Why Siberia is not like the American frontier

After finishing Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, I felt like I needed to know more about Siberia. Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia turned out to be a wonderful guide. Ordinarily I don’t like long, discursive books with no real point, but all of these potential vices are turned into virtues by Frazier’s charming voice. He is particularly good on the surprisingly long and deep history of American involvement in Siberia; here’s one passage that encapsulates many of his themes:

When Wendell Willkie, the American politician, visited Yakutsk in 1942, he said it reminded him of Elwood, Indiana. Willkie grew up in Elwood and thus is another on the long list of Midwesterners who have traveled in Siberia. He came here because of the war. Although Willkie lost to Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential race, he was credited afterward with helping to unify America behind the war effort, and in that capacity he made a round-the-world tour in a U.S. bomber to represent his country and demonstrate the Allies’ mastery of the air. The part of Yakutsk that specifically evoked Elwood for him was the boardwalks on the bigger streets; his hometown had board sidewalks when he was a boy. Willkie also spoke more generally about the heartiness of Yakutsk’s citizens, the simplicity of their tastes, and the place’s “tremendous vitality.” He said, “The town itself seemed, in many ways, like a western town in my country a century ago.”

As possibly the only person on earth today who has actually seen both Yakutsk and Elwood, Indiana, I think I understand what he meant. The Yakutsk Willkie visited was a frontier city, as the Elwood of his youth was a frontier town. Both were lively settlements far from their country’s center (though the one, obviously, much farther than the other). Observers before and after Willkie noted the many similarities between the Siberian and the Western American frontiers—from the hogs running loose in the villages, to the smallpox epidemics that hit the natives, to the rumors of tribes descended from the ancient Hebrews somewhere out in the wilds, to the environmental problems of overplowing and dust storms that came with development, and so on. Willkie’s trip also took him to Cairo, Baghdad, Moscow, and Peking; he stopped in Yakutsk partly because he was going that general direction anyway, and of all the cities he saw, this raw metropolis in the dark of the forest no doubt did look more like someplace in America.

But today I don’t think anyone who saw Yakutsk would be reminded of Elwood, or of anyplace like it. Elwood is another small American town that has passed through stages of early settlement, enthusiastic development, industrial boom, and recent decline. In those terms, its frontier years ended ages ago. Yakutsk, on the other hand, is still a frontier place, still hanging on to the writhing wilderness by its fingernails.


In fact Chekhov himself, traveling in 1890, compared Siberia to the American frontier:

When I was sailing on the Amur, I had the feeling that I was not in Russia, but somewhere in Patagonia, or Texas; without even mentioning the distinctive, un-Russian scenery and natural conditions, it seemed to me the entire time that the tenor of our Russian life is entirely alien to the native of the Amur, that Pushkin and Gogol are not understood here, and therefore not necessary, that our history is boring, and that we who arrive from European Russia seem like foreigners.

Yet while Siberia has some “frontier-ness” in common with the American West, the differences are pretty obvious. So why didn’t Siberia end up as pleasant or prosperous as the American West? The geographic determinism argument would be that it is simply much colder and more remote. (A fun fact I learned is that Siberia is so cold not simply because it is far north, but because its east-west expanse means the distances from the climate-moderating coasts are so huge).

The other obvious difference is the one that Chekhov focused on: that Siberia was a penal colony not a zone of free migration. More informed reflections on this theme can be found in Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Centurywhich among its many wonders includes a direct comparison of Siberia and the American frontier (in the “Frontiers” chapter, one of my favorites):

In the nineteenth century, the thinking behind the Siberian system was that it would provide a “prison without a roof” for political opponents and marginal social groups, while at the same time providing a labor pool for the giant state projects of colonizing and “civilizing” the region. It was a colonial development program that had much greater affinities with the colonial corvée system than with the pioneering advance into the American West driven mainly by market forces and voluntary decision. At the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Western public opinion had long regarded deportation and forced labor as anachronistic and extremely hard to justify. In China, too, it had lost its usefulness to the state, having reached its peak in the eighteenth century. …

The [Russian] state tried to steer … every aspect of the opening of frontiers much more forcefully than in the United States or South Africa. The main contribution of the American state was to make cheap land available to settlers in an orderly manner. The pioneers were completely free individuals: no one could send them anywhere. In Tsarist Russia, by contrast, until the liberalization of agrarian policy under Prime Minister Stolypin, the state intervened to guide the process of settlement. This posed no problem in the case of “state peasants,” but even with other categories, whether dependent or “freed,” the state presumed to act in a guardian-like capacity. Although many settlers eventually shaped their own lives, the settlement frontier was not, as in the United States, theoretically formed by their free decisions.

A further difference with the United States was the small weight of urban settlements. The North American frontier was everywhere associated with the formation of small towns, some of which profited from a favorable transportation location to develop rapidly into major cities. At the western end of the continent, the frontier ended in a densely settled urban zone that did not actually owe its formation to the frontier. No Russian California would ever emerge; Vladivostok did not blossom as a second Los Angeles. But neither did frontier urbanization in the strict sense become a large-scale phenomenon.

Anton Chekhov, the investigative data journalist

I can no longer recall what pointed me toward Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Islandbut it is definitely one of my better literary discoveries in a while. In it we see a writer best known for short fiction undertaking a huge piece of nonfiction: a comprehensive account of the penal colony on Sakhalin in 1890, combining travel writing and character sketches with policy analysis and, perhaps most surprisingly, the presentation of vast quantities of data.

Here is some background on what prompted Chekhov’s investigation, which seemed just as out of character to his contemporaries as it does it to us; from the notes to this edition:

At the end of 1889, unexpectedly, and for no apparent reason, the twenty-nine year-old author announced his intention to leave European Russia, and to travel across Siberia to Sakhalin, the large island separating Siberia and the Pacific Ocean, following which he would write a full-scale examination of the penal colony maintained there by the Tsarist authorities. …

Sakhalin, since it was an island, and as far away from central Russia as one could go without leaving the country, was used at the time exclusively as a destination for long-term hard-labour convicts, who – apart from those on life terms – would serve out their sentences, then proceed to live in a local village to serve for several years with the status of a felon who was rehabilitating himself by learning to live a productive life in the community. Finally, when this period of “probation” was over, he or she would have their free-person’s rights restored to them and could leave for the mainland – but were still not allowed back to central Russia; they had to remain in Siberia for life. The authorities hoped by this policy to turn Sakhalin into a thriving colony on the lines of Australia, and numerous dishonest reports appeared in the European Russian press, planted by the government, claiming that this aim was being achieved.

There is a an argumentative core to the book, which is to show that the idea of using prison labor to develop a colony is a hopeless contradiction. The fundamental reason for this is that building up a successful economy and society in a colony requires individual initiative and responsibility, which is what a prison exists to destroy:

A prison is antagonistic to a colony, and their interests are in inverse ratio to each other. Life in the communal cells reduces a prisoner to the condition of a serf, and in the course of time, makes him degenerate; the habits of the life of the herd stifle within him the instincts of a permanently settled man and domesticated householder; his health declines, he grows old and weakens morally, and the later he leaves the prison the more reasons there are to fear that he will not turn out an active, useful member of the colony, but merely a burden to it.

A related theme is that in any competition between exile or convict labor and free labor, free labor always wins, because they do a better job. And therefore that the government idea behind the colony–that forced exile can be an effective economic development program–is fatally flawed. (Of course, this did not prevent the Soviet government from attempting the same thing on a much vaster scale with the Gulag system in the twentieth century.) In this passage Chekhov thinks through what the rational economic development of Sakhalin might look like, and concludes that the penal colony would inevitably wither away:

The major wealth of Sakhalin, and its – possibly enviable and happy – future, lies not, as people think, in fur-bearing animals but in the seasonal fish. … For fishing to take on the significance of a serious industry, the colony should be moved closer to the mouth of the Tym or the Poronai. But this is not the only prerequisite. It is also necessary that free individuals should not compete with the exile population, since there is no type of business in which, where there is a clash of interests, the free would not gain the upper hand over the exiles.

However, the exiles are in competition with the Japanese, who either conduct their fishing in a contraband fashion or else pay duty, and with the officials, who take possession of the best spots for the prison fisheries, and the time is already approaching when, with the construction of the Siberian railway and the development of shipping, rumours of the fabulous wealth of fish and fur-bearing animals will attract the free to the island; immigration will commence, genuine fisheries will be set up, in which the exile will take part not as a proprietor-businessman but merely as a hired hand, and then, judging from similar situations in the past, complaints will begin that the labour of the exiles is, in many respects, inferior to the labour of the free, even to that of the Manzes and Koreans; from the economic point of view, the exile population will come to be considered a burden for the island, and, with the expansion of immigration and the development of a settled and commercial way of life on the island, the state itself will find it more just and profitable to take the side of the free element and call a halt to the process of exile. And so, fish shall constitute the prosperity of Sakhalin, but not of the exile colony.

But there are actually very few of these moments where Chekhov speaks in his own voice to editorialize or tell us what to think: his method is “show, don’t tell,” and the patient accumulation of overwhelming and often heartbreaking detail. As part of his three-month investigation, Chekhov made his own census of the exile population, conducting brief interviews with every household he could find. This provided him with a wealth not only of impressions and anecdotes, but also data. Here is one of the more quantitative passages to give a taste of this aspect of the book:

In order to form a judgement as to the time of the year escapes are most often committed, I have utilized the few statistics which I did manage to find and note down. In 1877, 1878, 1885, 1887, 1888 and 1889, 1,501 convicts absconded. This figure breaks down into months thus:

  • January 117
  • February 64
  • March 20
  • April 20
  • May 147
  • June 290
  • July 283
  • August 231
  • September 150
  • October 44
  • November 35
  • December 100

If one were to draw a curve of the escapes on a graph, its highest points would relate to the summer months and to those winter months when the frosts are heaviest. Obviously, the most favourable moments for carrying out escapes are when the weather is warm, when work is being carried on outside the prison, during the seasonal fish run, when the berries are ripening in the taiga, and when the settled exiles’ potatoes are fully mature, and after these, the time when the sea is covered with ice, when Sakhalin ceases to be an island. Also conducive to the rises in the summer and winter months is the arrival of new parties on the spring and autumn voyages. Least of all abscond in March and April, because during these months the ice breaks up on the rivers, and it is impossible to obtain food either in the taiga or from settled exiles, who by the spring usually no longer have any food left themselves.

In 1889, 15.33 per cent of the average yearly complement escaped from the Alexandrovsk Prison; from the Dooay and Voyevodsk Prisons – where, besides overseers, sentries with rifles also keep guard over the prisoners – 6.4 per cent escaped in 1889, and from the prisons of the Tymovsk District, nine per cent. These figures relate only to the year under review, but if one were to take the entire available total of convicts over the whole duration of their stay on the island, the ratio of those who have run off at various times to the total complement amounts to no less than sixty per cent – that is, of every five individuals whom you see in the prison or in the streets, three, for a certainty, will have already attempted to decamp. From talks with the exiles I gained the impression they had all gone off at some stage. It is rare for anybody, during the course of his sentence, not to arrange a holiday for himself.

The comprehensiveness–geography, population, health, economy–of Chekhov’s account seems characteristically and delightfully nineteenth-century to me. It’s not a perfect book: a nonfiction writer today would use a much less schematic structure, and would try to link the chapters with more of a narrative thread than Chekhov does. But in the end it is a wonderfully vivid and detailed portrait of a particular place at a particular time, which is probably more valuable than a purely personal reflection or polemical argument.


One complaint is that although the translation reads very well, it was not well-served by the publisher: in the electronic edition the notes are not linked, making them basically unusable, and in the print edition the type is too small.

How the Soviet Union tried to control the growth of large cities

Returning to my theme of socialist urbanization, here is a good overview of the Soviet system for controlling the expansion of large cities. The parallels with China are, at least to my eye, immediately obvious and striking. The passage is from Planning in the Soviet Union by Judith Pallot and Denis J.B. Shaw; it was published in 1981 which is why the USSR is referred to in the present tense:

Many Soviet writers claim that a socialist society’s ability to control the process of urbanization is a demonstration of its superiority to capitalism. Thus [geographer Boris Sergeevich] Khorev writes that the spontaneous and uncontrolled growth of cities in the West has produced such unfavorable consequences that “they militate in effect against the very system of large-scale capitalism.” By contrast, he believes, “only socialism has the possibility of using the best achievements of the modern urban form of settlement for the great masses of workers.”

Early efforts to control the rapid growth of the largest cities date from the 1930s, when rural-urban migration was threatening to produce total chaos for housing and services. Since then, with an increasing concern about regional development questions and the standard of living in cities, the policy has become more clearly defined and now embraces many more cities. The 25th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1976 once again stressed the need to restrain the growth of large cities as part of a policy of industrial decentralization.

Soviet controls over the expansion of cities have three major aspects. The first is the propiska system, controlling migration into cities. The internal passport system was introduced in 1932 and at the same time a policy was implemented to control the inflow of permanent migrants into Moscow and Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. These efforts were reinforced by the plans for the two cities, promulgated in 1935, which allowed for only modest population expansion. Since that time many large cities have been declared “closed” to voluntary residence. In order to take up permanent residence in one of these cities, therefore, a special permit or propiska is required. For those who residence is temporary, such as university students, there are temporary propiska. Except for those born in a closed city, the propiska is not easy to acquire.

China: hukou system. Check.

The second control to city expansion lies in the ownership and direction of industry and of other forms of economic activity by the Soviet state. In 1931 the government decreed that all new industrial expansion was to take place outside Moscow and Leningrad. These provisions were reinforced by the 1935 plans for the cities and by subsequent government action on decentralization, especially after 1938. In 1939 five more cities–Khar’kov, Kiev, Rostov, Gor’kiy and Sverdlovsk–were added to the restricted list, and by 1956 there were 48 cities in which there was to be no further new industrial construction or expansion by already-existing plant. …In the 1960s and 1970s a whole new generation of development plans was drawn up for major cities, affirming the restrictions on, or prohibition of new industrial developments. Many plans also specify that activities not basic to a city’s economy, and polluting industries, should be relocated to satellites.

China: forced relocation of industry. Check.

The third arm in city control is that over land use. Soviet legislation on land has a special category of “land under populated settlements” and the granting of the right to use urban land is vested in the executive committee of the city soviet subject tot eh guidance of higher authority. In principle, the, industrial ministries and enterprises are unable to acquire new land without the expressed consent of local and higher authority.  …

China: monopoly state ownership of urban land. Check.

The USSR’s three largest cities in 1959 subsequently grow more slowly than other cities with populations over 100,000…the 24 largest cities of 1959 (population 500,000+) had over 25 percent of the total urban population in 1959, but less than 23 percent in 1976. In spite of these favorable trends, Khorev and others believe that the largest Soviet cities are still growing much too quickly and such tendencies are exacerbating urban problems. It is certainly the case that many cities have exceeded the growth rates expected by the planners. In the case of Moscow, for example, the 1970 city plan stressed the necessity of containing the capital’s population within the 7 million mark. At that time, however, the city’s population already stood at 6.9 million, and had reached 7.8 million by 1978. Leningrad’s city plan, approved in 1966, envisaged a population of 3.4-3.5 million people by the latter half of the 1980s, or 4 million including the suburban settlements. This level had already been reached by 1970.

Historically, China’s policies to control the growth of the largest cities only succeeded in slowing population growth rather than halting it–and even that limited success has imposed great human and economic costs. But the most recent and most draconian iteration of these policies may actually be succeeding in capping population growth. Soviet urban planning policies often failed because they were internally contradictory and poorly administered. Is the Chinese administrative state now powerful enough to actually implement the sterile visions of socialist urbanization?



Francis Spufford on ethics and economics in colonial America

I’m greatly enjoying Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, after waiting a year for it to appear in the US (what’s up with these ridiculous lags, publishing?).

It is wonderfully written, and it is hard for someone with an interest in economic history not to be charmed by a book whose plot revolves around the difficulties of moving money long distances in the era before modern banking and national currencies.

The bravura opening chapter is almost an essay on trust and the ethics of commerce, and is difficult to excerpt, but here’s a fun passage on changing money in 1746:

“Well, now, let’s see. We don’t get much London gold, the flow being, as you might say, all the other way; it’s moidores, and half-joes, mostly, when the yellow lady shows her face. So I believe I could offer you a hundred and eighty per centum on face, in New-York money. Which, for four guineas, would come to—”

“One hundred and fifty one shillings, twopence-halfpenny.”

“You’re a calculator, are you? A sharp reckoner. Now I’m afraid you can have only a little of it in coin; the reason being, as I said when first we began, that little coin is current at the present.” Lovell opened a box with a key from his fob chain and dredged up silver—worn silver, silver knocked and clatter’d in the battles of circulation—which he built into a little stack in front of Smith.

“A Mexica dollar, which we pass at eight-and-fourpence. A piece of four, half that. A couple of Portugee cruzeiros, three shillings New-York. A quarter-guilder. Two kreutzers, Lemberg. One kreutzer, Danish. Five sous. And a Moresco piece we can’t read, but it weighs at fourteen pennyweight, sterling, so we’ll call it two-and-six, New-York. Twenty-one and fourpence, total. Leaving a hundred and twenty-nine, tenpence-halfpenny to find in paper.”

Lovell accordingly began to count out a pile of creased and folded slips next to the silver, some printed black and some printed red and some brown, like the despoiled pages of a prayerbook, only of varying shapes and sizes; some limp and torn; some leathery with grease; some marked only with dirty letterpress and others bearing coats-of-arms, whales spouting, shooting stars, feathers, leaves, savages; all of which he laid down with the rapidity of a card-dealer, licking his fingers fingers for the better passage of it all.

“Wait a minute,” said Mr. Smith. “What’s this?”

“You don’t know our money, sir?” said the clerk. “They didn’t tell you we use notes, specie being so scarce, this side?”

“No,” said Smith.

The pile grew.

“Fourpence Connecticut, eightpence Rhode Island,” murmured Lovell. “Two shilling Rhode Island, eighteenpence Jersey, one shilling Jersey, eighteenpence Philadelphia, one shilling Maryland . . .” He had reached the bottom of the box.


There never was a man named Vladimir Ilich Lenin


Lenin at his desk, 1918

Fun facts for the centenary of the Russian revolution:

The name ‘Vladimir Ilich Lenin’ is a posthumous creation. The living man went by many names, but ‘Vladimir Ilich Lenin’ was not among them.

What should we call him? He was christened, shortly after his birth in 1870, as Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov. ‘Ilich’ is a patronymic, meaning ‘son of Ilya’. And yet, for many during his lifetime and after, ‘Ilich’ conveyed a greater sense of the individuality of the man than ‘Vladimir’. As soon as he started on his revolutionary career in the early 1890s the exigencies of the underground led our hero to distance himself from his given name. The surviving copy of his first major written production – Who are these ‘Friends of the People’ and How Do They Fight against the Social Democrats? (1893) – has no authorial name on the title-page. In works legally published in the 1890s our hero adopted more than one new name: K. Tulin or (for his magnum opus of 1899, The Development of Capitalism in Russia) Vladimir Ilin, a pseudonym that hardly hides his real name. Right up to the 1917 revolution, legally published works by Vl. Ilin continued to appear. …

Our hero acquired his ‘usual literary signature’ around 1901, while serving as one of the editors of the underground newspaper Iskra, when he began to sign his published work as ‘N. Lenin’. Why ‘Lenin’? We have already seen a certain fondness for pseudonyms ending in ‘-in’. But ‘Lenin’ seems to have been the name of an actual person whose passport helped our man leave Russia in 1900. This passport was made available to Lenin, at second or third hand, as a family favour; in the end, he did not have to use it.

‘N. Lenin’, not ‘V.I. Lenin’. His published works, right to the end, have ‘N. Lenin’ on the title page. What does the ‘N’ stand for? Nothing. Revolutionary pseudonyms very often included meaningless initials. But when N. Lenin became world famous, the idea got about that N stood for Nikolai – an evocative name indeed , combining Nikolai the Last (the tsar replaced by Lenin) , Niccolò Machiavelli and Old Nick. In 1919 one of the first more-or-less accurate biographical sketches in English proclaimed its subject to be Nikolai Lenin. President Ronald Reagan was still talking about Nikolai Lenin in the 1980s – and perhaps this name is just as legitimate historically as ‘V.I. Lenin’.

In any event, Lenin never used ‘Vladimir Ilich Lenin’ as a signature. Most of his letters are simply signed ‘Yours, Lenin’ or the like. Certainly Lenin did not bother to hide his real name. In a 1908 letter to Maxim Gorky signed ‘Yours, N. Lenin,’ he gives his Geneva address: ‘Mr. Wl. Oulianoff. 17. Rue des deux Ponts. 17 (chez Küpfer)’. Only in letters to his family and to Inessa Armand does he usually forego his usual literary signature and sign off as V.U. or V.I.

After 1917, when signing official documents in his capacity of Chair of the Council of People’s Commissars, Lenin evidently felt that his family name was necessary, and so his official signature on government decrees was ‘Vl. Ulianov (Lenin)’. Other revolutionaries whose underground klichki (pseudonyms) became famous did not retain their family name in this manner – certainly not J. V. Stalin (born Dzhugashvili).

It seems that our subject, for reasons both personal and official, fought to maintain a distinction between Vladimir Ilich the person and Lenin the political institution.

The quote is from Lars Lih’s Lenin, a short and sympathetic intellectual biography. I also note that Sean McMeekin’s nice piece “Was Lenin A German Agent?” refers to him correctly, as Vladimir Ulyanov alias Lenin.

Reinhard Bendix on the economic dilemma for nationalist politicians

Is there a connection between nationalism in politics and inward-looking, statist economic policies? The examples of China and Russia (and perhaps Turkey) in recent years suggest that there could be.

But where does this linkage come from? I recently stumbled across a 1987 article by the sociologist Reinhard Bendix, called “The Intellectual’s Dilemma in the Modern World,” in which he articulates this connection rather well. Here is the relevant passage:

There is a family resemblance between the Third World of today and the poor countries of earlier eras. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English intellectuals and other people reacted to the economic advance of Holland and the Spanish world empire. In the eighteenth century, German writers reacted positively or negatively to the economic and political advance of England and France. In response to the French revolution, German rulers proposed to do for “their” people–by a revolution from above–what the French people had done at great cost by and for themselves. Russian intellectuals during the nineteenth century took standards derived from Western European developments to form counterimages of czarist realities; and in the twentieth century Russian revolutionaries adopted programs and tactics derived from the French revolution and Marxist theory in their overthrow of the czarist regime.  …

Every idea taken from elsewhere can be both an asset to the development of a country and a reminder of its comparative backwardness–that is, both a model to be emulated and a threat to its national identity. What appears desirable from the standpoint of progress often appears dangerous to national independence. The revolution in communications since the fifteenth century has been accompanied by ever new confrontations with this cruel dilemma, and the rise of nationalism has been the response nearly everywhere. …

The division is deep over which path the country should follow. Perception of advances abroad are reminders of backwardness or dangers and weaknesses at home. Intellectuals attempt to cope with the ensuing dilemma: whether to adopt the advanced model and invite its attending corruptions, or fall back upon native traditions and risk their inappropriateness to the world of power and progress. This dilemma engenders heated debates and ever-uneasy compromises. People want their country recognized and respected in the world, and to this end they cultivate or revive native traditions. … But the desire to be recognized and respected in the world also calls for the development of a modern economy and government, and this effort at development focuses attention upon ideas and models derived from the advanced society of one’s choice.

I owe the reference to Elena Chebankova’s article “Ideas, Ideology & Intellectuals in Search of Russia’s Political Future” in the spring 2017 issue of Daedalus. She applies the Bendix dichotomy to the Russian situation as follows:

This cruel dilemma forces a split within the intellectual scene of second-wave industrialization states, of which Russia is part. Intellectuals of those countries inevitably face an uneasy choice between losing intellectual and cultural independence by admitting their backwardness and adopting the externally borrowed progressive paradigm, or reaffirming nativism and tradition by holding on to the previously chosen path.

The drama for Russian intellectuals is in the quandary of either adopting the ideology of individual freedom and bourgeois liberties, combined with embracing Western ontology, or clinging to the idiosyncratic centralized modes of governance that could conduct modernization and development, albeit in a risky alternative fashion.

The point is simple: economic policies that are perceived as pursuing convergence with “the West” can be difficult to reconcile with nationalist aspirations to have a country walk its own road. And to the extent that good economic policies actually mean “converging with the West,” nationalism can mean fewer good economic policies.

Of course this relationship is not a necessary one: there is no country that does not have some nationalism in its politics, and good economic policies do not actually have to mean (or be perceived as) “converging with the West.” Deng Xiaoping for one found no difficulty in reconciling his strong Chinese nationalism with liberalizing domestic markets and opening up to global trade. It also seems like Modi in India is managing to pursue a similar combination of nationalist politics with economic restructuring.

But countries with a socialist legacy perhaps face the dilemma more keenly — to a large extent the distinctive “Chinese way” or “Russian way” is, thanks to their history, socialism and the planned economy. And therefore appeals to nationalism can shade more easily into statist economic policies.

In any case, I found this old Bendix article surprisingly useful for thinking about these current questions. It is rather difficult to find online, so I’ve put a copy up on this site; you can download the PDF here.


Reinhard Bendix

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.)