Welcome to the land of soft openings

I’m about halfway through Ian Johnson’s The Souls Of China: The Return of Religion After Mao , but it’s already clear it’s the China book of the year. Not just because the subject matter is fascinating and undercovered, but also because it is packed with insights about all aspects of contemporary China.

I hope to blog more about the discussion of religion later, but for now I really want to share the following passage, which despite being more or less tossed off as an aside is a fairly profound insight into how China works:

China is the land of soft openings: projects are first announced to big fanfare, structures erected as declarations of intent, and only then filled with content. In this sense, developing a new ideology to unify China is similar to building a shopping mall: the deal is publicized, the building goes up, a few stores open, but only years later are all the shops and restaurants open for business, and only after a number of anchor tenants have gone bankrupt. This makeshift model differs from how Westerns like to see projects–envisioned and planned thoroughly, then completed according to that design. But it has its own logic. If viable, the project goes ahead; if not, backing out is easier.

Keeping this pattern in mind is a good way to maintain a clear head when dealing with the latest grandiose Chinese announcement.

The frenzy of commentary on China’s Belt and Road Initiative has, for instance, generally not done this. Much of this makes the fundamental mistake of not understanding that the initiative is indeed in soft opening mode, and talking about it as if it is a massive and detailed plan for infrastructure development (it isn’t). On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that it’s correct to take all the official rhetoric about shared prosperity at face value, as too many ludicrously overwrought op-ed pieces have. A makeshift structure that gets filled in over time is, I think, exactly the right way to think about it.

 

(Disclosure: Ian is a friend and former colleague, so I was predisposed to like his book. But I’d recommend it anyway.)

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