Monday, February 6, 2012

Ann Lee: Lessons from China

While I was driving back home, I tuned to NPR this evening.  It so happened that Ann Lee, an Adjunct Professor at NYU and the author of book 'What U.S. Can Learn From China', was speaking at World Affair Council.

She started her career as bond trader shortly after her MBA, but decided to leave Wall Street after seeing how brokers and dealers were participating unethical trading practices that ultimately resulted in 2008 financial debacle.  During the talk, she talked about a couple of interesting points to think about.  Her main thrust of argument was that U.S. has a few things that is fundamentally broken, and can learn from China in fixing those problems.

First problem is the lack of grooming and selection process for national leaders in U.S.  She contrasts how U.S. elects our leaders and how Chinese leaders are screened and selected.  In U.S., we elect our leader based on populous vote (well, not exactly because of electoral college and superPAC), while in China leader is promoted to be the head of state.  She compares Chinese leader selection processes to that of CEO selection process where candidates have to prepare for years to learn the skills and prove themselves in smaller capacity.  She cites the qualification exam as another example of how Chinese leaders are screened rather than chosen by vote.

Second is the revolving door between elected officials and lobbyists in U.S.  Because there is no screening process for elected officials and corporations are treated as individual, money influencing the politics more than ever.  But not in China, says Ann Lee.  Because of strict screening process and life-time of grooming needed based on merit, top officials are generally respected by Chinese people, unlike here in America.  She reports over 80% approval of top government officials in China, compared to single digit approval rating for our members of Congress.

Third is the lack of long-term planning and vision.  Because election cycle comes up every few years, all elected officials are busy campaigning based on short-term results and rhetorics instead of what is really needed to get the country in the right track.  In China, she argues that 5-to-10 year planning is possible because officials are that much more held responsible for the result that it creates.

It's an interesting perspective.  As I wrote about the misalignment between multiple stakeholders creating a short-sighted regulation such as SOPA, I think this problem is largely caused by not aligning politician's interest with people and future generation's interest.  When politician's interest is to get the short-term effects regardless whether it's lasting result, it is impossible to get them to focus on long-term planning.  In a system that rewards people pay lip service and have deep pocket rather than people who work for a living, it is difficult to expect everyone is working to solve the problem.

What we have to fix is the system.  We have to figure out a way to empower people to make their voices heard.  By unleashing those moderate voices in the middle who often don't get the media attention and hold our officials accountable for all the wrongs that we see, there will not be a change in our political system and our future.

I think that there is a role for social media to play in that political discourse.  We are already seeing them from 2011 Arab Spring and Occupy movement powered by social media.  When we start to engage in an open dialogue about reforming our system to realign all party's goal, we'll get a chance to take a step forward in solving the problem that we see today.

Ann Lee spoke recently at Google; her main points start around 9 minutes into the video


  1. I have not listened to her talk, but I feel China isn't exactly a role model when it comes to empowering people and make our voices heard.  Sure U.S. political system is broken, but China isn't much better, if not worse, IMO.

  2. I share your view, Minwoo.  There are many things that U.S. is far better at, such as democratic process, long history of civic participation and ingenuity in solving problems.  I think the point is for U.S. to selectively take things that are working well in China.