It’s what you do with it that counts

Forbes’ annual power list is out:

Forbes power list


There’s nothing wildly shocking in there compared to previous years, but what is interesting are the criteria that Forbes uses to define someone as “powerful”.

Notably, three out of the top five spots – specifically 1, 2 and 4 – are occupied by people who took on roles that were not hugely promising at the beginning, but which they have since made their own in various interesting ways.

In no way is it evident that the President of Russia, the German Chancellor or the Pope should be so highly ranked. Sure, they should have a pretty high score ex officio, but not necessarily that high. Germany is a small European country hamstrung by its neighbours’ problems, Russia is a lumbering giant held together by belligerence and gaffer tape and the Catholic church is a scandal-wracked ruin of its former self. In other words, it’s less the positions themselves that Forbes is complimenting, than what their tenants have managed to do with them.

In fact, Forbes‘ ranking system is something like the opposite of the parable of the talents: starting with many advantages and doing a reasonable-if-uninspiring job with them is rewarded less than making something remarkable out of less auspicious beginnings.

Well ok, but so what?

The fact that Forbes chose to take such an approach reflects on their own editorial department’s modes of thought, but the fact that they had a reasonable amount of latittude in defining “power” isn’t a given. In fact, it’s a matter of language. One presumes that this list was compiled as well as published in English. If they’d been writing in French or Italian or Chinese, however, they would have faced a different set of questions to asnwer.

English has far more words than many languages, partly due to the waves of conquerors that swept across England during the dark ages, and partly due to its rapacious attitude towards useful-looking foreign vocabulary and its willingness to accomodate creoles. (According to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue, English has twice as much vocabulary in common use as French, for example.) Consequently, it’s a rare word in English that doesn’t come with two or three commonly-used synonyms – usually there’ll be at least one with Germanic roots and one with Latin roots.

“Power” is an interesting exception. We only have one commonly-used word to cover the whole phenomenon. Most Latin languages, for example, have at least two, splitting it into two distinct concepts. So it is that in French “power” can be rendered either as “pouvoir” or “puissance” and these two cannot be used interchangeably to refer to the English-language concept.

I was educated in part at Sciences Po, and thus spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time bent over a creaky old exam desk attempting to define the two. So it is that I feel moderately qualified to speak on the subject (my marks weren’t particularly good, but I never actually got kicked out).

In brief, pouvoir deals with the more administrative and governmental side of things, while puissance has more to do with raw force, whether physical or psychological. In fact, it is easier to explain using examples: high-ranking civil servant (in the Weberian sense) relies more on pouvoir, while a warlord favours puissance.

In fact, in a slightly smug in-joke, Sciences Po still uses a fox and a lion on its crest in reference to the famous passage by Machiavelli (link).

Sciences Po logo

In such a schema, the fox could be said to represent pouvoir – using human ideas and institutions to control events – and the lion would stand for puissance – using brute force or charisma. (If I recall correctly, renaissance Italian also used two separate terms, much like modern French – podestà and potenza – though common usage has changed slightly since, and now privileges potere over podestà)

So from a French point of view, we could interpret the Forbes compilers’ criteria as favouring people who have used puissance as a way to extend pouvoir.

If you move away from European languages things can get even more complicated. Chinese, for example, has several individual characters that describe various aspects of power, and which can all be combined in various ways to provide even more nuance:

or  generally means physical force, though it can sometimes have to do with will power (努力), intention () or ability (视力).

or quán is to do with legally-endorsed authority as well as rights and privileges, though legally-endorsed does not necessarily mean good or benevolent or even law abiding. It is used to refer to human rights (人权) just as happily as hegemony-by-conquest () and intellectual property (知识产权).

The two combine to produce 权力, the term most often used in refering to political power, though, interestingly, it isn’t the word used by the Chinese edition of Forbes in reporting on the 2015 power rankings. Instead, the writers have gone for , which brings us to the third option and the least intuitively easy-to-grasp for a non-Chinese speaker.

 or shì is an odd and complex creature. It does mean power, but it also has connotations of momentum and inertia – of trends within society.  could just as happily be translated as “influential” as “powerful”. If you look at a selection of the various words that use 势 you can get a better idea of its various meanings.

There are various other relevant concepts ( etc.), but 力, 权 and 势 are the main ones. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Chinese translation of the article may actually express the intentions of the original compilers better than their own English-language title did. 权势 gives a sense of using the ability to mobilise the assets of one’s position in order to improve and extend it, something that is conveyed by the example sentences MDBG gives for the word:

mdbg example sentences

Which is all well and good, but once again: so what?

Well, with China rising it’s worth everyone’s time to take a few minutes and think about how Chinese-speakers think about politics, which is what this blog is all about.


Pope threatens to punch colleague for ‘your mom’ comments

Pope Francis

True story:

Pope Francis has said there are limits to freedom of expression and that anyone who ridicules someone else’s religion could deserve a punch, after 17 were killed in Paris over Prophet Mohamed cartoons.

Francis spoke about the Paris attacks while on his way to the Philippines, where around 1,500 Muslims protested yesterday against the depictions of the Prophet in the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

He said that freedom of speech and expression are fundamental human rights however he added that he believes there should be limits to offending and ridiculing the faiths and beliefs of others.

By way of example, he referred to Alberto Gasparri, who organises his trips and was standing by his side on board the papal plane.

‘If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,’ Francis said while pretending to throw a punch in his direction.

He added: ‘It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.’

Expect much wailing and gnashing of teeth from polite society, which had almost begun to believe that this was the good German Pope.

Nevertheless, this seems to be another example of the recent trend towards a new style of politics – one that’s more relaxed, confident, unembarrassed about enjoying power and – yes – has a sense of humour… But which is also entirely unwilling to take any crap when it comes to the Red Lines.

So far, the only Western leader to come close to embracing the new style of doing politics has been Angela Merkel. Is this new belligerence a sign that Francis is following in her footsteps?

However much those outside his flock may wish otherwise, Pope Francis is not just a lovely old chap. The Spectator has an excellent piece about how the media has made a concerted effort to ignore Francis’ more orthodox views in order to create a more appealing character for their readership:

The most influential media outlets decided he was essentially a decent guy and judged him thereafter on his intentions rather than his achievements (…)

There’s only one case I can think of in which the media would turn on Francis: in the unlikely event that his private character were dramatically at odds with his public persona. He would have to be caught, say, building a death ray in the Vatican Gardens. (Even then some outlets would present it in the best possible light: ‘Pope Francis develops radical cure for human suffering.’)

Journalists also have a clear economic motive for sticking with the Fantasy Francis narrative: people will pay to read about it. After all, he was the most discussed person on the internet last year. Post a cute photo of him hugging a child, or posing for a ‘selfie’ with young admirers in the Vatican, and you’ll see a satisfying spike in page views. Francis has become one of the world’s most reliable online commodities. What sensible hack would want to threaten that?

This latest bit of outspoken opposition on the Charlie Hebdo issue seems like an attempt to reassert opinion leadership and show the world that he intends to actively direct the Church, rather than merely bringing it into line with mainstream opinion. Moreover, while the point view may not – on the surface of it – be a popular one in the midst of the Je Suis Charlie moment, it is in fact a very canny choice of an issue upon which to make a stand. It is far less emotive for non-Catholics than anything sex-related, and does not risk causing the theological divisions that any pronouncement on the nature of sin would be bound to provoke. Francis is effectively telling believers that he’s got their back, but in a way that will not greatly offend non-believers. (Qui plus est, France’s practicing Catholics have hated Charlie Hebdo for years. Even a metaphorical punch in its direction will bring them immense and entirely unchristian joy.)

In fact, this is not the first time that Francis – such an innocent, saintly old man – has displayed a thoroughly politic understanding of the currents of public opinion. His trip to Korea in 2014 contained all the ingredients for a Solidarność moment with regards to the DPRK. The option of his making some sort of impressive, regime-undermining gesture towards North Korea’s surprisingly large Catholic underground was skilfully left open throughout the trip. However, he appears to have realised that now was not the time (information filters into North Korea far too slowly for any one political declaration made outside to have any coherent effect), and – moreover – had the good sense to restrain himself from taking the risk. (Knowing when and how to do nothing: the most important skill in politics.)

This comment about punching people who insult Catholicism is effectively the mirror image of the strategy used during the Korea trip: Francis is picking the battles in which he knows he can win – or at least emerge ahead of the game. Where Benedict scrabbled around the edges of his domain, ineffectually trying to shore up the crumbling sea walls of Catholicism in a million different places (child abuse, contraception, marriage of clergy, confession…), Francis is effectively reinforcing both his own and the Church’s position where it is strongest. From this stable standpoint, and using his new popularity, he will – if he is lucky – be able to strengthen his hold over theological and geographical territories that are far less secure.