Toward a history of the siege of Changchun

2018 will mark the 70th anniversary of the siege of Changchun, perhaps the greatest atrocity of the Chinese civil war. After Communist troops led by Lin Biao failed in their initial attempt to capture the city, on May 30, 1948, Lin decided to mount a blockade, cutting Changchun off from food and fuel shipments.

The goal was to weaken the Nationalist troops by starving them, and cause enough suffering that the civilian population would stop supporting the troops. The strategy was successful, as the Nationalist forces ultimately surrendered to the Communists in October. But by the time the siege ended, probably around 150,000 people, mostly civilians, had starved to death, and roughly the same number of refugees had fled the city.


Communist troops at the siege of Changchun, 1948.

The event is still little known within China and probably even less so outside it, though in recent years more English-language accounts have become available. Andrew Jacobs of the New York Times wrote an excellent article in 2009, using Chinese published sources and his own interviews with elderly survivors, which is still probably the best short introduction. The article’s observations about the fraught nature of historical memory in China are still very relevant: public commemoration of this anniversary is highly unlikely.

The Hong Kong-based historian Frank Dikötter also devoted the opening chapter of his 2013 book The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 to the siege. In just six pages, Dikötter defly uses Chinese archival sources to convey the suffering of the people of Changchun. The event serves as a kind of synecdoche for all the violence perpetrated by the Communist Party against its real and imagined enemies, one of the chief themes of his polemical book.

A longer, more detailed and less polemical account of the siege is in Harold M. Tanner’s 2015 book Where Chiang Kai-shek Lost China: The Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948The book is primarily a military history and so it does an excellent job of putting the siege in the context of the civil war and explaining the decision-making on both sides. For instance, he makes it clear that siege tactics were unusual for the Communists, and that the political leadership including Mao was initially skeptical of Lin’s plan (though they ultimately supported it). But Tanner also does not shy away from the human cost and the tricky historical politics of the siege.

Both books rely heavily on White Snow, Red Blood (雪白血红) a 1989 book by PLA colonel Zhang Zhenglong whose revelations about the siege caused a sensation on its original publication. In a comparison that would become famous, Zhang likened the siege to the bombing of Hiroshima: “The casualties were about the same. Hiroshima took nine seconds; Changchun took five months.”

Zhang’s book was banned on the mainland, though it was reprinted in Hong Kong. Tanner also cites a 1997 book by the historian Liu Tong, The True Record of the War of Liberation in the Northeast (东北解放战争纪实) which he says comes to similar conclusions about the casualties as Zhang’s. It’s not clear if that book has been banned, though it does not seem to be in print in China any longer; Liu has also published several other books on the civil war in the northeast.

Another source on the siege that has recently become available in English, which I have not read, is a firsthand account by survivor Homare Endo, Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun. She was seven years old at the time of the siege. Her Japanese manuscript was first published in 1984, and Endo apparently also wrote a Chinese version, according to this interview.

While there is a long list of topics in Chinese history that deserve fuller treatment in English, it seems to me that the siege of Changchun is a deep, complex, and emotional subject very much crying out for a book of its own.




Privatization, growth and inequality in Russia and China

There was an interesting presentation at the AEA meeting in Philadelphia from the team working on the World Wealth & Income Database that included a comparison of how privatization and inequality developed in Russia and China (link for AEA members).

The data work is quite impressive and useful; here for instance is a lovely chart showing the trajectories of privatization across China and Russia, with comparisons to the Czech Republic and the advanced economies:


This doesn’t change the usual understanding that Russia pursued a “big bang” or “shock therapy” approach to the privatization of state enterprises in the early 1990s, while China moved later and more gradually, but it does illustrate it very vividly (Czech appears to have pursued a strategy somewhat intermediate between the two).

Another noticeable trend in the data, which was not really discussed by the authors, is the flatlining of China’s public wealth share after around 2006. This fits nicely with my own observation that SOE reform and privatization came mostly to a halt in the period from 2003-06, partly in response to concerns about insiders illicitly enriching themselves off the privatization process. For instance, the phrase “preventing the loss of state assets” made its way into high-level policy documents for the first time in 2003, and is still being invoked today.

Why Chinese policymakers would want to avoid a Russia-style outcome is nicely captured in another chart on the evolution of inequality:


This data seems to make it pretty clear that the extreme increase in Russian inequality was indeed closely linked to the early 1990s privatization process, as has long been clear from more anecdotal and historical accounts. Other data presented by the authors (Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty, Li Yang, Gabriel Zucman) show that private wealth increased in Russia largely at the expense of public wealth–in other words, as a result of the transfer of assets–while in China private wealth increased more steadily as a result of rapid economic growth and housing reform.

I’ve been quite critical of China’s policies for state enterprises for a while now, since I think the lack of progress on privatization has allowed SOEs to become more inefficient and blocked the growth and market access of private firms. So this paper was a useful reminder that in the early 2000s China’s government had good reasons for wanting to be cautious about privatization.

The paper also suggests to me that Russia had two policy failures not just one: yes, privatization was mismanaged, but it also failed to drive broad economic growth in the aftermath of privatization. These two failures were obviously not unrelated but they are also analytically separable.

I don’t think that a resumption of SOE privatization in China would mean that broad-based economic growth would suffer; quite the reverse in fact. Measured inequality would probably increase as a result of more privatization, but I also doubt that current figures are really capturing the inequality produced by corruption and rent-extraction by SOE insiders.

There is more detail on all this in the original WID papers on Russia and China, which I haven’t yet gone through closely.

My year in blogging, 2017

The most-read posts of the year were, in order:

The most-popular list does include some of my own favorites, but there are always some posts I like that don’t find a big audience.

These tend to be the more specialized China pieces or translations, though my jazz record reviews also have a notable track record of failing to dominate the internet (which hasn’t deterred me yet).

Here are some posts that did not make it into the top five, but in retrospect were in fact pretty good:

The best books I read in 2017

As with previous lists, these are my favorites among the books I read for the first time in 2017, not of books only published in 2017. It’s not quite as diverse a list as in the past, as I did a lot of reading on Chinese and Russian history this year and less on other topics. Books are listed roughly in the order in which I read them:


  • Ian W. Toll, The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. A marvelously clear and vivid history of the first American offensives in World War II, with many good nuggets of economic and social history mixed in. A worthy sequel to his Pacific Crucible.
  • Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Published in 2014, this is so far my favorite book for understanding the political earthquakes of 2016. His arguments about the effect of technology on media and the loss of authority of elites have only gotten more relevant.
  • George Steiner, George Steiner at the New Yorker. There are so many gems in these essays, I will choose one rather than try to summarize: “There is in men and women a motivation stronger even than love or hatred or fear. It is that of being interested—in a body of knowledge, in a problem, in a hobby, in tomorrow’s newspaper.”
  • Ian Johnson, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. Wonderful reporting on the survival of traditional religion in contemporary China, filled with insights into all aspects of Chinese life.
  • Donald Hall, Essays After Eighty. Spare, lyrical and unsentimental reports from the unforgiving territory of old age. “The days have narrowed, as they must.”
  • Books about Siberia. My best reading experience of the year was not a single book but a collection of them, on a topic that sits at the intersection of a few of my obsessions: economic geography, socialism, extreme cold. Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia is the easiest to recommend, a warm-heated and capacious engagement with the history and reality of Siberia. Fiona Hill & Clifford Gaddy’s The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold is more for wonks, but is extremely interesting. Out of the huge literature of Russian primary sources about Siberian exile and the Gulag, I have only read Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Islandwhich while not a masterpiece is still fascinating.
  • Robert Loh & Humphrey Evans, Escape from Red China. A riveting first-person account of Mao’s ideological purges and the expropriation of private business during the 1950s.
  • János Kornai, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism. This 1991 masterpiece is of far more than historical interest, and still ranks as required reading for anyone trying to understand the Chinese economy. I should have read it years ago.


  • Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. An impressionistic slice of life of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, in which Babitz works very hard to seem superficial but constantly amazes with her insight and turns of phrase.
  • Francis Spufford, Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York. A novel about social trust and identity that is richly detailed and vividly historical, yet quite contemporary in its concerns.
  • John Kessel, The Moon and the Other. My vote for science fiction book of the year, not genre escapism but a vigorous engagement with ideas and human nature. The story revolves around a matriarchal socialist utopia that must deal with internal dissent and a conflict with radical free-market Iranians.
  • Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak. There are many things to like about this short book, but to me it captures very well how contemporary Chinese are both globalized and local, simultaneously trapped in family relationships and adrift in a chaotic society.
  • Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life. Delivers fully on its title despite its compact length. This account of a simple man’s simple life plays down conflict and upheaval in favor of quiet reflection.
  • Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. A sympathetic imagining of the inner life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich as he struggles with the demands of the Soviet state.
  • Min Jin Lee, Pachinko. An absolutely engrossing Korean family epic, as good as everyone says. Although I’m not done yet, it probably will be the best novel I read this year.

The best music I heard in 2017

As with previous lists, this is based just on my own listening, rather than what was released this year, and there’s not a huge number of new releases here. Recordings are listed roughly in the order in which I heard them, not of preference:


  • Mary Halvorson – Away With You. More fantastic work from guitar goddess Halvorson, with an ever-growing ensemble to showcase her knotty, exploratory compositions. Also excellent is Paimon, where she tackles John Zorn compositions in a dual-guitar quartet.
  • Steve Lacy – Morning Joy…Paris Live. An absolutely ripping live recording by one of the best working jazz groups of the 1980s.
  • Art Farmer & Benny Golson – Meet The Jazztet. One of the best 1960s hard bop recordings, from a group that is often overlooked.
  • Tony Scott – Gypsy. Scott could play the clarinet louder and more forcefully than anyone before or since, and the energy in this short set of standards is amazing.
  • Gil Evans – There Comes A Time. A large-ensemble masterpiece from the 1970s, in which Evans’ quest for new sounds brings him into the territory of electric Miles and Sun Ra.
  • King Tubby – Shalom Dub. Classic early work from the master of instrumental reggae.
  • Philip Cohran – On The Beach. Although mostly known for his association with Sun Ra, Cohran’s own music is wonderful. This 1968 recording is probably his best work, but also check out the gorgeous African Skies, as well as the record he made with his children, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
  • Nicole Mitchell – Awakening. Mitchell’s spectacular vocalized flute solos are backed by a tight small group of just guitar, bass, drums.
  • Craig Taborn – Daylight Ghosts. An unusual, atmospheric and complex recording, evoking minimalism as often as jazz.
  • Etta James – Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals SessionsAbsolutely essential soul, so good it’s embarrassing to admit I had not really appreciated Etta before.
  • Various Artists – Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From The Horn Of Africa. Fresh and fascinating African music, with a great backstory.
  • Minutemen – What Makes A Man Start Fires. Decades after their brief early 1980s run, the Minutemen’s punky, jazzy miniatures still sound like nothing else in popular music, and the Watt-Hurley partnership remains one of the greatest rock rhythm sections.
  • Genius/GZA – Liquid Swords. My idea of what hip-hop should sound like was formed in the early 1990s by the dense, funky sound collages of the Bomb Squad, so I did not immediately appreciate the minimalist style of the Wu-Tang Clan; this album helped change my mind.
  • Django Reinhardt – Django In Rome 1949-1950. The last recordings Django would make with his great partner Stephane Grappelli, with some of their best interplay on record.
  • Sun Ra – Universe in Blue. The heroic work of the Sun Ra Arkive is making many long-lost recordings readily available for the first time in decades. I like this 1972 live recording much more than a lot of his stuff from the period; the title track in particular is great, a moody small-group workout with a strong John Gilmore feature.

Tianjin’s 1955 campaign to expel rural migrants

The recent forced eviction of thousands of migrant workers from Beijing (see this ChinaFile discussion for an overview) has been a rather depressing confirmation of what I wrote about in my socialist urbanization series of posts earlier this year. China’s urbanization policy is, unfortunately, still captive to a vision of top-down management of population flows with its origins in socialist planning.

While there were campaigns to push migrants out of Beijing earlier this year, the latest one has been notably harsher, and has attracted much more public criticism. I can’t begin to sort through everything, but one interesting tidbit did turn up in the flood of online commentary. An article from 2016, describing a 1955 campaign to expel rural migrants from Tianjin, has been reposted across the Chinese internet–without additional commentary, since the parallels are pretty obvious to everyone.

It’s interesting enough that I have translated several excerpts from it below:

After Tianjin’s port opened in 1860, rural villagers gradually developed a tradition of seeking work there, because of Tianjin’s advantageous geographical location and transport links, along with the difficult conditions in surrounding rural villages. After the foundation of New China [in 1949], the spontaneous movement of peasants into Tianjin did not decline. In just seven days in March 1953, more than 1,450 people “blindly” moved into urban districts. In the year from January 1954 to February 1955, the rural population migrating to Tianjin reached 119,923 people.

From the perspective of the government, peasants “blindly” migrating to Tianjin was not beneficial to the city or the countryside. Therefore, in 1955 Tianjin carried out its first campaign-style program of “mobilizing the blind inflows of people into Tianjin to return to the villages and work.” This program used many kinds of mobilization strategies simultaneously, and in the end, many tens of thousands of rural migrants in Tianjin were successfully returned to their villages. In the following decade, the Tianjin government repeatedly organized campaigns to return peasants to their villages, but generally their methods were based on the 1955 campaign.

The government was fairly worried about all the peasants moving on their own into the city. At the time, the Tianjin Municipal Committee said: “After these people move in, the vast majority do not find work, and become part of the city’s consumer population, adding to the burden on the government.” But this statement is not entirely consistent with the actual situation at the time, and did not help people understand the true reasons why rural people were moving to the city. According to the statistics of one police station in Tianjin for February, April and October of 1954, “after these people came to the city, 21% found steady employment, and 23% found irregular employment.” That is to say, in the area covered by this police station, 44% of the rural migrant population had found work. …

One of the ways peasants would make a living in Tianjin was to use city friends or relatives, or the labor market in Wandezhuang, to find positions as temporary workers or apprentices in factories, mines, enterprises and shops. Another was for them to carry their own simple tools and walk down the streets and alleys asking for work. …In fact at the time, because grain rationing had not yet been implemented in the cities, and urban wages were fairly high, they could feed their families. From the perspective of the peasants, moving to the city is the natural result of a rational calculation.

But this was not the case from the government perspective. The development strategy of prioritizing heavy industry limited the ability of the city’s labor market to absorb new workers. According to statistics, every 100 million yuan of investment in light industry would require 16,000 workers, but the same investment in heavy industry would require only 5,000 workers. … After the start of the heavy industry construction under the First Five-Year Plan, investment in commerce and services gradually declined. One result was that people’s life in the city became less convenient, it became harder to find places to eat or make clothes; another result was that the number of job openings shrank, and Tianjin’s job market could not absorb all the people coming from the countryside.

The large-scale migration of peasants also reduced the farm labor force and threatened agricultural stability, and with it the national plan for economic development. The propaganda of the time said: “if agricultural development cannot keep up with the demands of industrial development, and industry cannot obtain sufficient supplies of grain and raw materials, socialist industrialization cannot be achieved.”

Overall, from the government perspective, the “blind” migration of peasants to the city damaged the order of the nation’s planned economy, worsened the pressure on urban employment, reduced the productivity of the countryside and affected agricultural output. It’s worth pointing out that in 1953 and 1954, Tianjin carried out two operations to discourage rural migration, but because only regular methods were employed, they were not very effective.

Because of the increasingly serious in-migration problem, in 1955 the Tianjin Municipal Committee decided to launch the first focused, citywide operation to mobilize the migrant population to return to the villages, led by the Party committee and the government and assisted by multiple departments. This operation required all work units to “take effective measures to ensure the migrant population in a planned and step-by-step manner returns to their villages to participate in production, and to prevent continued blind inflows of external population to the city in the future.” Designated as a project with “historical significance for the work of socialist transformation,” it was Tianjin’s first campaign-style peasant mobilization since 1949, and policymakers had high expectations for its success.

“Propaganda and education” was very important to the mobilization work. Compared with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party is better at techniques of “persuasion and education,” and these were used the most. … But in practice Tianjin also used administrative measures relating to labor, household registration and grain to consolidate and expand the initial results of the mobilization campaign.

From 1949 to 1954, the city government’s administration of hukou was fairly relaxed. During this period, due to the relevant provisions of the “Common Program” [the temporary constitution of 1949] on the right to freedom of movement, Tianjin basically did not restrict the transfer of hukou and migrants could apply for an urban hukou as long as they had migration permits. However with the 1955 campaign to mobilize peasants to return to their, such a relaxed policy was no longer appropriate, and in July the Tianjin Municipal Committee restricted the hukou registration of “people blindly entering Tianjin from the countryside or other places.” However, the ability of the household registration system to control migration would not have been great without its being linked to grain supply and employment.

In August 1955, the State Council and Tianjin Municipality announced the start of the grain rationing system in Tianjin. Each resident of Tianjin would be issued grain vouchers for a fixed amount of grain, depending on their work and age, and grain would be supplied according to the vouchers. Without a Tianjin urban hukou, it was not possible to complete the procedures to obtain grain vouchers, and thus impossible to buy grain. The supply of grain was also limited: in 1955, the first allocation plan called for distributing an average of 26.51 pounds per person, 2.81 pounds less than the original plan. Many people felt that this was not enough to entertain friends or family, or make festive dishes for the holidays. Because the grain quotas could only satisfy, or not even completely satisfy, their own needs,  urban residents found it difficult to assist their rural friends and relatives.

For those unemployed workers that fit the profile of those to be returned to their villages, the Tianjin municipal employment agencies stopped providing job placement services, and stopped or delayed their unemployment relief. In May 1955, the Tianjin Administration of Industry & Commerce also carried out a campaign to ban unlicensed street vendors, and to mobilize rural street vendors to return to their villages. In August 1955, the effort was expanded to licensed street vendors who met the requirements for being returned to their villages. To encourage the vendors to leave, state-owned companies stopped supplying them with goods, and local police stations limited the distribution of grain vouchers. By the second half of 1955, those peasants doing business on the streets of Tianjin could tell which way the wind was blowing. …

By mid-February 1956, when the mobilization campaign concluded, 126,324 peasants in Tianjin had been mobilized to return to their cities, and the flow of population into the city had been greatly reduced. …

Before the founding of New China, the Chinese Communist Party thought of peasants as the predecessors of workers, and that therefore in the future many millions of peasants would enter the cities and work in factories. But after the founding of New China, the government did not welcome the rural population spontaneously flowing into the cities. It thought that the building of the nation must be carried out in a planned and organized manner, and that peasants must not be blindly drawn into the cities.

The author is Wang Linran, a historian at Nankai University in Tianjin. The Chinese citation for the original article is 王凛然,《“进城”与“还乡”:1955年农民“盲目”进津与政府应对》, 《史林》,2016年,第4期,第157-168页.


A Tianjin coop in 1956

Chinese economic history as seen through eyeglasses

I recently got a new pair of glasses from an American optician, after almost two decades of buying my glasses in China. There was definitely some sticker shock on my part: it really drove home how the relative prices of customized labor-intensive goods can dramatically differ between a high-labor-cost economy and a lower-labor-cost economy. But it also made me think about all the various places in China I have bought glasses from over the years, and how they changed as the economy developed.

The first pair of glasses I bought in Beijing, probably somewhere around 1998-2000, was from a big state-owned store on the Wangfujing shopping street (it’s not there anymore of course, the redevelopment down there has left only a few landmarks untouched). It was classic SOE retail: massively overstaffed by lots of officious middle-aged employees in white jackets, who make you fill out paperwork in triplicate just to pay the bill. But it was well known and trusted–not perhaps to give you the absolute best deal, but to ensure some basic level of quality and not completely rip you off. While there’s not much state-owned retail around these days, consumer-facing SOEs still tend to trade on that higher level of trust.

In later years I was introduced to the wonders of the “glasses city” (眼镜城): massive buildings featuring floors and floors of nothing but opticians, who will measure your prescription and grind out your lenses in a few hours. On various occasions I went to two different ones, both in the Panjiayuan area. No licensing, no regulation, no safety standards (the haze of toxic fumes was worrying), but wow, overwhelming choice and unbelievable prices. The lack of barriers to entry was also apparent in the people running the stores too: rather than the local Beijingers who staffed the state outlets, they were often migrants from places like Fujian.

Here was a rare real-world example of almost-perfect competition. The tradeoff was almost exactly the opposite of the state store: low prices in exchange for low levels of trust. With hundreds of suppliers, doing any kind of systematic comparison shopping would take more time than it was worth–so it was normal to get a friend or relative to provide an introduction to a reliable shop.


But eventually the shopping adventure in the glasses city started to get tiring, and I wanted something less random and exhausting. My wife was also encouraging me to get higher-quality glasses. For my last couple of pairs, I headed to local-brand chain retailers. While in the U.S. it seems like the high end of the eyewear market is occupied by independent opticians and chain stores cater more to budget shoppers, it’s the reverse in China: the independent operators are in the low-end glasses city, and the larger operations go after the higher-end market.

Still, the experience was a bit more like developed-world retail. Prices are higher, but (perceived) quality is also higher. Of course there is competition, but much effort goes into mitigating its effects, and on upselling the consumer with endless options and upgrades, all presented as backed by the latest technology and medical research. You come out with a pretty good pair of glasses, but also the feeling that you did not quite understand what you just bought and are not exactly sure why you paid what you did. But overall the model is not as medicalized as in the U.S., where opticians act as healthcare providers and “prescribe” glasses–trying to take advantage of the fact that you are not supposed to bargain over healthcare costs.

These three types of shopping experience do, in hindsight, seem to match up rather nicely with the different stages of China’s economic life: from the socialist 1970s, to the explosion of hyper-competitive small businesses in the 1980s and 1990s, to the more recent phase of consolidation and oligopoly and the rising importance of branding and fashion.

I do feel a bit nostalgic for the free-for-all of the glasses city. While it’s still there, I think it’s past its prime, as rising urban incomes mean that more and more of the population is probably making the same calculation I did: pay more in order to spend less time and get higher quality. And the next stage is clearly coming, though I haven’t bought glasses online yet in either country.