The best music I heard in 2021

I listened to somewhere around 250 recordings for the first time this year; these are the ones that stood out the most. The list is by release date to highlight the more recent ones:

  • Floating Points & Pharaoh Sanders – Promises (2021). A gorgeous and unclassifiable sound; after decades of searching, Sanders’ tone on tenor sax has become something unearthly. Also on many best of 2021 lists.
  • Andrew Cyrille – The News (2021). Cyrille is another jazz elder (he is a year older than Sanders) making stellar work as he enters his ninth decade. This is the latest in a series of excellent, spacey recordings for ECM that have featured the guitarist Bill Frisell.
  • Hailu Mergia – Tezeta (2021). A rediscovered treasure dating from 1975, during the golden age of Ethiopian jazz.
  • Daniel Carter – Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1 (2020). The multi-instrumentalist Carter leads a free-jazz supergroup through understated yet complex improvisations. Carter and bassist William Parker played together again on Painter’s Winter, another record on a lot of this year’s best-of lists.
  • Joshua Abrams – Simultonality (2020). The quasi-minimalist drones of Abrams’ Natural Information Society are some of the most interesting sounds in contemporary jazz.
  • Fretwork – The Art Of Fugue (2010). Currently my favorite version of this great Bach work. The six viols create a gorgeous overlapping sound while keeping the different voices distinct. I also appreciated Angela Hewitt‘s 2014 version for piano.
  • Lee Perry – Dub Treasures From The Black Ark: Rare Dubs 1976-1978 (2010). Rest in peace, Scratch. This collection of mostly instrumental pieces is perhaps not the place to start exploring Perry’s huge oeuvre, but it is of very high quality. Another excellent reggae compilation I enjoyed this year is Kingston Allstars Meet Downtown At King Tubby’s 1972-1975 (2004).
  • Anthony Braxton – Charlie Parker Project (1995). Braxton’s work is easier to admire than enjoy; it’s usually too cerebral for me. But this project documents a truly hot jazz band ripping their way through the bebop repertoire with a ferocity that recalls the original radicalism of Parker and his cohort. For the truly devoted, an 11-CD box set of this material was released in 2018.
  • John Coltrane – Live In Seattle (1994). The release of A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle got lots of hype this year but honestly I was underwhelmed. This phase of Coltrane’s group was a transitional and experimental one, and the experiments were often unsuccessful. But it did make me dig out this previous set of recordings from the 1965 Seattle shows, which has lots of unlistenable longueurs but also two wild masterpieces, the standards “Out of This World” and “Body and Soul.”
  • John Zorn – More News For Lulu (1992). A landmark reinterpretation of the jazz tradition that finds fresh things to say about traditional hard-bop tunes. And they are great tunes: many of the originals can be heard on Freddie Redd’s 1960 Shades of Redd, one of the best records in this style. 
  • The Jazz Passengers – Live at the Knitting Factory (1991). Not actually something I heard for the first time this year, but it had been so long that it sounded fresh: virtuosic, humorous, thoroughly enjoyable. This was actually one of the first jazz CDs I ever bought, for no real reason other than the Knitting Factory was famous at the time; in hindsight not a bad choice.
  • Andrew Hill – Eternal Spirit (1989). Perennially under-rated and under-recorded, Hill was one of the greats. Somehow I had missed this one until now, which marked his return to ensemble work after a string of mostly trio and solo records. If it does not quite rise to the heights of his classic 1960s records, or the great ones he made in the early 2000s, it is still very very good.
  • King Tubby – Dub From The Roots (1975). Turns out that a pretty good way to explore dub reggae is just to go through King Tubby’s discography in chronological order. That process led to me to this fine early example of the genre; another good one from the same year is King Tubby Meets Jacob Miller In A Tenement Yard which throws some unusual synth sounds into the mix.
  • Stan Getz – Captain Marvel (1972). The gorgeous Getz tone blends surprisingly well with a cool 70s electric jazz sound.
  • Paul Gonsalves – Meets Earl Hines (1970). A startling late-career masterpiece by these two giants of swing, the furthest thing imaginable from a safe reading of familiar repertoire. I got turned on to this one by Ethan Iverson’s review under its alternate title, It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. Another excellent Ellington-adjacent item from the same time period is Roland Kirk & Al Hibbler’s A Meeting Of The Times

Previous lists: 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014

Duke Ellington eating ice cream

The best books I read in 2021

This year I had better luck with my fiction reading than with my nonfiction, so I’m putting my fiction recommendations first. Books are listed in the order in which I read them:

Fiction

  • Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room. A stunning and vivid evocation of a delinquent San Francisco childhood that turns into an adulthood behind bars. It’s hard to convey just how good the writing is.
  • Hernan Diaz, In The Distance. An anti-Western in which a Swedish immigrant wanders around the American frontier, never quite fitting in and never quite understanding what is going on around him. A portrait of loneliness.
  • Octavia Butler, Parable Of The Sower. In this 1993 book Butler was one of the first to make the intellectual leap from thinking of “the apocalypse” as a discrete, dramatic event to thinking of it as the gradual and often unnoticed breakdown of systems. This insight (picked up by William Gibson in his excellent The Peripheral) helps account for some of the book’s uncannily prescient moments.
  • Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven. As an enjoyer of historical fiction I’d heard about Renault’s Alexander the Great books for a while. But I was still surprised at how immediately compelling her 1969 novel about Alexander’s youth turned out to be. It is even endorsed by historians. However the sequel, The Persian Boy, was much less convincing.
  • Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend. Through a misguided desire not to jump on literary bandwagons, I hadn’t picked this up before, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. The writing is always remarkably precise and emotionally honest.
  • Stephen King, Billy Summers. Classic American noir fiction updated to the (last possible pre-Covid) moment, with stripped-down prose precisely describing the logistics of various criminal actions. The details are everything in this kind of writing and the details here are absolutely on point.
  • Jenny Erpenbeck, The End Of Days. One woman lives multiple lives through the events of twentieth-century German history. The structuring conceit adds to rather than subtracts from the realism, and the prose (translated by Susan Bernofsky) is always striking.
  • Pat Barker, Regeneration. The crackling intellectual sparring between psychologist and patient makes this portrayal of a World War I mental hospital much more than an account of the human costs of war.
  • Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock. “Climate-change thriller” is not yet a recognized genre of fiction, but perhaps it will become one on the strength of Stephenson’s thoroughly plausible example. The opening chapter is a particularly brilliant depiction of just how complicated overlapping unanticipated consequences can get.

Nonfiction

  • Charles Kenny, The Plague Cycle. One lesson of the last couple of years is that it is difficult to understand what happens to human societies without understanding the biological context in which they operate. Kenny’s book is an excellent introduction to this relatively new way of seeing history (see my post on his reinterpretation of Malthus for more).
  • John Maynard Keynes, Essays In Biography. Keynes’ accounts of the life and work of economists Thomas Malthus and Alfred Marshall are wonderful pieces of writing: detailed, sympathetic and thoroughly engaged with the substance of their work in a way that probably only another genius economist could manage (here’s more on Malthus).
  • James C. Scott, Against The Grain: A Deep History Of The Earliest States. An excellent survey of the rise of what is usually called “civilization.” Scott’s anarchist politics and anthropological background are similar to David Graeber’s, who was also interested in the history of the early states. But Scott is the more careful scholar, making clear the limits of our knowledge while Graeber reliably lunges for the tendentious over-interpretation.
  • Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020. After the miracle of The Mars Room I had to read more Kushner. Like any collection of occasional journalism this is a bit of a mixed bag, but the best pieces are very good indeed: her prose is always sharp and unsentimental.
  • Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I wouldn’t normally expect magazine writing from the mid-1960s to age particularly well, but this classic collection of essays is not dated at all, and in fact often seems shockingly contemporary.
  • J.G. Ballard, Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews. From his perch in suburban England, Ballard’s outsider view on society was always interesting and original. Of course, he wasn’t right about everything, and his obsession with Freudian psychology turned out to be an intellectual dead end. But these interviews show how he saw where things were headed very clearly, not because he particularly understood technology but because he understood people.
  • Ken Jowitt, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction. A collection of essays on the political culture of the Soviet Union and other Communist states, filled with insights and a catholic range of historical and literary references. Although dating mostly from the late 1970s, a very different intellectual moment, the persistence of what Jowitt prefers to call Leninism in China has kept his project relevant.

Previous lists: 20202019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

Acadian Books & Prints, New Orleans, Louisiana

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Roland Kirk & Al Hibbler – A Meeting Of The Times. This curious item seems gimmicky in its teaming of the legendary avant-garde showman Kirk with the much older blues vocalist Hibbler; the only apparent commonality is that they were both blind. In fact they work very well together: Kirk was a deep student of the jazz tradition and loved Ellington, and Hibbler sang with the Ellington orchestra in the 1940s. It’s a spectacular record, and one of the better Ellington tributes out there. Hibbler reprises his old hit “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (whose lyrics were written for him) and some other Ellington tunes. On “Carney and Bigard Place,” Kirk pays homage to those two key Ellington sidemen as only he could, playing clarinet and baritone sax, successively and then, of course, simultaneously.
  • Nat Birchall – Mysticism Of Sound. A beautiful piece of spiritual jazz, produced during the isolation of the pandemic year by British saxophonist Birchall, who accompanies himself on all the instruments: drums, bass, keyboards. Birchall wears his influences on his sleeve: the titles sound like results from the Sun Ra Random Title Generator and the vibe recalls the mellower moments of Pharoah Sanders. Perfect solitary headphone listening.
  • Mat Walerian – Every Dog Has Its Day But It Doesn’t Matter Because Fat Cat Is Getting Fatter. A long title for a long recording: this is nearly two hours of lengthy jams from Polish multi-instrumentalist Walerian’s ongoing collaboration with pianist Matthew Shipp. The extended explorations feel pretty appropriate for the revived ESP-Disk label, but these are much more listenable than a lot of the noisy messes from the 1960s. Walerian is in excellent excellent form throughout, and his bass clarinet playing is particularly evocative.
  • William Parker – Painter’s Winter. The legendary bassist teams up again with multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and drummer Hamid Drake for a sequel to their 2001 trio record Painter’s Spring. That was a good session but this one is even better, with all the players showing the benefit of two decades’ more experience and wisdom. No one combines propulsive grooves with complex improvisation better than Parker.
  • Art Ensemble of Chicago – Les Stances à Sophie. The opening track of the 1970 Paris session, “Thème De Yoyo,” is legendary and rightfully so; no one before or since has so convincingly combined hard funk and free jazz. It’s one of those pieces of music that holds within itself the promise of an entire unexplored genre. But having demonstrated convincingly that they could make a better funk record than almost anyone, the Art Ensemble characteristically changes tack and plays little avant-garde miniatures for the rest of the album, one of their best.

The consensus on centralization

Dylan Levi King has a nice essay out in Palladium on the history of decentralization in China, opening with the assertion that “the most significant reform carried out in China after 1978 was one of systematic decentralization.” It is difficult to disagree with this. As the best China scholarship of the last few decades has made clear, local initiative played a central role in the country’s growth miracle–see for instance Jean Oi’s book on local state corporatism, or Xu Chenggang’s classic article on “regionally decentralized authoritarianism”.

Decentralization was one of Deng Xiaoping’s most important policies, but King’s piece is good on its pre-1978 history. Deng justified his experiments with reference to a principle that Mao articulated in a famous 1956 speech: “Our territory is so vast, our population is so large and the conditions are so complex that it is far better to have the initiative come from both the central and the local authorities than from one source alone.” Mao distrusted bureaucrats and central planning, and in fact economic planning in China of the 1950s and 1960s was error-prone and often incompetent. Mao instead celebrated bottom-up initiative and self-reliance, which were important themes of the alternative economic model he tried to implement in the Cultural Revolution. As a result the organizational structure of China’s state-owned enterprises became significantly more decentralized than in the Soviet Union and its European satellites.

Yet while Maoist decentralization was good at tearing down rational bureaucratic structures, it was bad at actually encouraging autonomy and local initiative. Local factories and agricultural communes may have been told they had authority to make their own decisions, but in reality they lived in an oppressive environment of repeated political campaigns in which the only safe thing to do was to parrot the slogan of the moment. Mao’s China rhetorically celebrated local self-reliance while harshly punishing political deviance–an incoherent combination. As a result local initiative remained a rhetorical trope rather than a concrete reality: there was for instance hardly any local economic specialization during the 1970s. After 1978, Deng made decentralization real by officially calling a halt to the endless rounds of political purges and telling cadres instead to focus on economic development.

The reason to review all this history now, of course, is that Xi Jinping seems to be pushing to revise this pattern of decentralization and implement more effective top-down control by the central government. King’s piece points out that “local experimentation has slowed” under Xi as he has formalized the legal boundaries of local government authority. (One recent example of this trend is how the National People’s Congress recently issued an authorization for local authorities to conduct trials of a property tax, a legal nicety that was not thought necessary when such trials were first launched in 2011.) Xi is also using the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection to investigate and punish not just corrupt officials but those who fail to carry out central instructions sufficiently expeditiously.

These are extremely important changes in China’s political economy that deserve attention. But the drive to recentralize authority in Beijing did not start with Xi: the reaction to the excesses and problems of decentralization had already begun while Deng was still alive. In the roughly two decades between Deng’s retreat from active decision-making and Xi’s ascent to the top job, the top leadership consistently pursued a centralizing agenda that sought to increase the share of administrative power and financial resources controlled by the central government. This trend began around 1993, shortly after Deng’s revival of market reforms in his 1992 southern tour. According to an account by Pieter Bottelier, the idea of re-centralization crystallized at a conference held in Dalian in June 1993 with participation from World Bank and Chinese officials:

The conference marked a turning point in the national debate on two major issues: (a) the appropriate degree of economic centralization for China and (b) the management of aggregate demand in China’s semi-reformed economy. Many reports on China’s reforms since 1978 rightly emphasize the importance and benefits of economic decentralization. Few focused on the partial re-centralization of 1993/94 which followed the Dalian conference.

In the early 1990s some central government leaders began to think that China’s irregular, stop-go pattern economic performance of the 1980s – with spikes of high investment and high inflation – was due to excessive administrative decentralization. By delegating fiscal and financial powers to lower-level governments, while at the same time transferring ownership of most state-owned enterprises to those governments, Deng Xiaoping had been very successful in stimulating growth, as was his intention. But the system had also led to a loss of control by the central government over investment planning by lower level governments and local financing. …To correct this problem, a partial re-centralization of administrative controls was thought to be needed, but it was recognized that this would be politically very unpopular in the provinces.

The debates at the conference were followed by a package of fiscal reforms that reversed the sharp decline in the central government’s share of tax revenue and gave it more authority to redistribute resources around the country. The debate over fiscal decentralization in the mid-1990s tied into the increasing discussion of widening regional inequalities; influential scholars argued for more vigorous central government action to spread the benefits of prosperity more widely. That line of thinking ultimately resulted in the launch of the Great Western Development program under Jiang Zemin, which was only the first in a wide range of regional aid policies that have been successively rolled out by the central government.

Since then, the argument over centralization has moved onto different issues but the general drift often remains the same. In 2007, when I was working at The Wall Street Journal, I wrote a piece about the Hu Jintao administration’s attempts to reassert central authority over local governments, focusing mainly on regulatory issues and real estate rather than tax revenue. Re-reading that piece now, it’s striking how essentially all the talking heads I interviewed saw this as a good and necessary thing: re-centralization was endorsed as the correct technocratic move, just as it was in the 1990s.

This consistency over three different decades suggests a long-standing elite consensus on the need for the central government to re-centralize authority and manage the country in a consistent and considered fashion. Hu attempted to act on that consensus, but his attempts to claw back more authority for the central government did not get that far. The ultimate reason for this is probably that Hu was never able to consolidate his own political power and centralize authority in his person, in part because Jiang Zemin kept hanging around to prevent it. Xi, of course, has consolidated political power with extraordinary efficacy, which means that his efforts at re-centralization are likely to more effective. He has also been able to take advantage of the US-China trade war and Covid-19 pandemic to create an atmosphere of national emergency. As the economic historian Charles Kindleberger once observed, societies are more amenable to centralization of authority during times of crisis.

Nonetheless I suspect that, given the elite consensus on centralization, any other moderately competent Chinese politician would be trying to do something similar in Xi’s place (though perhaps using different methods). China’s real-estate boom has acted as a powerful centrifugal force in the economy over the years, increasing the resources under the control or influence of local governments. As a result, more than two decades after Zhu Rongji’s fiscal reforms, China remains a highly fiscally decentralized nation. It’s worth pointing out, as the chart above shows, that the central government’s share of total government revenues, once local land sales are included, is now as low as it was during the fiscal emergency of the early 1990s. Xi’s efforts to discipline property developers and stamp out housing speculation, which are currently causing great financial stress, can thus be seen as part of this long-running struggle against the fissiparous tendencies in the Chinese economy.

Mobilization and modules: what’s changing in China

A very simple way to think about what changed in China in 1978 is that the Communist Party changed its main goal from pursuing class struggle to pursuing economic development. This interpretation is so simple that it is almost not an interpretation at all: it is exactly what Communist Party leaders said they were doing. The first line of the communique from the third plenary session of the 11th Central Committee issued on December 29, 1978 is:

The plenary session unanimously endorsed the policy decision put forward by Comrade Hua Guofeng on behalf of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee on shifting the emphasis of our Party’s work and the attention of the people of the whole country to socialist modernization.

A lot of the Western misunderstandings of China since then are, I think, due to misinterpreting what the decision to pursue economic development actually meant. It did not mean that China had abandoned socialism and was going to transition to a Western-style market economy and political system (even though some people in China did want that). It did not mean that Marxist-Leninist ideology had become the mere repetition of empty slogans to cover the pursuit of capitalist self-interest (even though that was true for a fair number of people in China).

What the Party leadership meant was no more and no less than what they said: that the edifice of the Communist Party would turn its power and attention to the pursuit of economic development and away from the internal political struggles that had consumed it for the previous decade. The fundamental political system of China was not changing, but the aims it pursued were.

The implications of this are easier to appreciate if we understand the properly the nature of the Chinese Communist Party, and of Marxist-Leninist parties more generally. They have little to do with the political parties of Western democratic countries. In his recent book, Joseph Fewsmith summarized the essential characteristics: a Leninist party is a “hierarchal, mobilizational, task-oriented party that relies on cadres.”

The Communist Party is not a voluntary association of like-minded individuals, but a strict hierarchical organization in which cadres observe quasi-military discipline in obeying superiors. The way that organization rules the country is not by supplying leaders for a rationally organized and politically neutral bureaucracy for administering laws and regulations. Rather the Party itself interpenetrates the entire bureaucracy, and is oriented to mobilizing cadres to achieve political tasks and developmental goals. Those tasks and goals are decided by the Party leadership, and then the cadres mobilize all of society to achieve them.

I increasingly feel that this concept of mobilization is essential to understanding the nature of China’s political system. The Communist Party cannot just sit there and enforce the laws and deliver public services (if it were to do so, it would not be a Leninist party anymore). It must always be doing something. It has to mobilize toward some goal, be on some political campaign. And the people, or person, at the top of the Party get to decide what that goal is. If you like, they can swap out different modules in the mobilization machine.

Chinese history demonstrates the power of the mobilization machine for good and for ill: the Mao module of class struggle ripped society apart as neighbor denounced neighbor, while the Deng module of economic development supercharged growth as every village and town got into business. Many scholars have written about the unique nature of the “high-pressure system” or “high-powered incentives” that drove officials in localities across China to pursue economic growth, and the “campaign-style” enforcement often used to deliver policy priorities. Those are just different names for this mobilization machine.

Some important aspects of the nature of this mobilization regime are captured by Chalmers Johnson’s description of developmental states across Asia (Leninist parties are good at mobilization, but other political structures can do it too). The below is from his 1999 essay, “The Developmental State: Odyssey of a Concept”:

The source of authority in the developmental state is not one of Weber’s “holy trinity” of traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic sources of authority. It is rather, revolutionary authority: the authority of a people committed to the transformation of their social, political, or economic order. Legitimation occurs from the state’s achievements, not from the way it came to power. Such legitimacy based on projects or goals is, of course, fragile in that it normally cannot withstand failure. Equally serious, it cannot adjust to victory and the loss of mission. The legitimacy of the leaders of a developmental state is like that of field commanders in a major military engagement. It comes from people working together, and it probably cannot long survive either defeat or victory. This problem is an abiding source of instability in such regimes, one that often leads to severe crises, such as after Japan’s defeat in World War II or the Korean revolution of 1987.

These observations I think give us the right conceptual tools to understand just what Xi Jinping is up to–the central preoccupation of China watchers for a decade now, and an increasingly urgent one as his interventions get bolder. Xi is, I think, trying to preserve China’s Leninist system from the threat of both defeat and victory.

Mobilizing for economic growth created obvious risks. On many occasions over the past four decades, there have been real worries that the unrestricted pursuit of growth would unbalance the economy (and/or financial system) so much that a crash would result that would irreparably discredit the Communist Party. The risk of victory is more subtle: that the pursuit of higher national income is so successful that diminishing marginal utility sets in. People stop being so motivated by pursuing higher incomes, and are more focused on preserving what they have (what William Overholt has called a “crisis of success“). This gradually erodes the Party’s ability to successfully mobilize society.

Both of these worries are clearly visible in Xi’s various policy priorities: his rather surprising support for conservative monetary and fiscal policies oriented at reducing future risks, and his focus on the quality-of-life issues that are of increasing concern to the middle classes, like pollution and education. But Xi is doing more than just maintenance to keep the current mobilization campaign running a while longer (that was more Hu Jintao’s strategy). He is proposing a new national project, whose pursuit is intended to unify the people and bolster the continued legitimacy of the Communist Party.

A very simple way of thinking about what is changing in China under Xi is that he is in the process of swapping out the module in the mobilization machine. It is no longer economic growth, but something else. Again, this is hardly requires any interpretation at all, it is exactly what he has said in so many words. The theme of his speech to the Party Congress of 2017 was that the “principal contradiction” that the Party needs to deal with had changed: it was no longer satisfying people’s “basic needs” for material progress, but satisfying a broader set of political and cultural needs. Instead of the pursuit of economic development, Xi is proposing a more complex and explicitly political objective–“national rejuvenation” or making China a “great modern socialist nation.” I usually just call it “the pursuit of national greatness.”

Xi proposed this transition at the start of his second term in 2017, although in such general terms that it was hard to make out exactly where he was heading. And perhaps he did not yet know himself. In hindsight, the period from 2017 to 2022 now looks like a transitional one, where Xi pursued the traditional agenda of economic development in parallel with some new mobilizational campaigns. The “three critical battles” launched in 2018–against financial risk, poverty and pollution–were the most prominent example. The “regulatory storm” of the past several months looks is probably best understood as another such campaign. The big difficulty that officials are having in carrying out these campaigns is in figuring out exactly how they should be balanced against the old goal of economic growth.

In part this is because the exact content of Xi’s new module for the mobilization machine is not totally clear, and probably still being defined. As Jude Blanchette and others have observed, the recent ramping up of new slogans such as “common prosperity” looks like preparation for an agenda that will be presented in full at the Party Congress in 2022. That is when Xi is expected to start a third term, which is enough of a departure from recent political norms that it needs to be justified with a suitably grand set of goals. The scale of Xi’s ambition has long been clear: he wants to be the peer of Mao and Deng. And that means setting the fundamental direction for the Party and the nation in the same way they did.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Lee Perry – Dub Treasures From The Black Ark: Rare Dubs 1976-1978. There are a lot of compilations in the late Lee Perry’s vast and confusing discography, of widely varying quality. This one is the real deal: the material is excellent and as best I can tell not available elsewhere. It’s mostly instrumental, and the sounds are heavy on the weird: lots of swooshes and bleeps over the rattling dub beats. In other words, wonderful.
  • Freddie Redd – Shades of Redd. There is a certain variety of jazz fan for whom the hard bop released on the Blue Note label in the 1950s and 1960s is the pinnacle of the art; these are the people to whom all those endless vinyl reissues are marketed. I am not that type of jazz fan, but the best hard bop can pretty great. Mark Stryker’s appreciation turned me on to this Freddie Redd album, which is one of the peaks of the style. The compositions are particularly excellent: they were endorsed by no one less than John Zorn, who covered many of them in his great News For Lulu project from the mid-80s.
  • Hailu Mergia – Tezeta. A newly unearthed treasure from the golden age of Ethiopian jazz. That sound is instantly recognizable and totally entrancing: the shuffling, gently funky drums, the spacey keyboards, and the incantations of the horns on top of it all. There’s just not enough of this stuff out there and more is always welcome.
  • Daniel Carter – Welcome Adventure! Vol. 1. A stellar session by what I am tempted to call a supergroup: the multi-instrumentalist Carter, heard here on trumpet, saxes and flute, genius pianist Matthew Shipp, and the unbeatable team of William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums. The music continuously evolves in the manner of free jazz, but lacks the cathartic or chaotic vibe typical of that genre; the clarity of the themes and the musical logic is impeccable. Can’t wait for Vol. 2.
  • Ben Goldberg – Unfold Ordinary Mind. Clarinetist Goldberg changed roles with this project, choosing to lead the band from the low end with the rumbling sounds of the contra-alto clarinet. His melodic bass lines meld with contributions from two strong tenor players and guitar hero Nels Cline to create high-energy counterpoint.

Some facts about China’s state capitalism

That is the title of my contribution to a new book published by the Center for Strategic & International Studies entitled Chinese State Capitalism: Diagnosis and Prognosis. The book is the fruit of a very interesting workshop held back in February, organized by the estimable Jude Blanchette and Scott Kennedy. That event was one of the more interesting intellectual exchanges I’ve had in a while and it was a great opportunity to learn from some of the best people working on China today.

What I’ve tried to do in this short piece is very simple: just identify some basic empirical facts and established regularities about China’s economic system, based on my own findings and the insights of the other contributors. Our workshop started off as a discussion of “state capitalism,” which is probably as good of a shorthand description of that system as we’re going to get in the English language. Personally I think you can still make a case for calling China “socialist,” or perhaps “Leninist,” and some folks have recently made a good argument for preferring “Party-state capitalism” to account for the direction it has evolved under Xi.

But ultimately the label is less important than getting closer to a common understanding of the reality–even if Scott, in his conclusion to the book, feels that we have not yet managed to achieve that. Read it and decide for yourself.

Industrial policy, but for the whole society

What is the Chinese government up to? For several months the headlines have been dominated by what the papers call the “regulatory storm” or “regulatory crackdown,” whose targets have ranged from internet companies to real-estate developers to after-school tutors to steel companies. Interpretations of this wave of government activism have ranged from the benign (China’s government is just doing what Western governments wish they could) to the dire (Xi Jinping is bringing back socialism).

At a recent talk at Stanford, the always-insightful Barry Naughton made an attempt to synthesize and explain what’s been going on, arguing that we’re seeing “the consolidation of a new model, in which the Chinese government decisively steers a predominantly market economy.” I found the talk very useful, and took notes on some of the key points; here they are:

The vocabulary where people refer to these actions as regulatory actions I think is a little bit misleading. It creates the impression that there is some underlying static well-regulated market equilibrium. Some people explicitly say that although the initial application of these regulations may have been clumsy, may have caused some losses, that’s just the necessary cost of changing course and once the course is established markets will settle down to this new better-regulated mode. I think that’s a very wrong set of expectations. What we’re going to see from these changes is an increasingly aggressive effort by the Chinese government to shape the way the economy is developing.

What I want to do is pull back and look at the macro picture. That also means thinking of it not as a static adjustment from one set of regulations to another, but rather as an inherently dynamic process in which the government has taken lessons that it thinks it has learned from trying to foster high-tech development in China, and applies them to a broader canvas where it tries to paint the destiny of the Chinese people in increasingly vivid and assertive coloration.

This is something that admittedly draws on my own earlier work. Maybe my view is overly shaped by the fact that I was looking at Chinese industrial policy anyway, so it’s natural for me to see these recent policies as a deepening and expansion of industrial policy. Let me confess to that potential bias. But having confessed to that bias, I think it’s a good starting point for looking at what we see today.

China has been running a very interventionist and increasingly powerful industrial policy. It really gets going around 2009-10, when China articulates a vision of the strategic emerging industries. … While governments in the US and Europe kind of look at these technological changes and think maybe we should do something about it, China is already all in, it’s driving forward a set of changes based on this high technology orientation. …

My central assertions are that from an economic standpoint what really changed in the summer of 2021 was two things. First, that the policy objectives that the Chinese government was pushing for proliferated enormously. This portfolio of things that the government is pushing for really extended so quickly into so many new areas that I think most people were in shock. Probably the most dramatic of these is that the government seems to be displaying something near panic on falling birthrates even though we have known for 25 years what the trend of the Chinese birthrate was going to be. Instead of pursuing one or two simply defined objectives, namely new growth drivers and high-tech development, now all of a sudden China has a portfolio of six or eight or ten:

1. Data security and control

2. De-risk and enhance control of the financial risk

3. Raise the birth rate by reducing the burden on families

4. Rebuild new decentralized cities, while keeping housing prices low

5. Reduce carbon emissions, pollution and global warming

6. Common Prosperity

The even more surprising thing is the second one: which is that as these objectives have proliferated, the instruments deployed to achieve them have not been able to catch up. We see the widespread recourse to a bunch of actions and instruments that are no longer conforming to the requirements of smooth market development. This has created substantial immediate costs for Chinese citizens, and I argue that it creates substantial medium-run costs for the Chinese growth process. There are may built-in conflicts between the different objectives and the different instruments, and the way those instruments are deployed, suddenly, sometimes excessively, and in many cases without consideration for what their implications will be in other areas.

There’s a couple points implied by this “industrial policy for everything” concept that I think are worth drawing out more. First, this increased government intervention is oriented to the future, not the past. It is aimed at achieving aspirational goals for the development of Chinese society, not returning to an imagined past utopia. Second, it is driven by sweeping political objectives that cut across economic sectors, rather than a “target list” of industries that need to have tighter regulation. These are my preliminary conclusions anyway — no doubt the Chinese government will give us plenty more to figure out in coming months.

UPDATE: A full video of Naughton’s lecture has been posted here; it’s worth your time.

Contributing to common prosperity is compulsory

Xi Jinping’s slogan of “common prosperity” has finally gotten the attention of financial markets and foreign media, after he devoted most of the last meeting of the Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs to discussing the new campaign against inequality. There is little in the text of the readout from the meeting to explain this increased attention: the slogan remains mostly at the level of general rhetoric, and the discussion has not gotten much more concrete since its initial mentions.

What has changed in the context in which people are viewing Xi’s political priorities: the months-long slide in the stock prices of Chinese internet companies as they face a regulatory crackdown, and the effective outlawing of the for-profit tutoring industry, has clearly demonstrated that rhetoric can indeed have large effects. The question is what kind of real actions this new slogan produces.

The high political priority of “common prosperity” has been clear since the beginning of 2021: it was institutionalized in the five-year plan, and Xi highlighted it in a major speech in January (official English translation).

Realizing common prosperity is more than an economic goal. It is a major political issue that bears on our Party’s governance foundation. We cannot allow the gap between the rich and the poor to continue growing—for the poor to keep getting poorer while the rich continue growing richer. We cannot permit the wealth gap to become an unbridgeable gulf.

Implementing that political priority is still a work in progress: the promised “action plan” on common prosperity has not yet been released, probably because officials are still trying to figure out what will go in it. The textbook methods for addressing income and wealth inequality are through fiscal policy: greater taxation of high incomes (and/or wealth) and more transfers to households with low incomes. These methods did get a mention in the CCFEA meeting, which repeated calls for “equalizing” public services (meaning between lower- and higher-income regions), and improving systems for old-age pensions, healthcare, welfare and public housing.

There is some change at the margin visible already, as the central government de-emphasizes local infrastructure spending in favor of social transfers. And there seems to be new momentum for the most common form of wealth tax, a tax on the value of residential property: after years of delays, Chinese scholars now expect local trials of the property tax to be rolled out later this year.

But as I documented in a previous post, the conservative Ministry of Finance has signaled that it is not seeking a major expansion of tax revenue, still plans to cut taxes on some businesses, and will try to contain the costs of public welfare programs. So far, it does not sound like “common prosperity” is going to produce a radical increase in taxation or redistribution, and the CCFEA meeting explicitly stated the slogan is not about “uniform egalitarianism” (a reference to Mao-era policies).

Yet it’s clear the slogan of common prosperity has a broad reach that extends well beyond the usual areas of technical economic policy. In this context, officials have repeatedly invoked the “tertiary distribution” of income, a previously obscure technical term for private charities (the primary distribution of income is the income households earn themselves, while the secondary distribution refers to the effect of taxes and transfers). The CCFEA meeting again mentioned the tertiary distribution, and emphasized it further with a call to “encourage high-income groups and corporations to give back more to society.”

From any other government, saying “we are going to rely on private charities to solve the problem of inequality” would be an obvious abdication of responsibility and a clear signal that the government will not do much. That is not what it means in China’s case. In part this is because China’s system does not establish clear boundaries between matters of public and private involvement. Nothing is off limits to the government since the state is legitimately concerned with all aspects of society and national development.

But it is also because, as Joseph Fewsmith’s important new book reminds us, China’s government is not a Weberian system in which politically neutral bureaucrats implement rules, but a Leninist structure in which cadres are mobilized to achieve political tasks. If the political task is to increase charitable donations, then officials will ensure that charitable donations do indeed increase, using whatever means are at their disposal.

Those able to read the political signals are already trying to get ahead of the game. According to a count by Fortune, “In the past eight months, five of China’s richest and most high-profile tech billionaires have pledged at least $13 billion of their personal or corporate fortunes to charitable foundations and initiatives.” The day after the CCFEA meeting, Tencent announced it would spend 50 billion renminbi to help promote common prosperity, building on a similar pledge in April. More companies are certain to follow this example of what we might call “corporate social responsibility with Chinese characteristics.”

Given the institutional inertia and technical difficulties surrounding tax and welfare policy, the risk is that the common prosperity campaign ends up relying on political pressure and the use of arbitrary administrative interventions instead. One can easily imagine, for instance, a crackdown on tax evasion by wealthy individuals and corporations succeeding the current focus on internet regulation. It’s no wonder that, after the events of the last few months, financial markets are acting a bit nervous about this latest campaign.

Charts from World Bank China Economic Update June 2021

Vogel vs. Soros on Xi vs. Deng

Two new articles out this week provide an interesting counterpoint on how Xi Jinping, China’s current top leader, compares to his predecessor Deng Xiaoping, the “paramount leader” of the 1980s and 1990s. The first is an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by George Soros, the investor and philanthropist, and the second is a posthumous article by Ezra Vogel, the eminent scholar of Asia who passed away last year, entitled “The Leadership of Xi Jinping: A Dengist Perspective.” It is probably his last piece.

Vogel and Soros happen to have been born in the same year (1930), so they belong to the same generation of China-watchers, although of course their backgrounds are quite different. And so are their conclusions. Soros argues that Xi is reversing many of Deng’s reforms, and indeed is trying to overturn his legacy. Here’s a key passage:

Mr. Xi came to power in 2013, but he was the beneficiary of the bold reform agenda of his predecessor Deng Xiaoping, who had a very different concept of China’s place in the world. Deng realized that the West was much more developed and China had much to learn from it. Far from being diametrically opposed to the Western-dominated global system, Deng wanted China to rise within it. His approach worked wonders.

Mr. Xi failed to understand how Deng achieved his success. He took it as a given and exploited it, but he harbored an intense personal resentment against Deng. He held Deng Xiaoping responsible for not honoring his father, Xi Zhongxun, and for removing the elder Xi from the Politburo in 1962. As a result, Xi Jinping grew up in the countryside in very difficult circumstances. He didn’t receive a proper education, never went abroad, and never learned a foreign language.

Xi Jinping devoted his life to undoing Deng’s influence on the development of China. His personal animosity toward Deng has played a large part in this, but other factors are equally important. He is intensely nationalistic and he wants China to become the dominant power in the world.

There are some issues with this argument. Joseph Torigian, who is very well informed on the history of Chinese elite politics, has explained why it is not quite right to blame Deng for the elder Xi’s political purge in 1962. In the late 1970s, Xi Zhongxun played a pivotal role in the creation of the special economic zones in the late 1970s, a move for which Deng probably took more of the credit than he deserved. But both Deng and Xi Zhongxun were committed to the project of reform and opening, and the elder Xi’s greatest legacy is his contribution to that project. It makes no sense to argue that Xi Jinping is trying to undo Deng’s reforms because of resentment over his father’s treatment.

Moving away from armchair psychologizing to documented public statements, it’s clear that Xi Jinping has consistently presented himself as Deng’s heir. He wants to be the ruler who is realizing the aspirational goals that Deng set for China decades ago. This is obvious both in the focus on achieving “moderate prosperity” in Xi’s first term, and in the more recent campaign of “common prosperity.”

That term is an explicit reference to Deng, as all Chinese would understand. When Deng famously endorsed inequality in the 1980s by saying “We should let some people and some regions get rich first,” he justified that by insisting it was “for the purpose of achieving common prosperity faster.” By talking about common prosperity now, Xi is saying the time has come to deliver on what Deng had always wanted. Overall, my view has always been that Xi Jinping is a giant Deng Xiaoping fanboy: what’s remarkable is not his rejection of Deng but how often and how explicitly he has linked his own actions to Deng’s.

It’s true that on foreign policy Xi’s more aggressive approach is obviously quite different from Deng’s low-key one. But Deng was making hard-headed decisions based on his intimate knowledge of China’s very weak domestic and international position after the Cultural Revolution. It would be a mistake for Western commentators to interpret that tactic as some kind of principled acceptance of China’s subordinate role in a US-based world order.

In reality, Deng Xiaoping was an outstanding Chinese nationalist, and if he had presided over a China that was as strong as Xi’s he would probably have made quite different decisions. On this question my view is closer to Vogel’s: China is acting differently in the world today because China is different, not just because someone different is in charge. Here’s a bit from his piece:

Because of the changes introduced by Deng, Xi Jinping inherited a China that was far stronger than China during Deng’s era. Deng’s approach for dealing with foreign relations, ‘taoguang yanghui, juebu dangtou, yousuo zuowei’ (avoid the limelight, never take the lead, and try to accomplish something” was well-known. In the 1980s, Deng held back on increasing military expenditures in order first to build up an economic base. After 1995, the Chinese began to increase military expenditures even more rapidly than the economy was growing. Thus by the time that Xi Jiping came to power, since China had much greater economic and military power than during the period of Deng’s rule, he could take a much stronger stand in dealing with foreign countries.

Vogel’s piece also has some interesting comments on the differences in the management styles of Xi and Deng. While Xi is a famous micro-manager, taking personal charge of policymaking on every important issue, Deng was happy to let his subordinates make decisions most of the time. Vogel attributes this to Xi’s insecurity and lack of experience in central government before he took over, a big contrast to Deng’s decades of service.

Xi is also more focused than Deng was on exerting control over localities and their officials, but again Vogel sees this as a difference of circumstances more than personalities:

In the early years of Deng’s rule, when the economy was much smaller, local Chinese governments depended on allocations from the central government and the size of the resources they were forced to forward to the central government. There were no sizeable pockets of local wealth that allowed local areas and local enterprises to carry on activities apart from the national budget.

During the decades under the leadership of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, businesses and local governments acquired resources that enabled them to initiate activities on their own. When Xi Jinping became the pre-eminent leader in 2013 Party officials gave him the power to clamp down on corruption. Popular support for clamping down on corruption was also very strong. But from the perspective of Beijing, the problem was broader than corruption. It was the problem of keeping control over local areas and successful enterprises.