central Party School showed that 90 percent of China's RMB billionaires (people with more than $128.2 million) are the children of senior officials. The rich get nowhere without official connections -- a commodity as valuable as capital and known as guanxi...

"The need for guanxi does not stop with the rich. The broader middle class is also dependent on its personal relationship to power. You need connections when the landlord of your luxury apartment decides to charge you extra maintenance payments, or glues your front door shut after you refuse [to pay]...

"That is just the beginning of their anxiety. As these Chinese get richer, they... struggle to cope with stress and success... They have told pollsters of their insecurity and inability to find suitable marriage partners. Some complain of the possibility of losing their wealth overnight because of official corruption, while others said they fear criminals and jealous neighbors.

"But mostly what they fear is having their new success snatched away. They are anxious about whether they have made the right connections, just in case their position of privilege turns out to be built on boggy ground.

"'The only thing they think about is guanxi,' Shi Xiaoyan says..."

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Olusegun Obasanjo, chicken farmer?

Michael Harvey, from his post in Abu Dhabi, alerted me to an article in the Boston Globe about this possible competition to the American poultry industry. (Apologies for the silliness, but the image of Obasanjo retiring to a chicken farm brought it on.)

Roy Greene, the Globe reporter does offer some interesting observations about the upcoming elections. None of them should be novel to your students once they've studied about Nigeria.

Election in Nigeria has US ramifications: Hopes are for first peaceful handover

"President Olusegun Obasanjo is clear about his plans after finishing his second term and overseeing the national election in April: He will retire to the pastoral life of a gentleman chicken farmer.

"But many in this chaotic West African nation of 132 million are not so confident that Obasanjo will fade quietly from the scene. They worry that the 69-year-old leader might seize upon any voting irregularities, on the rising strife in the volatile Niger Delta region, or on the risk of religious and ethnic clashes as a pretext to declare a state of emergency and cling to power.

"After all, Nigeria has been down that road before...

"On the eve of Obasanjo's scheduled departure, democracy is facing a crucial test in Nigeria, Africa's most-populous country and its largest oil producer. If he hands power to an elected successor, it will be the first such peaceful, constitutional transfer of power from one civilian government to another since Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960...

"One worry is that divisions in a country split roughly into the Muslim north and mainly Christian south, and among such ethnic groups as the Yoruba, Hausa, and Ibo, will boil over. Festus Okoye, a lawyer in Kaduna, the northern city that saw deadly clashes between Muslims and Christians in 2002 over a beauty contest held there, said he could not rule out election-related violence if Nigerians believe their will at the polls has been ignored...

"Western diplomats here credit Obasanjo with beginning to tackle the massive government corruption...

"He established the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in 2003... Although critics accuse the agency of only going after Obasanjo's opponents, they concede that the fact that it even exists is a historic advance for Nigeria.

"Obasanjo also strengthened Nigeria's role as a regional leader... [and] Nigeria last year became the first African country to pay off it debts -- about $30 billion -- to the Paris Club, an informal group of creditor nations.

"But Obasanjo (pronounced o-BAS-in-jo) has faced criticism over a host of daunting problems that are resonating during the campaign, foremost the growing uprising in the Niger Delta in southeastern Nigeria, the center of the country's petroleum production...

"Meanwhile, the main candidates seeking to replace Obasanjo have hit the campaign trail. They are: Umaru Yar'Adua, the nominee from the ruling People's Democratic Party; Obasanjo's vice president and former supporter Atiku Abubakar; and Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator. All are Muslims from northern Nigeria..."


Monday, February 19, 2007

Black or white cats; socialist or capitalist economies

February 19 is the anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's death. Xinhua used the occasion to remind readers of his legacy.

China stays on path of reform, opening-up in post-Deng era

"When most Chinese were fearful even to mention the term 'market economy', the late leader Deng vigorously preached its adoption during his historic 1992 inspection tour to economic enclaves in south China.

"'Practice of a planned economy is not equivalent to socialism because there is also planning under capitalism; Practice of a market economy is not equivalent to capitalism because there are also markets under socialism.' This is one of his most oft-repeated quotes...

"At its 16th National Congress held in Beijing in 2002, the CPC wrote the theory of 'Three Represents' into the party constitution. The theory says that as a ruling party, the CPC will always represent the development trends of advanced productive forces, the orientations of advanced culture and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people of China...

"Statistics showed that by September last year, China's private sector accounted for 65 percent of national GDP (gross domestic product), and the figure would reach three quarters in just five years..."


Russian Presidential Candidates

A year before the presidential election in Russia and the race seems to be set up. One real party, two candidates, Putin in control. How do we describe and classify this system? And how does one rise to the top in this system?

Russian Leader Expands Powers of a Possible Successor -- Defense Minister Elevated to Same Rank as Another Favorite for Putin's Nod Ahead of '08 Elections

"President Vladimir Putin promoted Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to the post of first deputy prime minister Thursday, an elevation that immediately intensified speculation that Putin might favor him as his successor... [He was replaced as defense minister by Anatoly Serdyukov, the head of Russia's tax service.]
Ivanov reviewed troops as Defense Minister

"Ivanov, 54, will now be charged with overseeing Russia's military-industrial complex as well as part of the civilian economy. He was recently put in charge of consolidating and revitalizing Russia's aviation industry...

"Ivanov's new position puts him on the same level in government as Dmitri Medvedev, who is also a first deputy prime minister and chairman of the energy conglomerate Gazprom. The two men now appear to be in an open contest for Putin's nod -- the decisive factor in determining who will become president in elections in March 2008.

"Putin said this month that he will make his choice known during the campaign early next year. Because of his huge popularity and standing with voters, his endorsement will certainly swing the job to his preferred candidate, according to numerous opinion polls and analysts here...

"Like Putin, Ivanov had a long career as a KGB official... He speaks English fluently... He also speaks Swedish...

"Both Ivanov and Medvedev have ties to the president that reach back to their mutual home town, St. Petersburg... Ivanov and Putin both served in the Leningrad Directorate of the KGB...

"Ivanov is widely believed to be less ensnared than Medvedev in the opaque but fierce rivalries of different interest groups around Putin in the Kremlin and could emerge as an acceptable alternative for those against Medvedev's candidacy, according to some analysts..."

The importance of the high level personnel moves were repeated in a RFE/RL report.

Reshuffle Puts Putin's Heirs Apparent On Equal Footing

"'I have signed a decree expanding Sergei Borisovich Ivanov's responsibilities in the government of the Russian Federation, giving him the duties of coordinating, in addition to the military-industrial complex, the civilian sector of the economy,' Putin announced. 'Sergei Borisovich's status is raised to the level of first deputy chairman of the Russian government.'

"The appointment gives Ivanov the same rank as Dmitry Medvedev, who is widely rumored to be his main rival in the 2008 presidential race. 
"Many Russians have long suspected that their president has been grooming one of the two men to be his successor... 
"But Kremlin watchers say placing Ivanov and Medvedev in the same position means Putin hasn't yet thrown his weight behind one man...

"'This fits perfectly with what the president was saying at his last press conference, which is that our country will have a free election involving two candidates,' Sergei Mulin, a political commentator for the newspaper Novaya gazeta, said. 'What he didn't admit was that both candidates would be supplied by the Kremlin.'..."

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Here I go again, trying to evaluate news reporting and then trying to figure out whether or how the reported events relate to a study of comparative politics.

Sunday morning, I read the al Jazeera report, excerpted below, about a bombing in southeastern Iran and gunfights between Iranian police and "armed bandits."

Iran police clash with armed group

"Clashes have broken out between police and an armed group after a bomb exploded in southeast Iran, near to where a car bomb killed at least 11 members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards on Wednesday...

"Responsibility for Wednesday's attack was claimed by a Sunni group, Jundallah [God's soldiers], which Iran has said is linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.
"Tehran has blamed Jundallah for past killings in the area bordering Pakistan...

"Iran has accused Britain and the US of supporting ethnic minority rebels operating in sensitive border areas in an attempt to destabilise the country...

"Iranian officials said five of those behind Wednesday's bombing, including the key suspect, were arrested by security forces.
"One Iranian agency quoted an unnamed official as saying the detained men had received training from the US in order to create ethnic divisions in Iran.
"The upsurge in unrest in Sistan-Baluchestan follows violence in Iran's oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan, which has a minority Arab population."

I hadn't seen anything about these events in any of the other sources I usually pay attention to, but like everyone else I have my limitations.

So I went looking for other reports of the unrest. A search of Google news found over 400 articles. The ones I looked at were short and seemed based on the Fars (Iranian news agency) reports. After all, who stations reporters in Iranian towns near the Pakistani border?

Reuters and The Australian essentially reported the same things al Jazeera did: Blast, clashes in southern Iran

"CLASHES broke out between police and an armed group following a bomb explosion in southeast Iran overnight, the Fars news agency has reported...

"Responsibility for the Wednesday attack was claimed by a shadowy Sunni group, Jundallah (God's soldiers), which Iran has said is linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network."

Zee News (India) reported that
Iran summons Pakistan envoy over bomb blasts

"Iran today said it had summoned the Pakistani Ambassador following two bomb blasts in its southeastern border city of Zahedan, one of which killed 11 elite Revolutionary Guards...

"After the meeting with Ambassador Shafkat Saeed, the two countries resolved to form a committee to improve security over their shared borders..."

Should we pay much attention to these events in teaching about Iran? Perhaps not unless there is more unrest. But we shouldn't forget them either. But how are they a part of studying and teaching about comparative politics?

The most valuable reminder about Iran and about news reports I found while following this story came from an op-ed piece by Ewen MacAskill in the Guardian (UK) titled, A better way to meddle. [my emphases added]

"Iran is far from being a homogenous state, and the leadership in Tehran is fearful of unrest. Persians only make up 51% of the population. Azeris, some of whom have been pushing to break away, make up 24% of the population. The Kurds, many of whom look at Iraqi Kurdistan and dream again of an independent Kurdish nation, account for 7%. Arabs, in the economically and strategically sensitive southwest, make up 3% of the population. And there are a host of others, including Baluchi, populous in the province where the bombings took place, who make up 2% of the population.

"The extent of the unrest is hard for Western reporters to substantiate. Getting a visa for Tehran can be hard enough. Once there, getting permission to visit some of these areas is extremely rare."

Labels: ,

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Economic-Political Culture of Islam

The teaser for the article excerpted below offers this come on: "Communism fails the rich, capitalism fails the poor but Islam as an economic system appears to fail both. Failure to prepare their young for the modern world leaves Islamic countries over-dependent on the progeny of Muslims in secular democratic countries such as those in Europe. Therein lies the case for separating religion and politics across all these countries."

The article published at Asia Times Online, offers a wealth of assertions your students could identify and evaluate. As such, it's a great exercise in critical thinking. On top of that, you could ask them how well the author's ideas apply to Iran and Iranian expatriates.

Rich bad, poor bad

"...the broader issue [is] how poorly the people from Islamic countries compare with those in the rest of the developing world. What explains the strange stagnation of Islamic countries in the socio-economic arena?...

"The failure of industry [in Islamic countries] is in essence a failure of capitalism. In most countries where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few... a functioning financial system helped to intermediate risks. This is not possible in strict Islamic societies as the religion bans usury, thus disallowing the flow of capital to the people needing it the most, ie, young entrepreneurs. Faced with uneconomic returns at home, most Middle Eastern rulers deposit their money at higher rates with European banks...

"A second failure... is the absence of appropriate education for restless youth. Religious education, rather than grounding in modern sciences, remains the norm. Thus while the production of muezzins is guaranteed, hiring a petroleum engineer can be tricky..

"Religious education also produces famously insular people. A US magazine's poll of Arab youth found that very few had heard of the Apollo moon landings, and indeed all of them dismissed such feats as US propaganda...

"It is in poor countries that Islamic government fails to the greatest extent. A cursory look at populations' inequality index (the Gini coefficient) shows that the world's second- and third-largest Islamic countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have worse indicators than most other developing countries...

"... much of the gains from the system of micro-credit [for which Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen bank was awarded the Nobel Prize] can be wiped out by political shifts. Sadly, such a shift is now happening in Bangladesh, where the increased radicalization of the population has caused foreign donors to scoot. Additionally, tough Islamic laws that the radicals would like to impose will hit the people who benefit most from micro-credit, namely Bangladeshi women...

"The most often cited examples of Islamic countries that have produced significant improvements in living standards are Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey. That observation fails because all three are secular if not democratic countries. The rule of law, as understood in Western societies, has been a key factor in their success...

"The broader exception to the points raised above have been the successful Muslim entrepreneurs to emerge across European countries... Muslims have done extremely well in Britain, Germany and France... it does push through the point that it is not the people who fail but rather their system that fails them.

"Muslims in open, democratic societies do extremely well; those in closed, religiously controlled societies do not..."

Friday, February 16, 2007

A rebuttal of the New York Times

I picked up on the original New York Times report here because it sounded so dramatic and authoritative, although I did note that Xinhua reported on the speech very differently than the Times' reporter.

The next day, I noted that China Law Blog featured some differences of opinion about what the Times had reported.

Now, Dan Harris suggests I tell you that the New York Times got it all wrong!

And, it's important to teachers of comparative government and politics to take care in attributing accuracy to sources of information. I wish I'd gone looking for more reports of Luo Gan's speech.

This episode brings into sharp relief the problem of reporting that has unstated and unrecognizable intentions. It's easier to take into account the biases of Radio Free Europe, Xinjua, al Jazeera, and Fox News than it is to recognize the biases of traditionally-reliable media and in non-traditional, non-mainstream electronic publications (like the one you're reading).

Here's why Dan Harris thinks you should discount the New York Times' account of Luo Gan's speech. I agree with him. I think the "gray lady" of New York owes us an explanation, a clarification, and perhaps an apology about why and for whom she was playing the éminence grise.

Steve Dickinson is an American lawyer living in Shanghai, China. He is associated with the law firm Harris & Moure, and contributes to the China Law Blog with his colleague, Dan Harris.

He is fluent in Chinese and has taught law (in Chinese) at Beijing University School of Law.

After the exceptions taken by Joseph Wang and Hui Mao to the New York Times report on a speech by Politburo member Luo Gan, Dickinson read a transcript of the speech.

He wrote in the China Law Blog about his reading of the speech:
  • As our readers have indicated in their comments, the NYT article completely misrepresents Luo Gan's speech
    1. The fundamental premise of Luo Gan's speech is that the legal system and rule by law play a fundamental role in the Party's goal of creating in China a harmonious socialist society...
    2. Luo Gan does not say that the legal system is used by China's enemies to undermine the power of the party... his intent is the exact opposite of what the NYT implies.
    3. Luo Gan does mention the labor reform program, but the NYT totally distorts his intent...
    4. Luo Gan never suggests that the law and the legal system are tools of the West designed to undermine China...

  • The comments on various blogs based on the NYT article are mostly irrelevant since the Luo Gan article actually states the opposite of what the NYT claims...

  • Some blog posts suggest Luo Gan is a conservative, out of step with the more progressive thinking of the younger members of the politburo. Actually, Luo Gan's speech represents the core thinking of the party and it is actually quite a progressive document...

  • A review of the sections I have translated immediately shows how the NYT article fundamentally misrepresents Luo Gan's meaning and intent... [There is a link to those translations in The China Law Blog original of this article.]

  • Note what the whole speech is about: the role of the legal system in the creation of a harmonious socialist society.  This is critical.  The theme is not freedom and protection of rights.  The theme is harmony and stability.  Harmony as social goal goes back 5,000 years in Chinese history and it is shared by virtually all Chinese, whether from the PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore or Seattle, Washington.  This fundamental goal is also shared by countries influenced by Chinese civilization: Japan, Korea and Vietnam.  Personal freedom is not a goal in this cultural complex: harmony and stability are the main goals.  The surprising thing to me in Luo Gan's speech was his stress on the need to protect the rights of the people in order to achieve the goal of harmony and stability.  This is the first time I have seen a Party official go to such great lengths to point out that if the people's legitimate rights are not protected, the goal of achieving harmony will never be achieved...

  • The NYT's article reveals the continuing inability of the U.S. to make progress on understanding what is really going on in China...

Labels: , ,

Facing skepticism and alienation

The future of British politics sounds daunting for government and politicians and a bit like the past, according to this report from The Guardian (UK).

I'd like my students to find out if these changes in the UK are reflected in any other of the countries they are studying. I would especially like them to compare and evaluate the assertions about deference, bringing about change, and faith in politics.

Defying political gravity from inside Whitehall

"Deep inside the Cabinet Office at 60 Whitehall... New Labour is trying to remake itself...

"No government, so long in office, has managed to renew itself ideologically. But week after week ministers and civil servants are attending two-hour seminars to listen to experts setting out the challenges of the future...

"A confidential summary of the themes so far suggests Mr Blair's successor faces a difficult, and different, time...

"Society is less deferential and change is secured as much by persuasion, or the development of new social norms, as by new taxes and legislation, the two things government traditionally do. The role of the state is changing, with technology providing one route to empowerment.

"Ed Miliband, one of two cabinet office ministers leading the policy review, argued that revival lies in breaking down barriers between experts and users, as well as the state and the voluntary sector. He said... "Citizens have to feel they have been listened to and can shape services."... the solutions may have to be less government-centric, and more citizen-centric...

"The seminars have revealed an anxiety about the lack of faith in politics. At one someone said government was a dirty word and remarkably no one thought to disagree. Professor Stephen Coleman argued faith in the efficacy of government had fallen off a cliff. He argued: 'We live in a paradoxical age. We live in a democratic society where there has been an unparalleled opportunity to address government and form networks, and never before has there been a such a ubiquitous articulated sense of frustration about democratic politics. Politics has become disconnected from everyday life.'"

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A teaching tool

I just finished updating my catalog of teachers' web pages for Advanced Placement Comparative Government and Politics.

I've always been curious to see what other teachers are doing, how they describe what they're doing, and how they use the web. You too might find good ideas among the pages that people created for their courses.

I looked at more than 60 web sites for Comparative Goverment that Google led me to, so I feel like I'm an expert at the moment.

And my "teaching comparative" award for best course-related web site goes to John Unruh-Friesen at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

See if there are ideas there that you could use.

(Full disclosure: John teaches at the school I taught in for 34 years before I retired. I have been familiar with his site and I know he had help from some very skilled students in putting it together. Plus he's pretty technologically competent himself. But I don't think my familiarity has biased my judgment. You can look for yourself and tell me what you think.)

His site is simply "APGov.org."

It may sound simple, but he uses the site in a variety of ways.
  • The main page lists John's reactions to things he's read, reminders about assignments and upcoming "evaluations."

  • There's an online discussion board which his students use to post reactions to readings, pose questions, and sometimes make light of their academic endeavors. (That's not publicly accessible.)

  • There's a Moodle section where he posts readings, his notes, links to audio and visual resources (like Thomas Friedman on Globalization), the official AP outline, sample test questions, and writing guides.

  • The right side of the Moodle page contains news feeds from The Economist and BBC World News. Headlines for course-related articles appear there and are links to the articles. These news feeds are automatically updated many times a day.

  • There's a categorized collection of very helpful web links that's not so large as to be overwhelming.

  • There's an e-mail link so students can get in touch easily.

  • Oh, and there's a count-down showing how many days remain until the AP exam.

It's a fine model.

If you want a new teaching tool:
  1. Decide how a web page or a collection of them could help you teach.

  2. Decide what should be on a web page to do those things.

  3. Recruit some skilled students or colleagues who are sensitive to the academic and public relations demands for such a site and get their help in putting the things you want on the web. (But, don't let the excited, technically competent advisors add every bell and whistle possible. Sometimes they are distractions.)

  4. Check with tech support in your school or district and find out if there are standards or formats you'll have to follow.

  5. Have lots of people "proof read" the early drafts and respond to their reactions.

If you want ideas about design, I recommend you spend some time reading Jakob Nielsen's Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. You won't want or need to read the whole book, but you will recognize the things you ought to read as you plan a web site for your course.

PS: If I missed your course web site, let me know. I'll add it to the catalog.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Building credibility

One way to build the credibility of a news source is to publish news that does not make you look good. Xinhua, like other government news agencies, is always suspect. Is it really a news source or is it a PR firm for the government?

This report from Xinhua suggests that it's searching for news source status. Or is it bragging about the rapid economic growth? Or is it sending a message to local officials?

China fails to achieve pollution control goal in 2006

"China's environment watchdog on Monday said the country failed to reach its pollution control goals last year as the economy grew faster than expected...

"China also pledged last year to cut the amount of energy required to produce a unit of GDP by 20 percent by the turn of the decade. It has not yet been announced if last year's target of reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP has been met. Earlier reports indicated it was highly unlikely the goal would be reached..."

The jet stream exports Chinese pollution to Japan and beyond.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Election World

Not long after I started teaching comparative politics 20 years ago, I discovered Election World.

It was a site on what then was the new-fangled thing called the World Wide Web. Election World had been created by Wilfried Derksen, a Dutch judge who cataloged election results from all over the world. In addition, Derksen maintained a schedule of upcoming elections. It was and remains an impressive result of much work.

I think that it's worth noting that Election World was one of those idealistic products of the early days of the Web, when the meme was that there be no commercial uses for the WWW. Therefore, it was not surprising that in 2004, Election World became a special part of Wikipedia. It's still edited by Derksen, so it's not run on exactly the same model as the rest of Wikipedia.

Election World is still the source to go to if you want to find election results and schedules.

You will find links at the Election World pages to a similar special Wikipedia section on political parties.

It includes

If you or your students explore these articles and the other pages that are referred to, you'll find a wealth of information.

Just remember, it's Wikipedia. While edited and published sources require skepticism and verification, Wikipedia facts and representations of reality require extra care. But you know that. Do your students?

Labels: , ,

Monday, February 12, 2007

Does democracy need an upper house?

This Economist article tries to suggest the questions that the British government should answer as it considers reform of the House of Lords. Along the way, the editors describe what they see as the legitimate role for an upper house in a bicameral legislature.

Could your students compare the roles played by upper houses in the legislatures they are studying? And how would your students evaluate the critiques in this article?

What the Lords are for

"WHEN pondering what a representative democracy should look like, one option the authors of America's Federalist Papers never entertained was to give eminent crime-writers a say in shaping the nation's laws. Yet that is what Britain's constitution currently allows: Ruth Rendell, creator of Chief Inspector Wexford, and P.D. James, who dreamt up Commander Adam Dalgliesh, are both members of the House of Lords. The place is not short of such quirks. Since there is no formal way of calling speakers, the chamber decides collectively who should take precedence, by hollering. And whereas in most bicameral systems the upper house has fewer members than the lower, the Lords outnumber the Commons by 746 members to 639. Many seldom show up.

"Yet for all that, the House of Lords is currently working better than it has for a long time...

"Most in the Commons support an upper chamber that is at least partially elected. The Conservatives have had a clear policy in favour of a largely elected upper house for the past five years, even if plenty of their MPs feel uneasy about it. Mr Straw prefers a mixture in which half of the peers would be elected and half appointed (some, as now, by political parties), which sounds like a mess. But plenty of thoughtful people (many of them in the Lords) are holding out for oligarchy...

"Such arguments were bolstered by a new poll by YouGov for the Hansard Society, a charity, which suggests the public do not want a second chamber dominated by political parties, a probable outcome were the Lords to be elected....

"Almost all big democracies have bicameral systems... But not all upper houses wield the same power. Some, like America's Senate and Germany's Bundesrat, have real clout and can prevent bad (or indeed good) laws from going beyond proposals. Others are there merely to advise, revise and slow down the whole lawmaking process...

"Powerful upper houses occur in federal states, and they are powerful because their senators are elected to represent a discrete interest. Since Britain is not federal, it is not clear whom the elected peers would be there to represent...

"If, instead of asking who should be there, the question posed is what the Lords are for, most MPs will answer that the house should remain a place 'of temporary rejecters and palpable alterers'... And only a few people on the Labour left think the thing should be scrapped altogether, which would at least be neat.

"Full democracy makes sense—but only if the role of the Lords changes. There seems little point in electing new ones, paying their salaries and providing them with offices, just so they can do what the unelected lot are already doing for free."

Labels: , ,

Rule of Law for some of the "more-equals" in Russia

RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev interviewed Andrei Illarionov recently. There are many ideas in the article for your students to examine. Asking them to find evidence to confirm or contradict these claims would be a valuable exercise.

This article is one of the places where knowing about the Soviet nomenklatura is vital to understanding the message. That knowledge will also help when studying China. If Illarionov is right perhaps the Chinese guanxi "system" is replacing the Soviet nomenklatura "system." Do I sense an essay question coming on?

Economist Says Political Elite 'Have Their Own Law'

"Andrei Illarionov spent five years as Russian President Vladimir Putin's economic adviser. Since leaving his post at the end of 2005, however, he has become a vocal critic of the Kremlin's political tendencies and human rights record.

"The emergence of a new political, economic, and ideological regime... where power is concentrated in the hands of corporations whose members hold all the key positions in the political, economic, ideological, informational, financial, and other spheres of life...

"Another element... is the widespread use of force and violence in various forms toward opponents...

"Are there similarities between this new Russian elite and the Soviet-era nomenklatura?... Certainly. Some people already refer to them as "the new nomenklatura." To a certain extent, that's correct, because the members of this nomenklatura are being appointed to the power structures with no regard for traditional, open, and competitive criteria.

"The Soviet nomenklatura was more ideological; its key element was loyalty to certain sets of dogmas... Now the most important thing is not to be a loyal follower of a certain ideology, but to be loyal to particular personal relationships...

"I have absolutely no interest in following the so-called political campaign and actions of political parties, or the so-called contenders for president [in the March 2008 election]. They're meaningless, because it's all just an imitation campaign... the government is using all the means and resources of the state apparatus, including the Foreign Ministry, the Prosecutor-General's Office, the State Duma, the Defense Ministry, state media, and so on -- all of this has been engaged in order to distract the public..."

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 11, 2007

International public opinion

If you want your students to include public opinion in their study of government and politics, remember that Angus Reid Global Monitor is a very good aggregator of poll results from all over the world.

For instance, here are some recent poll results that might be relevant to your students. Point them to the results and ask them to discuss or write about the meaning of the statistics.

Calderón Tenure Starts at 58% in Mexico

"Mexican president Felipe Calderón begins his six-year term with positive numbers, according to a poll by Ipsos-Bimsa published in El Universal. 58 per cent of respondents approve of Calderón’s performance..."

Tory Leader Cameron Loses Steam in Britain

"Public support for a Conservative government headed by David Cameron fell this month in Britain, according to a poll by Populus published in The Times. 35 per cent of respondents would vote for the Cameron-led Tories in the next general election, down four points since January.

"Conversely, 34 per cent of respondents would support the Labour party under current chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown, while 16 per cent would vote for the Liberal Democrats, led by Menzies Campbell. 15 per cent of respondents would support other parties..."

A Third of Russians Back Medveded in 2008

"Deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is the early frontrunner in Russia’s presidential race, according to a poll by the Yury Levada Analytical Center. 33 per cent of respondents would vote for Medvedev in the 2008 election, up nine points since October.

"Defence minister Sergei Ivanov is second with 21 per cent, followed by Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 14 per cent, and Communist Party (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov also with 14 per cent..."

Americans, Iranians Find Common Ground

"Many adults in the United States and Iran believe most people in the West and the Islamic world have similar needs and wants, according to a poll by Knowledge Networks for the Program on International Policy Attitudes. 56 per cent of Americans, and 54 per cent of Iranians, believe it is possible to find common ground..."

Chinese Worried About Growing Wealth Gap

"Many adults in China express concerns about inequality, according to a poll published in China Youth Daily. 80.7 per cent of respondents believe the imbalances between the wealthy and the poor need to be corrected, while 14.1 per cent think there is no need for change..."

Europeans Who Use Euro Are Dissatisfied

"Residents of Italy and France are particularly disappointed with the common European currency, according to a poll by Harris Interactive published in the Financial Times. 77 per cent of Italian respondents and 76 per cent of French respondents say the introduction of the Euro has had a negative impact in their economies..."

Some Europeans Question Newest EU Members

"Some adults in five European Union (EU) member nations question whether Bulgaria and Romania will be helpful to the continental group, according to a poll by Harris Interactive published in the Financial Times. 44 per cent of respondents in Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Germany view the entry of these two nations in a negative light..."

While opinion polling results from Nigeria seem few and far between, Nigeria is included in the Afrobarometer polling.

A recent Afrobarometer paper that is valuable for teaching about Nigeria's political culture is Performance and Legitimacy in Nigeria's New Democracy, July 2006. It includes analysis of polling results on questions like the desirability of democracy, the satisfaction with democracy, the evaluation of elected officials' performance, the trust in institutions, the perceptions of political liberties, and the extent of democracy in the country.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Online political participation

A report from The Guardian (UK) raises some important ideas.

Perhaps we ought to add an item to the list of ways people participate in politics and governance. I can't find reference to this new bit of civil society in textbooks, but it might be another rejoinder to the "bowling alone" argument -- at least some people in Whitehall hope it is.

(In reference to an earlier entry here, please note that the use of "the government" in this context is more appropriate than when the term is used in a U.S. context. That doesn't mean it's not a bit vague.)

Ministers wake to potential of people power on the net

"The government is planning to link up with the power of consumer and civic movements on the net by offering funding, permitting civil servants to post information on sites, and releasing information currently locked up in Whitehall.

"Ministers believe web movements are rapidly transforming the power relationship between government and society...

"The government plans to put more information on the net, including health and safety records of restaurants, and local planning applications.

"Whitehall officials regard it as inevitable that information-sharing forums will develop to discuss the quality of public sector performance, including individual GPs and teachers, as well as bad garages, rogue builders, and holiday destinations...

"Explaining the government's interest, Pat MacFadden, Cabinet Office minister, said: 'Polling evidence suggests we have a 20-year phenomeon of people becoming ever more demanding of government, yet ever more disengaged.

"'So we in government have to ask how we can help this movement, work with it, and yet not smother it.

"'We have been decent at putting services out there online, but the challenge now is take it to a new plane so there is a mutual conversation that helps drive choice and standards...'

"But sources say there is a debate inside Whitehall on the extent to which government should fund bottom-up initiatives, or instead launch its own more tightly controlled websites..."

NetMums, an example of the kind of paticipatory web site the government wants to encourage.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 09, 2007

Populism in Iran

Western media are focusing on apparent disagreements between Iran's conservative clergy and President Ahmadinejad. Since the Iranian president has promoted Iran's nuclear program, he hasn't been very popular in the west, therefore any hints that he might be in political trouble are welcome in most places in the U. S.

Here's another perspective on Ahmadinejad's political position from M K Bhadrakumar, a veteran Indian diplomat, in Asia Times Online. This article offers a number of analytical perspectives that differ from those that show up in the Western press. He emphasizes is the role of bazaaris and left-wing political ideas in Iranian politics, which are often neglected in American journalism. (How well does your students' textbook deal with those topics?)

Could your students find information to evaluate Bhadrakumar's assertions?

Ahmadinejad held hostage to bazaar politics

"In the geography between the Arabian Sea and the Levant, there is only one country where it is possible to fancy that an elected government could tumble because of the price of tomatoes in the bazaar - Iran...

"The main thing about Ahmadinejad that irritates Washington is his immense popularity within Iran... Ahmadinejad is the first populist leader Iranians have known...

"Quite naturally, Ahmadinejad doesn't represent all political forces in Iran... He poses a challenge to powerful sections of the ruling elite. His brand of revolutionary Shi'ism unnerves the conservative clergy. He spreads unease in the bazaar with his program of social justice... Again, Ahmadinejad puts off Iran's middle class and intelligentsia by his sheer earthiness... in terms of electoral arithmetic, the alliance between the conservative clergy (including Rafsanjani), the bazaar and the 'reformist' camp, which was patently an unholy coalition scrambled together for the sake of stalling any 'Ahmedinjad wave', prevailed...

"Some naively wondered whether Ahmadinejad was on his 'way out'. But that's not the way politics works in Tehran. The conservative clergy knows that the system based on the doctrine of velayat-i-faqih... does not any more appeal to large sections of the Iranian people, including sizable sections of clerics. The corruption that began entrapping the religious establishment during Rafsanjani's presidency (1988-96) became legion. The electoral victory of Ahmadinejad in August 2005 was a wake-up call that the impoverished Iranian people were yearning for change...

"The domestic political challenges for Ahmadinejad come on the issues of economic policy, and not on account of what he has said about the Holocaust (which Khamenei publicly endorsed) or on account of his so-called 'hard line' on the nuclear issue (on which there is vehement public opinion supportive of Iran's 'natural rights'). The prospects of his re-election in 2009 will depend on how he wards off challenges on the economic front...

"Ahmadinejad has resorted to a policy of government spending... oil money into government-run projects for creating jobs. This has been a successful populist measure and it explains the popularity that Ahmadinejad enjoys in poorer communities. Unemployment fell last year to an eight-year low of 10.3%. But there has been a downside.

"First, his policy of low interest rates drove up lending and led to inflation...

"Ahmadinejad 's policy, which puts emphasis on the public sector, virtually sidelines the Iranian bazaar. Now, the bazaar in Tehran has traditionally called the shots in the country's political economy. The nexus between the bazaar and the clergy has begun reacting to Ahmadinejad's redistributive economic policies. The bazaar has shown it wields clout within Parliament. Rafsanjani has openly called for privatization and a market-oriented economy.

"'We should harmonize our economy with the global economy as soon as possible ... We should activate the private sector in such a way that people can feel assured that the government will fully support their major investments ... We should take the private sector seriously,' he recently said...

"The bazaar has signaled to Ahmadinejad in unmistakable terms...

"Iranian media reports show that from January to late August last year prices of fruit and vegetables in urban areas rose by 20%. During the Ramadan season, the price of fruit doubled and that of chicken increased by 20%. By October, in the run-up to the recent elections that Ahmadinejad 'lost', his approval rating dropped to 35%...

"The nexus between Shi'ism and the bazaar is age-old. What prospects does Ahmadinejad have by tilting at the windmills of this historic nexus? Gripes over the price of tomatoes could after all form part of a critique."

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A long, complex post on international trade

Apologies for the length of this essay. It is a complex topic. It may be so complex that the explanation of the politics doesn't fit into an introductory semester course in comparative politics. (Sometimes you just have to say, "Believe me. That's how it is.") But it's probably something we should know as teachers.

On Tuesday morning, Rebecca Small posed these questions:

"The protests in Mexico over food prices has caused me to
wonder - what do the terms of NAFTA forbid when it comes to
subsidizing food prices? I know the government had to end its
subsidies on tortillas in 1999. But the US subsidizes our
agricultural products, how can we do that if we are part of NAFTA?
And what if anything can Pres. Calderon do about rising food prices?"

I was stumped by all of them, even though I'd written about the protests last week.

That afternoon, I saw this article in the International Herald Tribune WTO's 150 members to meet amid uncertainty about the U.S.

"Two weeks after world powers pledged to re-energize global free trade talks, the WTO's 150 members meet Wednesday...

"But much hinges on two major decisions pending in just one country: the United States, where Congress will debate whether to extend President George W. Bush's authority to agree on trade deals and whether to adopt a new farm bill that has received a lukewarm response from major trading partners such as Brazil and Europe...

"One of the main stumbling blocks has been the level of U.S. government subsidies paid out to American farmers. Poorer nations contend the handouts prevent them from selling their farm goods and developing their economies. The 27-nation EU and other competitors say they cannot significantly open their lucrative markets to American beef, poultry and other exports until the subsidies are reduced..."

So, I asked myself, what's with the coexistence of these subsidies and the free trade mandates included with GATT, WTO, and NAFTA?

It turns out that the treaties make significant distinctions between tariffs, non-tariff barriers to trade, and subsidies. I had blithely assumed that while different, tariffs, regulations, and subsidies were all barriers to trade. Shows you how much I know. It turns out that there are also important differences between subsidies for domestic products and subsidies for exports.

Tariffs are taxes on goods imported. Non-tariff barriers include things like rules requiring dolphin-safe nets to catch tuna or requiring that imports be done only by companies owned by citizens of the importing country. Subsidies are government payments to producers which are meant to lower the market cost of final products or guarantee a desired level of production.

Consider this information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: FACT SHEET: North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

"Under NAFTA, all non-tariff barriers to agricultural trade between the United States and Mexico were eliminated.  In addition, many tariffs were eliminated immediately, with others being phased out over 5 to 15 years...

"Under NAFTA, all non-tariff measures affecting agricultural trade between the United States and Mexico were eliminated on Jan. 1, 1994.  These barriers, including Mexico's import licensing system (which had been the largest single barrier to U.S. agricultural sales), were converted to either tariff-rate quotas or ordinary tariffs.
"All agricultural tariffs between Mexico and the United States will be eliminated. Many were immediately eliminated and others were to be phased out over transition periods..."

So, tariffs and non-tariff obstacles are no longer big issues among the NAFTA partners. Subsidies are another, more complicated matter. The DOA Fact Sheet continues:

"The three NAFTA countries work toward the elimination of export subsidies worldwide.  The United States and Canada will be allowed to provide export subsidies into the Mexican market to counter subsidized exports from other countries...

"Under NAFTA, the parties should endeavor to move toward domestic support policies that have minimal trade or production distorting effects..."

Subsidy elimination, then is a goal, but subsidies are allowed under some circumstances. The U.S. is very generous in its subsidies to American farmers. Why then did Zedillo's government eliminate subsidies for tortillas in Mexico in '99?

The stated reasons were that factory-made tortillas, bought by the middle class in super markets, were being subsidized as well as the "tortillerias" product, where most of the poor shopped. And the government needed to reduce spending in the face of lower oil prices. (See also: Tortilla Price Hike Hits Mexico's Poorest, from the Washington Post, 12 January 1999)

So, how do the U.S. and the EU persuade their trading partners to accept the large subsidies paid to their farmers? Well, besides the obvious lure of their huge and rich markets?

Consider this report by Peter Gal from the Public Law Research Institue at the Hastings College of Law: Public Law Research Institute Report: NAFTA's Relationship to State Support of Industries and Export Subsidies

"... the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which excludes direct subsidy to industries before the export stage. The main exception [under NAFTA]... is the... explicit allowance of such domestic support in the agricultural sector...

"NAFTA and the Administrative Action Statement explicitly discuss and allow support of domestic agricultural enterprises.

"NAFTA parties may utilize export subsidies against competition from non-NAFTA countries. NAFTA parties may introduce an export subsidy on exports of an agricultural good to another NAFTA country... Each party maintains its right to apply countervailing duties to subsidized agricultural imports from any source, including NAFTA parties... While no changes in domestic agricultural subsidies are required of any of the NAFTA countries, the Agreement does require participants to endeavor to move toward domestic policies that have 'minimum or no trade distorting or production effects.'...

"Agricultural Export subsidy programs have provided an important tool to maintain and expand exports of U.S. agricultural commodities. Currently, there are export subsidy programs to promote exports to Mexico of many U.S. agricultural commodities, including the export enhancement program, the dairy export incentive program and the cottonseed oil and sunflower seed oil assistance programs.

"The Secretary of Agriculture will aggressively use the agricultural export subsidy programs with respect to exports to Mexico as appropriate to help U.S. producers compete against subsidized products from other countries...

"But while agricultural subsidies are allowed under NAFTA... they seem to be strongly disfavored... The Parties to NAFTA agree that 'their primary goal with respect to agricultural subsidies is to achieve, on a global basis, the elimination of all subsidies which distort agricultural trade, and the Parties agree to work together to achieve this goal, including through multilateral trade negotiations such as the Uruguay Round.'..."

So, subsidies are allowed for products for domestic consumption and to match the competition of subsidies from countries outside the treaty. They are even allowed to promote exports to Mexico. But they're not desireable, according to the treaties. But, politically they are desireable. I'd guess those subsidies are political minefields. Think about how difficult it is to reduce agricultural subsidies in the US. (And watch the arguments in Congress during the next several months.)

And tortilla subsidies? Well, perhaps it's true that Mexico can't afford them. Perhaps it's true that a general subsidy benefits many who don't need the benefit. Perhaps the subsidies give advantages to small-scale, inefficient producers, and the elimination of subsidies offer benfits to large corporations. And perhaps what's really important is the rising demand for corn brought about by ethanol production in the USA.

Labels: , ,