Centralization and the crisis mindset

The centralization of power is the theme of much of the news out of China recently: power is shifting to the central government relative to the provinces, to the Party relative to the government, and to Xi Jinping personally relative to the Party elite. So, why? What thinking is behind the drive to centralize?

The public justification for these moves is generally that they are necessary for China to surmount difficulties and achieve urgent tasks. Here for instance is what the Global Times quoted Su Wei, a professor at the Chongqing Party School, as saying immediately after the proposal to remove term limits on the presidency was publicized:

Especially in the period from 2020 to 2035, which is a crucial stage for China to basically realize socialist modernization, China and the Communist Party of China need a stable, strong and consistent leadership. So removal of the section of the clause about the presidency in the Constitution is serving the most important and fundamental national interest and the Party’s historic mission.

The “crucial stage” is an interesting formulation. It does not quite rise to the level of “crisis”–and it would be difficult for China’s leaders to claim the country is in crisis while at the same time taking credit for its decades of increasing prosperity. But it is commonplace in Chinese official rhetoric to emphasize that China faces both opportunities and risks, that it has done very well but faces great challenges in the future (and, of course, it helps that this is actually true).

As Xi Jinping himself put it in a speech to senior officials in December:

The general trend in our country is good, but we also face many difficulties and risks in our way forward.

He also used a Chinese idiom that is usually translated as “be prepared for danger in times of peace” and called on officials to have a “sense of urgency” (忧患意识); another translation might be “crisis mindset.” In other words, China might not be in crisis yet, but it could fall into a crisis if it does the wrong things.


Discouraging historical parallels are all the rage at the moment, though I think the comparisons with Mao are usually overdone. Having been doing some reading on the early days of the Soviet Union recently, one that is top of mind for me is its transition from the mixed economy of the 1920s to full-on central planning. This radical centralization was very much driven by a crisis mindset: the government felt internationally isolated and at risk of invasion, which necessitated the rapid state-driven buildup of defense industries:

The Bolsheviks in the 1920s had fresh memories of the intervention by the West and Japan that took place during the civil war. Stalin’s “socialism in one country” represented a realistic recognition of the fact that no immediate socialist revolution could be expected in Western Europe. However, the regime was still fully committed to its revolutionary goals and was aware of the inherent tension in its relations with the West. The state of isolation in which it found itself and the overwhelming military and technological power of the capitalist countries “encircling” the Soviet Union caused great fear of another foreign invasion. The “plots of Chamberlain and Poncare,” the breaking off of diplomatic relations in 1927, and the activities of the the Japanese in the Far East all added to the threat perceived by the regime. Although some war scares were fabricated by factions in the party, the general belief in the party as a whole was that the regime would face war before very long. In order to defend the revolution, rapid industrialization was considered a necessity.


“More metal – more weapons!”

That quote is from Yu-Shan Wu, Comparative Economic Transformations: Mainland China, Hungary, the Soviet Union, and Taiwana very interesting 1994 book.

Of course, it seems pretty obvious that China today is not in a panic about imminent invasion and is not about to put the economy on a war footing. Official rhetoric is not martial and war-fearing; quite the opposite. In the same set of constitutional amendments that abolished term limits on the presidency and vice-presidency, a phrase was also added stating that China

follows a path of peaceful development, and pursues a mutually beneficial strategy of opening up in developing diplomatic relations and economic and cultural exchanges with other countries and working to build a community with a shared future for mankind.

So the crisis imagined in official rhetoric does not seem to be primarily a military one resulting from China’s unstable international position.

I think that the sense of threat and the crisis mentality have instead been transposed to the realm of capitalism: the danger to China comes from the economic competition between nations rather than military rivalry.

The clearest exposition of this view is in the Made in China 2025 plan, an industrial policy document whose importance and influence have only become more apparent since it was issued in 2015. The plan aims to achieve a massive transformation of China’s manufacturing sector to take advantage of new technologies and strengthen its capabilities.

But this transformation is motivated primarily by fear. While in Europe and America Chinese manufacturing is sometimes perceived as a world-conquering giant that has laid waste to traditional industries and thrown millions out of work, Chinese leaders see more weakness rather than strength. The world is being transformed by new technologies that are being invented outside of China and controlled by companies that are not Chinese. Meanwhile labor costs are rising are and China is losing market share in low-end industries like textiles and clothing.

These comments about the plan from an MIIT official in Chinese state media are revealing:

China is being pressured from both sides. Advanced economies such as the United States, Germany and Japan have all formulated policies supporting further development of their own manufacturing. At the same time, emerging economies such as India and Brazil are also catching up with their own advantages.

It is remarkable how similar this formulation is to the World Bank’s original definition of the “middle-income trap,” which was used to describe economies that were

squeezed between the low-wage poor-country competitors that dominate in mature industries and the rich-country innovators that dominate in industries undergoing rapid technological change.

It seems that the centralization of power, therefore, is conceived to be necessary in order to help China overcome the middle-income trap. To successfully escape the middle- income trap and navigate the crucial period requires a wholesale transformation of the economy, which only enlightened leadership from the top can achieve.

If this interpretation is correct, one obvious implication is that external threats are not going to make China give up on its industrial policies. The Trump administration is reportedly preparing a broad package of tariffs and other restrictive measures aimed at punishing China for its “industrial policy apparatus that is designed to suck technology out of the world.” But such punishment will only reinforce the crisis mindset in China, and the sense that it is at great risk of losing out to the West. The  likely response is that China will double down on its centralization and industrial policy, which will be seen as even more necessary as the world trade environment becomes more hostile.

Symptoms of pseudoreform at the National People’s Congress

The annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, underway this week, is that time of year when the bureaucracy of the Chinese government displays itself in all its ponderous glory, with all its reports, meetings, and discussion sessions. While it’s usually wrong to expect excitement from such process-heavy events, I’m still finding it underwhelming this year. A lot of the big initiatives that are being trumpeted seem to me like the phenomenon that János Kornai called pseudoreform, or “substitutes for deeper and more radical reforms,” in socialist countries.

One big current theme is the so-called “three critical battles” against financial risk, poverty, and pollution, a set of priorities that Xi Jinping has been emphasizing since last year. These campaigns are increasingly supplementing the traditional focus on sustaining economic growth–if not replacing it, with the GDP growth target for this year unchanged at 6.5%.

All of those three goals are certainly worthy ones, and are clearly an attempt to correct some of the problems caused by the mandate to force high growth, which led to a buildup of risk in the financial system and massive environmental degradation. The “three critical battles” nonetheless seem to represent a style of pseudorefrom Kornai called the “perfection of control.” The problems arising from government targets can be fixed by just finding better things to target:

Another trend in the perfection of planning is to try to transform the system of plan indicators. The representatives of this tendency … are not arguing for or against retaining the command nature of plan directives. Their concern is with exactly what needs prescribing.

Another major item on the agenda for the National People’s Congress is the approval of legal and constitutional changes that will create the National Supervision Commission, in effect transforming the Party’s anti-corruption agency into a new branch of government. This will allow it to lead campaigns not just against graft, but against laziness, ineptitude, and any inexplicable failure to follow Party priorities. Again, this intense focus on discipline is very much a symptom of “perfection of control” type of thinking; here is another passage from Kornai:

The bureaucratic mesh must be narrowed, so that nothing slips through. If some designated aggregate indicator or other is evaded, more and more detailed indicators are required. If a regulation is too general and comprehensive, others that go into more detail are needed. If the existing apparatus cannot perform all its regulatory tasks, extra authorities need setting up.

The way bureaucratic coordination can perfect itself most is by completion, trying to regulate every detail. The obvious concomitant is more vigorous action to apply the decisions, tighter discipline. This was reemphasized in the Soviet Union not only under Andropov but in the early Gorbachev era, when attacks began on absenteeism and alcoholism eroding work discipline.

Both quotes are from Kornai’s The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism; here is a previous post on the book.




How Chinese Communism is like religion: an anthropological analogy

This is really quite brilliant:

Despite their explicit atheism, Marxism, socialism and communism are often compared to religions. They require conversion and unquestioned belief in dogma and provide a full eschatology that gives sense and purpose to what has to be done here and now. This continues to be an essential insight but misses one crucial point that is particularly salient to contemporary China.

Viewing these ideologies as such is predicated on a Western understanding of religion modelled on Christianity. Cross culturally, however, religion is not about dogma and belief or how one expresses this belief. Religion is not even necessarily about the supernatural; rather, it is about the privileging of certain aspects of one’s environment, life and experience as sacred, that is, as special and set apart from the normal, profane domains of life. This distinction exists in any society quite independently from what it is exactly that is considered sacred.

If religion is simply about distinguishing the sacred from the profane, it can exist without any dogma and belief, or a material representation and awe of supernatural powers. In his study of the Giriama in Kenya the anthropologist David Parkin has developed this point further. Parkin demonstrates that the Giriama define themselves as a distinct people by reference to a remote, largely uninhabited but nevertheless sacred place of origin called the Kaya. This ‘sacred void’, as Parkin calls it, is kept pure and sacred through periodic acts of cleansing and purification to ensure the fertility and continuity of the Giriama people.

The concept of a sacred void, I would argue, travels rather well to contemporary China. Leninist principles set the CCP apart from society and represent its rule as a sacred mission regardless of any of the beliefs, dogmas or ideologies that it professes. Just as Giriama elders move secretly in and out of the Kaya, with only the occasional elder identified as having broken some rule, so it is that Party leaders are beyond scrutiny and only occasionally get purged. …

The sacredness of CCP politics is why the Party maintains an elaborate edifice of largely vacuous ideological innovations and resists the scrutiny of democratic principles and procedures. Jettisoning ideology would turn CCP rule into an ordinary dictatorship that visibly has no other mission than its own perpetuation. Introducing democracy would crowd the sacred void with the profanity of electoral politics that citizens of democratic countries might deplore, yet fully expect and take for granted: deceitful politicians, greedy interest groups and media theatrics.

It is, therefore, too simple to think that the CCP resists democratic elections and accountability only out of fear of losing power to competing parties. Its resistance to democracy runs at a much deeper indeed religious level. Democracy would expose the inner core of CCP politics to the gaze of ordinary people, stripping the Party of the mystery and sacredness that have rendered its rule unquestionable and untouchable for so long.

The quote is from Knowing China: A Twenty-First Century Guide by Frank Pieke, the chair professor in modern China studies at Leiden University, and an anthropologist by training.

I didn’t intend this post as a commentary on the news about the removal of term limits for Xi Jinping, but it feels appropriate nonetheless.

Perhaps because of its European origins, this 2016 book does not seem to have gotten much notice on this side of the Atlantic, which I think is a criminal oversight. In fact it is one of the clearest and most original summaries of how to think about the Chinese political economy that I have come across. Thanks to Dorothy Solinger for the  recommendation.



A close encounter of the Sun Ra kind

The next rehearsal was Friday, the day before the show. Surprise, surprise: Sun Ra opened more musical cans of worms. Songs he’d written hours before—or made up on the spot.

Don surely sensed our collective nervous anger, and his anxiety must’ve dwarfed ours. Ticket sales were beyond any previous concert (by show time, the hall would be sold out), and we had virtually no charts prepared. Diplomatically, Don suggested we work on tunes we’d tried before, and Sun Ra, without much fuss, agreed. But even when we summoned forth the riffs as we remembered them, something inevitably wasn’t to his liking. The closer we came to repeating what we’d learned in previous sessions, the faster Sun Ra switched what he was doing.

“Y’all seem so worried,” he said, “about playing the notes. But you can play more than just notes on a page, you know. You can play the wind or the river. You can play the sun rays.”

A cop-out, I thought. If anything goes, nothing needs perfecting.

But fine. He was the visionary.

And so when, with a toss of his hand, as if scattering birdseed, he signaled for the next song to start, I decided to play precisely nothing the way we’d learned it. I’d find a novel way to mutate every note: coming in a millisecond ahead of or behind the beat, tonguing hard or slurring through a half-valve. I’d like to say I did this out of open-minded virtue, but cussedness was closer to the truth. If he was hell-bent on undermining our book-learned perseverance, it seemed only fair to try to beat him at his game.

But, strangely, my mischief-making failed to wreck the music. Sun Ra was accompanying us, as usual, on piano, and for every note I sabotaged, he seemed to change his playing, widening the song’s sidelines so I always stayed in bounds. Could it be? I tried again—a purposely sharpened note—and Sun Ra’s fingers danced into a new configuration, his chord seemingly built on my suggestion. Back and forth we went in our loony musical leapfrog, till I was convoluted with amusement.

Sun Ra flashed a smile at me—not gloating but in gratitude—and now I saw this kind of sport was the goal. You’re right, it’s a game, I imagined him saying, but all of us are on the same team. I couldn’t say we sounded great, or that I fully “got” it; I still searched for handholds in the din. But now I was attuned to, not tuning out, his whimsies.

That is from Michael Lowenthal’s Face the Music: My Improbable Trip to Saturn (or Close Enough) with Sun Ra, a charming set of anecdotes about Sun Ra’s 1990 visit to Dartmouth College (it is a magazine-article-length Kindle Single published in 2016). His recollections are particularly poignant, and perhaps particularly insightful, because he gave up trumpet playing for writing not long after this encounter.



What I’ve been listening to lately


  • Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds. Fantastic work from Mitchell, whose wonderfully expressive, vocalized flute fronts a mostly string-based ensemble (cello, guitar, bass, drums). The bits with poetry mostly highlight that the poetry is not as good as the jazz, but it’s not too big of a distraction. There’s more in this recent profile of Mitchell.
  • Jeremy Steig, Flute FeverOn this 1963 recording, Steig seems like he is setting out to prove that the flute is every bit as powerful and expressive a jazz instrument as the tenor sax, tackling a couple of Sonny Rollins tunes, Miles Davis’ “So What”, and some other jazz classics. He succeeds brilliantly.
  • Betty Harris, The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul. A wonderful collection of singles from the Golden Age of New Orleans funk; Allen Touissant wrote many of the songs, and her backing band is the The Meters. Need I say more?
  • Yabby You, Beware DubThe Pressure Sounds label continues their heroic work of preserving Jamaican masterpieces. This 1978 dub album is a classic, consistently excellent all the way through.
  • Zhu Xiao-mei, Goldberg Variations. You can always go back to Bach. I am no specialist, but this recent recording sounds very good to my ears: wonderfully clear lines, and less melodramatic than Glenn Gould’s version.

And one recording that is not yet in rotation at my house, but certainly will be, is the new album from Ethiopian legend Hailu Mergia; Bandcamp has an interview.


When will an objective history of China’s 1950 land reform be possible?

Walking through the Road of Rejuvenation, the permanent exhibition on Chinese history at the National Museum of China, it is easy to see a lot of gaps. The Great Leap Forward of 1958, and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, are notably mostly by their absence. These are now universally acknowledged as “setbacks,” and if official history and propaganda does not really know how to talk about them, neither does it actively defend them. But I found it interesting that other Mao-era campaigns, such as the land reform of 1950, are not similarly glossed over.

In fact they are proudly celebrated, and justified in language that does not seem to have changed in decades. According to the official line, land reform was necessary to break the pattern of feudal exploitation in which a tiny landlord class controlled most of the land and trapped farmers in poverty. The reform was indeed a massive social upheaval, in which over 10 million landlords were expropriated, and more than 40% of China’s farmland was redistributed. So it was hard not to feel some awe when I looked at the piece of paper that started it all, preserved for posterity:


The June 1950 order promulgating the Land Reform Law, on display at the National Museum of China

Yet this official caricature of pre-Communist China as a nightmare of exploitation and inequality has not stood up well to historical scrutiny. The historian Frank Dikötter for instance argues, in his The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, that the very term “landlord” (dizhu) was a political invention rather than a reflection of social reality:

The term was imported from Japan in the late nineteenth century and given its modern formulation by Mao Zedong. It had no meaning for most people in the countryside, who referred to some of their more fortunate neighbours as caizhu, an appellation that implied prosperity yet carried no derogatory undertones. There were also plenty of less respectful labels such as ‘big belly’ (daduzi). As S. T. Tung, publisher of the Chinese Farmer with a doctoral degree in agriculture from Cornell University, put it at the time, ‘China has no “landlord class”.’ There is little question that absent landowners abused their power, while malpractices were rife in the countryside, but the country did not have a dominant class of junkers or squires, and nothing equivalent to serfdom.

There is also data available from contemporary surveys that has allowed economic historians to provide at least approximate estimates of the extent of inequality in the pre-Communist countryside. Tian Chuanhao, a professor at Zhejiang University, in a recent article reported that he used a 1932 survey under the Republican government to estimate the Gini coefficient for land ownership at 0.543. He also cites another estimate of 0.563, based on the first world agricultural census of 1930.

Scholars have also used that census to estimate the inequality of land distribution for many other countries, and China’s level was not extreme for the time: a number of European countries and their colonies had land Ginis of around 0.7 (the data in the chart below are from a 2005 paper by E.H.P. Frankema). “From the Ming and Qing dynasties through the 1930s, the inequality in China’s distribution of land was not severe, and in a global context was middle-ranked,” Tian writes.


If inequality in China’s countryside was not extreme before land reform was carried out, neither was it eliminated by the land reform. Carl Riskin’s classic history, China’s Political Economy: The Quest for Development since 1949, works through data both before and after the reform and concludes:

Inequality of land ownership and operations was greatly reduced, and with it the inequality of income distribution. Yet in the end, the average rich peasant owned and operated more than twice as much land as did the average poor peasant, and the middle peasant 50% more. Land reform had deliberately stopped short of complete economic equality and was incapable of eradicating rural poverty.

Indeed, economic conditions were in some ways worsened by the reform, and the class structure that emerged was inherently unstable. The chief significance of the land reform therefore was in creating the political and social conditions for change in the direction planned by Mao and the Party–towards a collectivized and ultimately industrialized agriculture.

Land reform was indeed very effective in achieving its political goals: eliminating the rural gentry as a potential counter-revolutionary threat, destroying old patterns of authority and deference, and creating loyalty to the new government among those who received land.

And only the fact that land reform was primarily a political campaign against “class enemies” can explain why it was so violent and disruptive: landlords did not simply have their land confiscated, but were publicly denounced at mass meetings, beaten, and killed. On most estimates, at least a million people died during the campaign. Here is Dikötter again with a depressing comparison with the contemporary land reforms in other Asian countries:

In March 1951 a letter was published in the People’s Daily. Several farmers from Hunan had written to ask about land reform. ‘Why doesn’t Chairman Mao just print some banknotes, buy the land from the landlords and then give us our share?’  It was a good question. That was, after all, what was happening in the island fortress of arch-villain Chiang Kai-shek. Between 1949 and 1953, large landowners in Taiwan were compensated with commodity certificates and stocks in state-owned industries for the land that was redistributed among small farmers. This approach impoverished some wealthy villagers, but others used their compensation to start commercial and industrial enterprises. Not a drop of blood was shed. The experience was based on Korea and Japan, where land reform was successfully carried out under General Douglas MacArthur between 1945 and 1950. Not a drop of blood was shed there either.

But it is not yet politically acceptable in today’s China to describe the 1950 land reform as a violent, wasteful political campaign that, by preparing the way for agricultural collectivization, contributed to even more loss of life in the famine that resulted from the 1958 Great Leap Forward.

The musty old Maoist justifications for land reform are not just repeated in official propaganda, but are actively asserted against even mild challenges. The most prominent recent example is the public controversy over the 2016 novel Soft Burial (软埋), which features an older woman dealing with her troubling memories of land reform. There is a good summary in the English edition of the Global Times; here is an excerpt:

Detractors of the novel believe that by sympathizing with the landlords, the novel is discrediting land reform, a major feat of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and therefore challenging the CPC. “Soft Burial is a downright anti-Communist Party novel,” one article, written by a commentator called Chun Lin, asserts. “We have to be cautious about this novel, and criticize it thoroughly.” …

Guo Songmin, an ardent Maoist and political commentator who used to be a pilot in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, thinks the work aims to discredit land reform and ultimately the legitimacy of the CPC. “There should be a political bottom line in the publishing industry, and works that intend to subvert the government should not be published,” he told the Global Times.

“The land reform and the new democratic revolution are important steps in our history. Without them, China could never have achieved what it has become today,” he said.

Since this article was published last year, Soft Burial appears to have been effectively banned.


Some of Marx’s earliest critics were right on the money

I’m working my way through the early chapters of Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Gareth Stedman Jones’ recent biography. There’s a lot of German idealism, and these debates often seem to have been lost in the mists of history for pretty good reason. But some of the most interesting bits involve Marx’s arguments with his contemporaries, well before he became widely famous.

Arnold Ruge was a lecturer at the University of Halle and founder of journals that published some of Marx’s early writings. They were frequent collaborators and correspondents, and both were both critical of the autocratic Prussian state and traditional religion. But Ruge was more of a liberal, republican nationalist and their views drifted apart as Marx moved toward a more radical position. They eventually had a personal falling out after living in close quarters in Paris, which led to an open intellectual break:

Ruge went on to attack Karl’s communism. He argued to Feuerbach that neither the aims of the Fourierists, nor the suppression of property that the communists advocated, could be articulated with any clarity. ‘These two tendencies end up with a police state and slavery. To liberate the proletariat from the weight of physical and intellectual misery, one dreams of an organization that would generalize this very misery, that would cause all human beings to bear its weight.’

Karl Grün was a German journalist active in organizing workers around the same time as Marx, and also collaborated with Proudhon, the famous French critic of private property. Marx despised Grün, whose popularity and prominence were a challenge to his own, and devoted a section of the Communist Manifesto to criticizing his “German” socialism. In 1848, Marx and Engels followed up with the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, which called for the nationalization of industry, transport and finance. 

Writing in the Trier’sche Zeitung, [Grün] criticized the emphasis on centralization and nationalization; its results, he stated, would not be the emancipation of labour, but the replacement of individual monopolies by a ‘collective monopoly’ of the state, and the undermining of individual self-determination.

From today’s perspective, a full century after the Bolshevik Revolution, these criticisms sound very accurate indeed.