Friday, 21 September 2012

Russian Politics: The Paradox of a Weak State

During the last couple of years, I had the chance to read quite a few books on Russian politics. This one by the political scientist Marie Mendras (French version published in 2008, this updated English version in 2012) is one of the best I've come upon so far.

Mendras is a strong-headed French researcher (in 2010, she briefly was Director of the Policy Planning Staff in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but soon had to leave due to a series of quarrels and differences of opinion with staff and colleagues).

In the book, she focuses on the relation between state and society in Russia. Instead of using a chronological order (as many similar books do), Mendras presents a series of topical chapters that look at the Tsarist and Communist legacy, Russia's relationship with the West, the role of political institutions and the bureaucracy to build a framework which she then uses to analyse Vladimir Putin's Russia today.

Mendras is not afraid of advancing strong opinions. But here this is not a disadvantage, as her view on how Russia works comes - in my opinion - close to what is actually happening in the country. Mendras argues that instead of rebuilding a strong Russian state, Putin has successfully undermined most public institutions, to established a patronage system of rule. Loyalty to the elites in the centre is the criteria that decides if state employees are promoted or not. This has resulted in a state apparatus that is weak and inefficient, with the wrong incentives in place and the elites at the center being unaccountable to the society they govern.

Mendras skillfully presents the research of a large number of major Russia watchers to back up her analysis. If you buy her argument, it's a good explanation why Russia has such difficulties to implement a modernization agenda and some kind of industrial policy. A good book.   

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Qufu (曲阜)

Master Kong
In the year 551 BC, Confucius was born in the eastern Chinese city of Qufu.

Today, more than 2500 years later, the Kong mansion, the Confucius temple and the cemetery where all members of the Kong family have been buried since the great master died are still places of great interest, with travellers coming from far away to have a look.

 In the estate of the Kong family, I met professor Wang.

Professor Wang is an eminent scholar of Chinese literature and poetry. He was showing Master Kong's birthplace to his granddaughter.

Later on in the Confucius temple, a couple of people were lighting incense sticks, but otherwise the temple grounds were quiet and empty:

In the afternoon, I went to see the famous cemetery, which is actually a small forest north of town. In the forest, suspicious guardians were keeping watch over the many graves that lay scattered throughout the woods.


Early the next morning, I rented a bicycle to have a look at the sourrounding countryside. All throughout town, people were already up and busy:

A bit to the east of Qufu, the Beijing - Shanghai highspeed line passes by...

...but otherwise, the countryside still looks very rural, and most people seem to walk to get from place to place.

When I came to the gate of a middle school, a man was waving. He was a mathematics teacher (first from the left on the picture), and wanted to present me to his colleagues:

Then he brought me to a class where a girl who was the same age as me was teaching English. First her students were very shy, but then they asked many questions. How is the weather in Europe? Who is your prime minister? How did you come to China? Is everyone in Europe supporting FC Barcelona? How tall are you? I tried to answer as best as I could.   

After class, the English teachers invited me for lunch.

Then I said good-bye and continued cycling. In the next village, people were wearing white clothes and making strange music. First I didn't understand what was going on, but then I saw that it was a funeral. 


A bit further on, a couple of roadworkers had a rest in the shade next to the road. They were constructing a new highway:

On the way home, a man with an interesting vehicle overtook me. He was transporting white paint, and was leaving a trail of small white dots on the road behind him.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

A trip to the countryside

One morning in Xi'an, I wanted to go to the countryside. So I went to a nearby shop and rented a bicycle:


The best way to get to the countryside seemed to keep straight South, so I just started cycling. Traffic in central Xi'an was dense and interesting, with heavy loads being transported by simple means.

Eventually, the tall skyscrapers were replaced by lower buildings, and the road started to climb slightly. Behind, one could see the city center and the television tower disappearing in the mist.

Slowly, the roads became dustier, the traffic less dense, until the landscape had all of a sudden no longer an urban but a rural feel. 

After some time, I passed through a sleepy village:


Along the road, there were some nice old bridges. One of them was bordered by willow trees, and an old man with a straw hat was just crossing. It all looked very Chinese.

Then I met these guys. They told me that the mountain in the background was called "Wutai Shan", just like the famous "Wutai Shan" in Shanxi province.

In the next village, I stopped to have an ice cream. Some children from a nearby school also passed by to buy some sweets.

Soon, we were taking funny pictures:

Eventually, most of the school must have come out, and there was a lot of commotion on the tiny village street that had been so quiet just a few minutes earlier. 

Then I was again alone one a small road. From the large wheat fields, one could easily see that the main staple food of the region was bread and noodles. 

In a village on my way back, I bought some water in a shop and had a chat with the friendly owners.

Later in the afternoon, back in Xi'an, I took some zig-zag routes and lost my way. The subburbs of big Chinese cities all look somewhat similar, and are sometimes not easy to navigate.

But then, like an old friend, the TV tower peered round a corner, and I knew that I was on the right track.