CHINESE ROCKET SCIENCE AND THE “WICKED” PROBLEMS OF TIBET
#5 in a series on THE FUTURE OF TIBET
The engineers of the old Politburo that retired in 2012 had a secret religion, called metasynthetic engineering. It worships computerised modelling of reality, believing that there is a rational, scientific solution to all social problems. The key is to unlock the hidden “laws” driving any complex social situation, discovering the inner workings and hidden geometries.
From a Tibetan perspective, this belief in “objective laws” of complex human societies just makes blindness even blinder. Instead of being able to see the plain truth that Tibetans are deeply unhappy, China’s leaders befuddle themselves with equations of governance that claim to reveal the inner workings of the intractable, “wicked” policy problems China’s new leaders face, including Tibet.
Now a new generation of leaders is in charge in Beijing. Does this mean we have heard the last of metasynthetic engineering?
Adherents of this cult use a special language, referring to key concepts. If we look closely at the language of the new emperor, Xi Jinping, we can decode key signs that he too is a convert to this school of master plans and master designs, while avoiding sounding like a Stalinist central planner.
China’s cohort of central planners express confidence that their research will, for example, “reveal the evolution laws of the spatial patterns of borders”, including Tibet. They set themselves, as a target for the year 2030, “to develop the theoretical frameworks, integration methods and application systems for the rise and development in the border areas of China; to reveal the bidirectional economic development pattern in border areas, laws and dynamic mechanisms of transnational and inter-regional material, energy, information and capital flows; to elucidate the laws of regional differentiation in border areas.” That is a quote from a page turner called Scientific and technological roadmap for research on regional development in border areas of China to 2050, in Regional Development Research in China: A Roadmap to 2050, Springer, 2010, page 177.
This is the language of the systems engineer, to whom all problems are definable and thus amenable to technical solution. Just do the math. While Chinese geologists may have been popular heroes, guerrillas of socialist construction, the other scientists who were held up as models were China’s rocket scientists, working on issues such as guidance systems for China’s nuclear missiles to correct their course inflight and ensure they hit their target. Not only did the rocket scientists survive the purges of the Cultural Revolution, they convinced themselves that their systems engineering math could solve China’s social problems too. They went about persuading China’s leaders of the dangers of persisting with the revolutionary program of encouraging mothers to bear children, and they succeeded. Their success in scaring the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party, with graphs showing the dangers of an overpopulated China where no-one had more than a square metre on which to live, is legendary. This is the origin of the one-child policy, a fascinating story well told in Susan Greenhalgh, Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China; and Joel Andreas, Rise of the Red Engineers.
The descendants of the rocket scientists now claim to have computerised tools for solving even the most intractable human problems, such as what to do with Tibet. They are clustered, in Beijing, at the Institute of Systems Science, in the Academy of Mathematics and Systems Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. They hold out the promise, especially attractive to central planners, that complex social problems are soluble, and it is no longer necessary to put aside certain problems as insoluble, even wicked, because they are hard to define and thus hard to solve.
Wicked problems –a term invented by these systems scientists- are not only irrational, complex, all too human, and intractable, they are above all undefinable. Tibet is China’s ultimate wicked problem. By comparison, the question of whether China should mine copper in Peru or the Congo is soluble and straightforward. But wicked problems such as Tibet remain a nightmare, because there is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem). The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
Ultimately, the fundamental mistake of the systems engineers and central planners is to assume that all circumstances can be problematised, defined as a problem, which is then isolated from its embeddedness in ongoing human reality, by innumerable assumptions and models. Defining Tibet as a problem makes it a problem, all the more of an irritant because no solution is ever found other than to persist with the mutually contradictory twin policies of repression and fast economic development, including mining.
In a China run by engineers, the systems engineers are undeterred. Everything is reducible to mechanistic categories amenable to computerised manipulation. “Meta-synthetic engineering aims to take the advantages of both human expert system in qualitative intelligence and machine system in quantitative intelligence to generate more new validated knowledge stored into knowledge system,” they write. “Meta-synthesis system approach has been applied to macroeconomic problems, weapon system evaluation, comprehensive transportation system design in China. Practices in social problem solving is started.” Xijin Tang, Towards Meta-Synthetic Support To Unstructured Problem Solving, International Journal of Information Technology & Decision Making, Vol. 6, No. 3 (2007) 491–508
The Chinese scientists propose creating physical spaces where groups of experts can sit together, interacting with computers, tgo generate together the solutions needed: “Qian proposed the idea for constructing a Hall for Workshop on Meta-Synthetic Engineering (HWMSE) for practising meta-synthesis approach in 1992. HWMSE aims to exceed the traditional decision support system, which is mainly based on computer, by a man–machine hybrid system where people play principal roles to give judgment for strategic planning and decision analysis. Within the Hall, human experts make full use of advanced information technologies to achieve data, information and knowledge support for quantitative analysis; which reflects the cooperation and collaboration between human beings and machines while humans play active and decisive roles.” Jifa Gu, Xijin Tang, Meta-synthesis approach to complex system modelling, European Journal of Operational Research 166 (2005) 597–614
This faith that all problems, including classically political problems over who gets what, and whose rights take priority over those of others, all have technical, numerical, computable solutions, is surprisingly widespread in China. In a party-state where politics is seldom in the open, and there are severe penalties for encroaching on the party’s monopoly on power, technicisation of political contention might seem to be a way for outsiders to do politics without appearing to be acting politically. But this technicisation of problems appeals most of all to the insiders, the party elite, because it promises to achieve modernity, objectivity, progress, rationality, scientific development and a harmonious convergence on what is numerically proven to be necessary.
Metasynthetic control systems appeal to the elite, because it is they who have the expertise which is privileged by this fantasy of technocratic mastery. It is the central leaders who are exemplary possessors of high human quality (suzhi), and represent all the advanced forces, in whom all progressive laws of development are embodied. Official slogans constantly proclaim the party leaders as representatives of all that is most civilised and advanced, a model for all others to emulate.
Xi Jinping, as China’s new leader, is known for certain phrases, such as “pay even more attention to a top-level design for reform and a long-range plan for reform”, his contribution to the 12TH Five Year Plan. A close observer of China’s elite, Barry Naughton, spotted Xi Jinping’s code words, and knows their linmaeage: “The phrase comes from scientific arenas like systems engineering, integrated circuit design, and telecom networks theory, where the top-level design indicates the master design into which the more detailed sub-designs are integrated. It possesses the nice property of suggesting an overarching conception of future reforms, without falling prey to the hubris of grand plans or long-run programs.” Barry Naughton, Leadership Transition and the “Top-Level Design” of Economic Reform, China leadership Monitor 37, 2012
In modern guise, this is the imperial court reborn, run by a Confucian literati mandarinate recast as technocratic masters. Like the model Confucian gentleman scholar who has perfected his self by cultivating all civilised qualities, the Party School graduates who are now CEOs of state owned mining companies can congratulate themselves on becoming role models. David Shambaugh, another close observer familiar with China’s leaders, says: “Several of the criteria used in cadre appraisals use terminology reminiscent of the Confucian personnel system of imperial times: de (morality), neng (capability), qing (diligence), ji (achievement), and li (uncorrupt). The overall goal, according to many official documents, is to create a cadre corps composed of talented people (rencai), another Confucian concept.” David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: atrophy and adaptation, Cambridge 2008, 142
Today’s mix of Confucian state worship, Qing dynastic hauteur reborn, plus scientistic master designs for Tibet, all packaged as rational solutions, are what blind China’s leaders to basic reality.