Lessons from watching *Dying to Survive*

On the recommendation of several friends, my wife and I went to see China’s hit summer movie in Beijing last month. Called “Dying to Survive” in English — the Chinese title 《我不是药神》 translates as “I Am Not the Medicine God” — it’s an unusual blockbuster in that it’s not escapist action fare but a realistic social drama. It tells the story, loosely based on real events, of a Shanghai man who smuggled Indian generic cancer drugs for patients who could not afford the real thing.

It’s a pretty good movie and worth seeing (the print we saw in Beijing had English subtitles, so it’s accessible to non-Chinese viewers): it’s well shot, well acted, well edited, and if the tearjerker parts of the storyline are not too surprising, they are still moving and effective. The first half of the film is my favorite, thanks to its sympathetic and realistic depiction of the lives of people living at the margins of Shanghai’s glitzy society. The protagonist starts out as an obviously dodgy seller of supposed aphrodisiacs, and his partners in crime include a dancer in a club, a rural migrant working in a slaughterhouse and, most surprisingly, a Christian pastor.

But what’s really interesting about the film is how you can see the struggle between the demands of making popular art and satisfying official propaganda playing out in the open. How many dramatizations of social problems end by displaying on screen a detailed timeline of the government policy measures that decisively solved said social problem? (The Economist wrote a bafflingly wrong-headed article about the film, calling it “a radical departure from China’s film policy, which is to encourage the production of uplifting fare that presents the government in a good light.” They must not have stayed for the credits.)

At times “Dying to Survive” feels like two movies stapled together. When the main characters are on the screen, the tone is of low-key realism. But when the police and court system appear, everything changes: the actors are stiff and predictable, straight from central casting for one of China’s cookie-cutter state television dramas. The cops are upright, businesslike and effective, the judges wise and firm. They ensure that the drug smuggler is eventually brought to justice, and serves a prison sentence for his crimes. The message is: yes, high drug prices are a social problem, but that does not excuse breaking the law; the government will take care of things.

What’s more interesting is how the movie departs from the real-life story of Lu Yong, who did smuggle into China the Indian generic version of Novartis’ cancer drug Glivec (the drug did not have patent protection in India). Lu was himself a patient who needed the drug, while the movie’s protagonist Cheng Yong gets into smuggling because he needs the money, and then develops sympathy for the struggling patients over time. (Lu has publicly stated he was unhappy with being portrayed in this way, and said he had not been consulted or compensated by the producers of the movie.) This alteration is rather understandable, as it creates a more interesting story arc: Cheng Yong starts off as an unsympathetic character (he hits his ex-wife in an early scene) and gradually matures into a sympathetic one.

The real punchline is that Lu Yong never served a prison term for his smuggling. When he was brought before a court, the public outcry led the judges to release him. The true story, in other words, was even more like a movie than the movie: in the end, the morally upright hero is recognized for doing good deeds and praised rather than condemned. (In Lu Yong’s blog post about the movie, he says that the movie’s producers told him that a political leader had ordered that the movie play up the role of the government and play down individual heroics.) That courtroom scene would have been a triumphant climax for any other drama. But suggesting that popular morality can override the demands of the law was apparently a bit too dangerous.

I do think “Dying to Survive” is a successful piece of popular art, but it is one that shows very clearly the constraints under which it was made. For further reading, I recommend this piece by Richard Yu, in which he argues that it serves as a potential template for how Chinese movies can discuss social problems–as long as they celebrate the accomplishments of the government.

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Making sure our expectations for the future are sufficiently weird

As someone who is professionally required to at least occasionally issue prognostications about the future, I enjoyed this passage from Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, in which a character warns against the perils of straight-line extrapolations:

End-timers used to project our consumption levels forward, multiplying our population by our needed resources, and get to this point where we’d run out of planet in a generation and there’d be famine and war.

That kind of linear projection is the kind of thinking that gets people into trouble when they think about the future. It’s like thinking, ‘well, my kid is learning ten exciting new things every week, so by the time she’s sixty, she’ll be smarter than any human in history.’

There are lots of curves that start looking like they go up and to the right forever, but turn into bell curves, or inverted Us, or S-curves, or the fabled hockey-stick that gets steeper and steeper until it goes straight vertical.

Any assumption that we’re going to end up like now, but moreso, is so insufficiently weird it’s the only thing you can be sure won’t happen in the future.

That’s a fairly self-referential statement for a character in a science-fiction novel to make, but thankfully most of the characters in this piece of utopian fiction do not go around making speeches; Doctorow is very good at writing real, vivid people, not types or abstractions.

Perhaps the line is meant to highlight that the world Doctorow imagines in Walkaway is indeed very much like now, but moreso: it’s a straight-line extrapolation of rising inequality, increasing automation and declining labor participation. What he’s trying to imagine is the moment when that curve starts to turn into something else.

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Nick Lardy on the crowding-out of private investment

The Australian National University’s annual free China Update book is bigger and more interesting than usual this year, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the start of reform and opening up in 1978. It’s got contributions from lots of prominent China economists that I have only begun to work my way through.

Naturally, I immediately checked out the chapter on private sector development by Nick Lardy. It’s quite a useful update to his work on the economic weight and role of the private and state sectors, and includes a careful, data-driven assessment of the resurgence of state enterprises under Xi Jinping. Here is a section where he identifies the symptoms of the crowding-out of private investment by SOEs:

The most plausible explanation of the waning of private investment is crowding out—an explanation supported by several pieces of evidence.

First, the share of bank loans to nonfinancial corporations that went to private firms fell from 57 per cent in 2013 to only 19 per cent by 2015, while the share that went to SOEs almost doubled over the same period—from 35 per cent to 69 per cent.

Second, financing of private firms through microfinance companies stalled after 2015. Lending by these companies grew rapidly from 2008, when the People’s Bank of China and the China Securities Regulatory Commission first issued formal guidelines on microfinance companies. The volume of such lending levelled off at just less than RMB1 trillion in 2014, but has not grown since.

Third, between 2011 and 2015, SOEs’ profits rose by only RMB30 billion, or 1 percentage point, while the investment of these firms rose by almost RMB2 trillion, or more than 20 per cent. Much of the differential between the growth of investment and the growth of profits must have come from increased borrowing from banks.

Fourth, indirect evidence suggests that SOEs have borrowed increasing amounts of funds to cover their financial losses. In 2005, 50 per cent of all SOEs were lossmaking. By 2016, the share of lossmaking SOEs had declined slightly, to 45 per cent. Thus, roughly half of China’s SOEs for more than a decade have been unable to fully cover their cost of capital. Moreover, the magnitude of losses generated by lossmaking firms increased sevenfold, from RMB243 billion in 2005 to RMB1.95 trillion in 2016. As a share of GDP, these losses doubled, from 1.3 per cent in 2006 to 2.6 per cent in 2016.

The interesting question at the moment is how this crowding-out of the private sector evolves in response to the government’s campaign to rein in financial risks. Surprisingly, one of the big casualties has been investment by state entities: there’s been a sharp slowdown in infrastructure investment as the central government has tightened controls over local government fundraising. Mostly as a result, the non-state share of fixed-asset investment rose to 65% in the first half of 2018 from 63% in 2017.

But it would be unusual for tighter financial conditions to really benefit private-sector firms, which tend to be smaller and riskier borrowers than state firms. And there is indeed a great deal of official concern at the moment over small businesses losing access to credit.

(Also see this previous post for other references on the crowding-out of private-sector investment.)

 

Varlam Shalamov’s prose of the future

For the last couple of weeks I have been steadily working my way through Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, a newly-translated collection of tales drawn from the author’s experiences at the most notorious outpost of the Soviet Gulag system. Perhaps not everyone shares my fascination with prison literature, but I found these stories remarkably fresh and closely observed.

One of the closest things to a statement of purpose from Shalamov comes at the opening of the 1960 story “The Necktie”, when the narrator asks himself how he can make his story “a piece of the prose of the future”:

In the past and at present a writer needs to be someone like a foreigner in the country he is writing about if he wants to be a success. He has to write from the viewpoint—interests, vision—of the people he grew up among and from whom he got his habits, tastes, and views. A writer writes in the language of those in whose name he speaks. And that is all. If a writer knows his material too well, the people for whom he is writing won’t understand him. The writer will have betrayed them and gone over to the side of his material.

You mustn’t know your material too well. Every writer in the past and the present had that defect, but the prose of the future demands something different. It will be professionals with a gift for writing who will speak out, not writers. And they will tell us only about what they know and have seen. Plausible accuracy is the force behind the literature of the future.

Shalamov was not a foreigner in the country of the Gulag: he was very much on the side of his material. In his stories he does not explain too much about the camp system, but simply recounts the actions of its participants, and this is usually all that is really required to understand how it works. As the translator, Donald Rayfield, observes in his introduction, “Despite his own assertion…Shalamov knew his material perfectly, and he wrote in a way that everyone can understand.”

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Richard Bush on Xi vs Trump, or, who is the real Maoist?

Richard Bush from Brookings has come up with the best point-by-point comparison of Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, the two most important global political figures of the present moment, that I have yet seen.

Some of these points may seem obvious by now, but there is always value in a concise and clear summary, and I thought this was exceptionally concise and clear. I also largely agree with it. I have lightly edited the bullet points below for clarity:

The similarities:

  • Ambition. They each have grand and similar ambitions for their countries: the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and making America great again.
  • Self-regard. They each have a high estimation of their own ability to lead their countries and confidence that they can overcome all obstacles. Each believes he is above the law and each in his own way. Xi has worked to ensure that the courts are subordinate to the Communist Party and to create extra-judicial mechanisms. Trump wants a law-enforcement system that is loyal to him.
  • Nationalism. Each is tapping into nationalist sentiment. Xi plays on the public’s desire to restore China to a global leadership role. Trump plays on the fears of white people about non-whites, both immigrants and native-born.

The differences:

  • Institutions. Xi basically accepts China’s political institutions. He believes they work and that they can be improved. Much of what he has done is to restore the Party’s leadership role. He is confident about his ability to work within China’s institutional structure. In this regard, he is very much like Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, but like Liu, he wants the CCP to penetrate most sectors of Chinese society. Donald Trump rejects the role of institutions and the limits they place on himself. He regularly criticizes America’s governing institutions and works to undermine them. In this sense, he is something of a Maoist.
  • Program. Xi Jinping has a much more systematic vision of what he wishes to accomplish and how to get there. Trump thinks in terms of slogans and does not appreciate the contradictions among his various goals. Each leader appears to be a populist but Xi is a genuine populist and Trump is a sham populist.
  • Discipline. Xi Jinping is very disciplined in his leadership style. Trump thrives on chaos, which he does everything to create, and he cares very much about his image and whether others respect him.

The whole speech on US-China relations from which this is drawn is very much worth reading.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Miles Davis – Big FunSometimes you just don’t hear things the first time. When back in the day I first heard Big Fun and a lot of other 70s electric Miles, it all seemed noodly and pointless. Returning to it today, I find it has become one of my favorite examples of this era of Miles: beautiful, gentle, almost ambient.
  • Nina Simone – Let It Be MeA live set from very late in her career. She does not (of course) sound like she did in the 1960s, and her voice shows a lot of wear. But it’s still a stunning performance; I particularly liked the title track and “Baltimore.” Is there a reason her version wasn’t the theme song for The Wire? Too obvious?
  • Sun Ra – The Cymbals/Symbols Sessions. Some of my favorite small-band Sun Ra recordings; keyboard-heavy workouts from 1973 with ripping horn solos and grooving bass work from Ronnie Boykins. The 16-minute “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light” is a stone-cold late-night classic. Five tracks from these sessions were reissued in the 1990s as part of the “The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums” collection, but the heroic work of the Sun Ra Archive has improved the sound and unearthed another six tracks in similar style, which are very much worth hearing.
  • Orchestra Baobab – Tribute To Ndiouga DiengA new album from Orchestra Baobab is a cause for celebration, even if the occasion was the death of one of their original vocalists in 2016. But the Afro-Cuban rhythms and liquid guitar work sound as good as ever. Irresistible.
  • Joe Venuti & Earl Hines – Hot Sonatas. Violinist Joe Venuti recorded some of the first and most famous duets in jazz in the 1920s in partnership with guitarist Eddie Lang. Pianist Earl Hines also recorded “Weather Bird,” a great duet with Louis Armstrong, in the same decade. The two played together for the first time on this delightful 1975 recording, showing just how full of life the 1920s chamber-jazz style could still be.

There are laws of history, and they work in China’s favor

The latest issue of Bill Bishop’s excellent Sinocism newsletter pointed out an interesting speech by Kevin Rudd analyzing recent Xi Jinping’s official pronouncements on foreign policy. Here is the section that jumped out at me:

There is a second element to the June 2018 Conference which grows out of the first. It is Xi’s deeply Marxist, dialectical-materialist view of history based on permanently evolving “contradictions” between what dialecticians call thesis, antithesis and synthesis. In Xi’s view, this in turn gives rise to defined “laws” of historical development which are both prescriptive and predictive.

This may sound like old-fashioned Marxism. That’s because it is. The intellectual software of generations of Chinese leaders has been shaped by this conceptual framework for interpreting and responding to what they define as scientific, objective reality. And Xi Jinping belongs to that tradition. Remember he has already convened special study sessions of the politburo on understanding both dialectical and historical materialism in the past.

According to the conference report: “Xi suggested to not only observe the current international situation, but also review the past, summarise historical laws, and look towards the future to better understand the trend of history.” Furthermore, according to the same report in Xinhua, to obtain “an accurate understanding of the overall situation, Xi underlined not only the observation of detailed phenomena, but also a deep appreciation of the essence of the overall situation in order not to get lost in complexity and the changing international situation.” Xi concludes on this count by stating that “throughout human history, the development of the world has always been the result of contradictions intertwining and interacting with each other.”

Once again, all this will seem more than a little arcane. But in the ideological dialect of the Communist Party, it seems to mean several things. First, that there is nothing random about what is unfolding in the world today. Second, these reflect certain immutable laws of political and economic development. Third, the business of Chinese foreign policy is to use this dialectal prism to understand precisely what is happening in the world today, why it is happening and what to do about it. And fourth, applying these disciplines to the current period, it means that the global order is at a turning point with the relative decline of the US and the West, with this coinciding with the fortuitous national and international circumstances currently enabling China’s rise.

This sounds very much like a conclusion that I also have come to: Xi Jinping’s thinking really comes out of a 19th-century social-science worldview. He has a high degree of confidence that objective laws governing the workings of society and the economy exist, that knowing these laws does not pose any particular philosophical or practical difficulties, and therefore that these laws form a solid basis for government policy (see my post “Reading the Communist Manifesto with Xi Jinping“).

Since the Chinese Communist Party has figured out these rules, it can have a high degree of confidence in the success of its policies. Far being a cynical post-truth manipulator like Putin, Xi gives every sign of being a true believer in his brand of pseudo-scientific, authoritarian, developmental Marxism. His confident nationalism in foreign policy and confident interventionism in economic policy are both underpinned by a high degree of epistemic confidence that he knows how the world really works.