Brookings’ Antholis Tells TNH about Asia

NEW YORK – In preparing for his compact but informative book, Inside out India and China – Local Politics Go Global, William Antholis, Managing Director of the Brookings Institution, rode a mental Orient Express for years, and when he flew there on a five-month journey, he took his family along for a fascinating ride. Since India’s economic libera

NEW YORK – In preparing for his compact but informative book, Inside out India and China – Local Politics Go Global, William Antholis, Managing Director of the Brookings Institution, rode a mental Orient Express for years, and when he flew there on a five-month journey, he took his family along for a fascinating ride.
Since India’s economic liberalization in 1991 and Deng Xiaoping’s earlier market revolution in China, the world economy – indeed the well-being of the West – has been strongly dependent on the political and economic progress of two once-sleeping giants with 2.5 billion people and swelling GDPs.
The most valuable aspect of Antholis’ book is that he shines a light where policymakers and the press must look to appreciate what is going on, and his main point is to not focus on the capitals. National officials can make deals, but they get implemented – or not – in the states, provinces, and cities.
Consensus building is the key to effective government in both countries. China has more fully embraced it, and Antholis say the EU and United States can learn from Beijing, but it also applies to families planning trips of a lifetime.
Antholis’ wife Kristen Suokko, who is of Finnish descent and a world traveler herself, was an easy sell. Their daughters, Kiri, who turned eight on the trip, and Annika, who celebrated her 10th birthday, may need the passage of time to appreciate it fully.
Nevertheless, Antholis said although they missed home, “very few kids get to hold a baby panda, or ride an elephant, or go to the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal.”{68692}

The couple first met in government service. Suokko had traveled to both countries as a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of Energy and working for not-for-profit organizations, and as Antholis began to visit, they often discussed their experiences.{68690}

When the book project appeared, he said, “she dove into in and got very excited about it…she understood the global and policy implications of it,” but also the importance to Antholis of “getting more on the ground time and experiences there in very intense way.
“The kids, however were a harder sell…they were nine and seven,” when they embarked. It was a “real shock to the system, to leave their home and beds and friends…for five months and not being in any one place long enough,” to re-establish the comfort of home and make new friends.
They lived in seven different places and traveled to a dozen others, and the children were home-schooled. They did attempt to keep in touch with friends by skype and telephone, “but it was difficult because you are upside down in time zones.”
From the parents’ perspective, however, it was an amazing trip. They met “an extraordinary array of business leaders, academics, journalists, and others,” in both countries, he said, adding, “They are an impressive group of people and I was very fortunate to spend time with them.”
They met Indian leaders who might become prime minister one day – crucial general elections are coming up in 2014 – including Narendra Modi, the charismatic but bellicose Hindu Nationalist, whom Antholis calls “India’s most admired and most feared politician.”
“India: Forward States, Backward States, and Swing States,” was the chapter that examined the conditions and prospects of the country’s component units.
The key to China’s future (if not the rest of the world’s) is reproducing the spectacular economic development of the coast in the inland provinces and stability in the resource-rich non-Ethnic Chinese western and northern regions. The most fascinating part of the book described the political experiments on the coast.
Antholis’ encounters far surpassed the value of the typical 45-minute talks in hotel lobbies that Westerners usually have, and he was lucky to be in China during the leadership transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping and the stunning Bo Xilai scandal.
In response to a question of what surprised him the most, he affirmed that “the greatest strength of both countries were quite clear. India is this extraordinary diverse democracy and China has been extremely successful in economic development and planning.”
In India, “democracy and freedom of speech is very real,” he said, but because of the power of the central and state government bureaucrats, at the city and village level elected officials don’t have the power to do very much.
In China, the opposite is the case. “The economic dynamism appears to be centrally planned, but there is a dimension of local control by political and economic officials who have to some degree liberated to experiment,” and be entrepreneurial to a greater degree than he expected.
He was quite surprised that was not the case in India, despite its vaunted liberalization rapidly created a huge middle class.
“The level of pollution in both countries, but especially in China, is difficult to imagine,” he said. In the book, which included astute observations from his wife and children, he quoted his daughter Annika that “India is dirty, China is polluted.”
As a result of the coal-fired electricity plants the air is choking and “feels metallic,” he said. On the bright side, the government is taking it seriously. Part of the problem, however, is that officials are still promoted on their ability to meet economic growth targets, but the power of the media, although that too was stronger than Antholis imagined, is not sufficient to secure a watchdog role. And although there has been progress in the rule of law, it is hard to sue for violations of pollution standards.
He agrees that some officials better appreciate the value of frees press keeping an eye on things like pollution, corruption and economic mismanagement.
“With central planning at national, state, and city levels, there are usually a lot of bad decisions being made – both corruption and misallocation of resources – that are leading to economic bubbles,” he said.
Local debt that is not being properly tracked and a general lack of economic transparency is a huge problem both for China and the rest of the world.
He said that when “important banks with deep roots and stakes in China like HSBC say the lack of transparency in Central province is a problem, they have to pay attention.”
Antholis said that debates in academia and even in the media are quite striking. He attended a faculty meeting at a Chines university and the faculty was saying things like “we should not be taking our priorities from the Politburo, they should be taking their priorities from us – in an open session with an American sitting there and it was a widely shared view,”
Regarding the communist party he said theory and practice often have little to do with one another. “The theory is that this is still communism and the party manages things in a top down way,” with emphases on central planning and redistribution of wealth, “but it is a brutally capitalistic society in a number of other ways,” he said.
The big challenge for the partly is how to make the economy more efficient and effective, more private sector oriented, when there are so many state owned enterprises. In their defense, they have helped jump start industry in a few key sectors, and they serve traditional priorities by providing allocating resources for social and political benefits.
But the leaders realize that they cannot be as highly competitive if they cling to those enterprises.
It is interesting to note, that breaking up those enterprises in the name of private sector development “may require a more authoritarian hand, as opposed to greater democracy – that is the challenge to opening up the political system if that empowers more people to cling to the status quo,” Antholis said.
“The way to understand China and the Communist Party’s relationship to the people is that at some level, most Chinese have bought into the government system that currently happens to be run by the CP and as society they are built to respect expertise and authority.” The question is whether the party priesthood – he likened it to the Catholic Church – is in touch with the needs and aspirations of the people.
But the two biggest changes in China “greater material wealth, giving people a stake in the political game, and greater access to information, including the ability to create information, i.e., using your cell phone to microblog,” are powerful political realities he said
They pose the greatest long term threat to the relationship between government and the people, but Antholis believes the party will continue to evolve and be responsive. “It is a very dynamic organization and not brittle,” he said.
He said his Greek heritage “came up in many ways, especially in India.” In Chennai, there is a vibrant Syriac Orthodox community – South India is 20 percent Christian and Antholis said it was a moving experience to meet with Eastern Christians in India.
He said Alexander the Great also came up often. “The legacy is widely discussed. The upper castes still emphasize their Indo-European origins that link them with the West.
The family made sure to frequent the Greek owned restaurants in Delhi and Mumbai, and there were Greek restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai too, but they ate pizza wherever they could find it.
Chinese intellectuals did not bring up democracy’s roots in ancient Greece, Antholis said, but since they are interested in how large states are best governed, they are fascinated by the empires of Athens and Alexander and the rise of Rome, which occurred around the time founding of China.
Although the book did not touch on the place of religion in China, Antholis told TNH “it is an absolutely real thing there. Out of 1.3 billion people there are 300 million practicing actively practicing religion of one kind or another, Christianity, Moslems, Buddhists, Taoists, etc.” He said there are 100 million Christians but only 80 million members of the Chinese Communist Party.
“It is clear that has become a big talking point for the Greek and Cypriot governments, the communities, and Cypriot energy are higher on the agenda, and it is a fascinating development.