Zhu Rongji nostalgia and Li Peng’s legacy

One of themes running through Superpower Showdown, the instant history of the US-China trade conflict by Bob Davis and Lingling Wei, is nostalgia for former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji. Two decades ago, Zhu was a strong advocate for China’s entry into the WTO and pushed hard for China’s government to accept difficult reforms in order to grasp that bigger prize. “When China needed to change to join the World Trade Organization, Zhu was able to win President Jiang Zemin’s support and push through reforms that eliminated thousands of state-owned firms, even though that produced massive layoffs,” Davis and Wei write.

Ever since then, successive US administrations, up to and including the Trump administration, have searched for a similar figure they could work with to drive further liberalization of the Chinese economy. They have never found one. “Washington needed another Zhu Rongji,” they write, but “none was on the horizon.” To this day, especially among foreigners, Zhu is often seen as the hard-charging reformer who remade the Chinese economy through sheer force of will, a hero who achieved significant market liberalization.

At this point, it’s clear Zhu’s advocacy of WTO accession for China was the correct strategic choice: it led to massive gains in China’s global export market share, while fears that Chinese farmers and domestic companies would be swamped by foreign competition proved unfounded. But for all his charisma, it is too simplistic to think of Zhu as a heroic figure with a widely celebrated legacy. It’s worth recalling that out of the seven people who have served as Premier of the People’s Republic of China, Zhu had the second-shortest tenure: a single five-year term (1998-2003), exceeding only Hua Guofeng’s truncated four-year tenure (1976-1980). On many of the issues most closely associated with Zhu, his positions have since been reversed or weakened by successive Chinese administrations. It is not an accident of history that a Zhu-like figure has not risen again.

Zhu Rongji and Bill Clinton

Zhu paid a serious political price for how the WTO negotiations played out. In an episode recounted in detail in Davis and Wei’s book, Zhu visited Washington in April 1999 at a low point in the negotiations, and made a strong offer to get them restarted. President Bill Clinton nonetheless rejected it, and, in a major breach of protocol, publicized the specific terms Zhu had offered. They went well beyond what other Chinese leaders had expected. The US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in May further poisoned the atmosphere for making concessions to the Americans:

The combination of Clinton’s rejection of Zhu’s WTO offer followed by the embassy bombing badly weakened the premier. As soon as Zhu returned home from his U.S. trip, committees under Li Peng’s National People’s Congress questioned whether Zhu had gone too far in offering concessions. Wu Jichuan, the head of the Ministry of Information Industry, threatened to resign over Zhu’s offer to open the telecommunications industry to foreign competition. At a meeting of senior Communist Party officials, Zhu offered Mao-style self-criticism, or jiantao, for his U.S. trip. He said he was too anxious to get a deal done, said a senior government official at the time.

The rest of the Chinese leadership made sure that Zhu would not go freelancing again, and set clear limits on what he could offer. The WTO deal that the US and China eventually agreed on did not go as far as Zhu’s April 1999 offer; notably, Wu Jichuan prevailed in his insistence that foreign companies be essentially blocked from the telecommunications market. Today, with the US and China locked in a conflict over mobile-phone apps and semiconductor technology, it is hard to imagine there are many Chinese officials who think Wu Jichuan was wrong about that and Zhu Rongji was right.

The domestic economic reform most closely associated with Zhu’s spells as vice-premier and then premier was the downsizing of the state sector, which began around 1995 and accelerated in 1998-2000. Zhu allowed local governments to close or privatize underperforming state firms, and oversaw mergers and consolidation of the larger companies controlled by the central government–a policy summarized by the slogan “grasp the large, release the small”. As a result, the number of people employed by state-owned enterprises fell from 77 million in 1995 to 42 million in 2003, the end of Zhu’s term.

There is some evidence that Zhu expected or hoped that the downsizing process would continue after he left office. According to William McCahill, who worked at the US Embassy in Beijing during Zhu’s tenure and is now a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research:

When Zhu Rongji left the post of premier in 2003, he foresaw the number of central government-owned SOEs shrinking in five years from around 180 firms to around 15, all operating in national security areas like telecoms and energy.

What actually happened was that the downsizing of SOEs slowed and then stopped almost immediately after Zhu left office. In March 2003, the government established a new organization, known as Sasac, to supervise SOEs. At the Third Plenum in October 2003, the Communist Party approved a new architecture for economic policy that focused on “preventing the loss of state assets,” a pejorative term for botched privatizations. Within two years Sasac effectively brought a halt to management buyouts and other common methods of SOE privatization, and they have never resumed. The number of centrally owned SOEs directly supervised by Sasac has now fallen to 97. But all of that shrinkage has come from merging those companies into larger conglomerates that would be more effective national champions, and their numbers have been little changed in recent years.

While Zhu Rongji focused on encouraging competition among different SOEs in order to energize the domestic economy, more recent administrations have instead emphasized reducing competition among SOEs and building up larger entities that can more effectively take on Western multinationals.

The layout of China’s state sector today perhaps owes less to Zhu than to Li Peng, his predecessor as premier and frequent sparring partner in internal economic debates. According to Sarah Eaton’s excellent 2015 book The Advance of the State In Contemporary China, as early as 1991 Li presided over an effort to identify 100 SOEs as “large enterprise groups” that would receive special government support to become a team of stronger, more competitive companies. That idea continued to be influential during Zhu’s tenure, and beyond:

In particular, ‘grabbing the large’ – one half of the most controversial policy of ‘grab the large, let go the small’ (zhua da fang xiao 抓大放小) – carried forward the essential aims of the large enterprise strategy championed by Premier Li Peng in earlier years. In general terms, the idea was to focus the state’s resources on supporting a group of ‘elite SOEs’ that would anchor a trimmer, fitter state economy.

The simplest way of summarizing China’s SOE policy since Zhu left office is that it gave up on the “release the small” part of the policy, but has redoubled support for the “grasp the large” part. The combination of social unrest among laid-off SOE workers, and public criticism over corruption in the privatization process, had made continued SOE downsizing politically untenable by the 2000s. But the economic upheavals of the last two decades have generally only reinforced Chinese officials’ belief that SOEs play a necessary role in stabilizing the economy. Xi Jinping’s public commitments to keep making SOEs “stronger, better and bigger” are just the latest iteration of a line of thinking that is at least three decades old.

The conventional take on Li Peng has been that his conservative socialist economics were overruled by Deng Xiaoping, and lost out to Zhu Rongji’s liberalizing forces. Looking at how China’s state sector has evolved over the last couple of decades, that story does not seem completely right. Li Peng has clearly had a lasting legacy, and helped fix the state-capitalist direction of China’s economic strategy.

Battling bureaucrats: an appreciation of *The Sandbaggers*

My greatest TV viewing pleasure over the last year or so has been The Sandbaggers, a British spy drama that originally aired from 1978-80. The show is so good that I could not bear to binge-watch it, but instead carefully rationed out the episodes as little treats to myself (I watched it via Britbox). But now I’m done, sadly, and will have to wait for a while before I can indulge in a re-watch.

What makes The Sandbaggers so good? To start with, cracking scripts and a compelling lead performance by Roy Marsden as Neil Burnside, the director of operations of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (commonly known as MI6, though it is never called this on the show). The writer of most of The Sandbaggers, Ian MacKintosh, had a background in intelligence work, which gave the series a lot of credibility and some notoriety back in the day.

In an interview for Robert Folsom’s book The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh: The Inside Story of The Sandbaggers and Television’s Top Spy, the actor Jerome Willis, who played Burnside’s immediate superior, put his finger on another one of the show’s special qualities:

“One of Ian’s great skills as a writer was almost completely to exclude exterior scenes. The regular settings were Burnside’s office, “M”’s office, Matthew Peele’s office, the Foreign Office and the Operations Room. This gave a highly claustrophobic effect, very suitable for a spy series and gave the occasional action scenes even more impact.”

For today’s viewers, those occasional action scenes will mostly seem comically simplistic. Although Burnside’s agents are deployed to various European capitals and locations behind the Iron Curtain, limited budgets meant that various areas around Leeds have to stand in for these exotic spots. (It is perhaps a commentary on the capital stock of 1970s Britain that a few scenes shot in crumbling socialist tower blocks did look pretty convincing to my eyes.) The real action in the The Sandbaggers is in the endless arguments that take place over the telephone and in the office. The energy of the show flags whenever the characters step out of doors.

Burnside is a mid-level bureaucrat, sitting above a team of agents that he can deploy at will, but below the true authorities to whom he must constantly justify his actions. The predicament of middle management is the show’s true subject, not the exploits of the dashing agents–most of whom are well-adjusted and likable people, quite different from the often unpleasant and obsessive Burnside. He is inevitably thwarted from exercising his best judgment by political considerations, or office politics, or simple differences of opinion, and must scheme to get his way. A passage from Folsom’s book captures the dynamic well:

The Sandbaggers never varied from its primary theme: In practically every episode, Burnside has to confront the machinations of his own government before dealing with the Soviets and the Cold War. He considers anyone who gets in his way to be a foe. When the government interferes, as it invariably does, he deals with them in any manner he can to gain an edge, whether his actions are right or wrong, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical.

It is this focus on the inner workings of bureaucracy that makes The Sandbaggers a more lasting work of art and not just a piece of Cold War nostalgia. It is one of the best portrayals of unprincipled bureaucratic infighting I have ever seen on screen. In most of the episodes the bureaucratic battling is over some real thing happening in the world, and the fact that Burnside is usually smarter and better informed than his opponents allows us to, mostly, root for him, or at least sympathize. For me, though, the show’s apex is possibly “Operation Kingmaker,” the last episode of the second season. It is the story of the covert campaign Burnside wages to influence the choice of the next head of SIS, an effort in which he is obviously in the wrong.

A couple of the episodes in the third season felt off to me, more conventional and superficial (MacKintosh died in an airplane accident in 1979, before he had finished writing all of the planned episodes). The problem was precisely their departure from that “primary theme.” In one episode, Burnside confronts his superiors because he wants to more vigorously support the Soviet dissident movement. And in the final episode, Burnside tries to sabotage his own government’s negotiations with the Soviet Union because he doesn’t agree with the goal. These episodes portray Burnside as an idealist, which feels like a departure for such a cynical realist.

More fundamentally, they broke with the premise of the show: that Burnside’s real battles are not with enemy agents or foreign regimes, but with his own colleagues who stand in the way of him doing his job as he sees fit.

The true enemy is always within.

China’s security fears and the Cold War economy

Now that the US and China are widely, if perhaps inaccurately, said to be entering into a new “Cold War,” stories of the original Cold War can feel particularly relevant. The timing for Covell Meyskens’ new book Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China is thus pretty good: its central subject matter is how geopolitical tensions and fears of conflict affect countries’ economic strategies.

The Third Front was a nationwide campaign, running from roughly 1964 to 1973, to prepare China to fend off military invasion and aerial attack. It was essentially a crash program to build industrial and transportation infrastructure in remote parts of the nation’s interior. Mao feared that China was too reliant on industrial capacity scattered along the coast, where it could be easily targeted by bombers and nuclear missiles. The facilities necessary for China’s military to survive a protracted war therefore had to be built in locations that were “mountainous, dispersed and hidden.” Coastal areas were also the most likely to be first occupied in any invasion of China. Leaders recognized that China’s poorly-equipped military would be outmatched in a direct confrontation with either the US or the USSR. China’s military doctrine thus called for making the interior serve as a “rear defense area” in the event of an invasion: their forces would fall back and regroup in the interior, much as the Communist guerrillas had during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s.

The Third Front was kept entirely secret until the 1980s, and has received limited attention from scholars even in more recent years. Barry Naughton wrote a classic article about it in 1988, but it has never really become part of the standard historical narratives of the Mao era. One of the very best books on Maoist China, Andrew Walder’s China Under Mao, does not even mention the Third Front. This is an oversight, as Meyskens makes clear that the Third Front was the main industrial policy of China for at least a decade. The great virtue of his book is to bring this hidden history to light in comprehensive fashion: it covers everything from the deliberations of Mao’s high councils to the shortages of baby formula on Third Front construction sites.

The Third Front definitely changed the shape of China: before and after the Third Front campaign, the targeted provinces accounted for 30% or less of nationwide investment spending; during the campaign, that share rose to around 50% (see chart). The remnants of the numerous Third Front projects scattered around the country can still be seen today; there are some striking photo collections on Meyskens’ website of old Third Front facilities in Sichuan, Hubei and Shaanxi. It’s not all a legacy of decay, though: some industrial sites that were launched during the Third Front are still going strong today, such as the Panzhihua Steel factory in Sichuan.

In official Chinese accounts, the Third Front is now considered the first in the long lineage of the regional development campaigns the Communist Party has mounted to bring prosperity to China’s poor interior provinces. One recent example is a retrospective of the first 70 years of the People’s Republic published by the National Bureau of Statistics in 2019. Because of the Third Front, it says, “a number of railway, oil, machinery, electricity and other projects were built in the central and western regions, effectively improving the weak development foundation in the central and western regions.” That kind of focused investment in infrastructure and industrial projects was also characteristic of the Great Western Development campaign that Jiang Zemin launched in 1999.

But to recast the Third Front as just a regional aid program wrapped up in some Maoist slogans is to miss its real driver: fear. The Third Front was not an economic development program with some security benefits. It was a crash program to put the Chinese economy on a war footing and prepare for what was believed to be imminent attack. At the time the Third Front was launched, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward was still fresh memory, and most of the government was focused on trying to get the civilian economy back to normal. Other leaders had little appetite for signing up for another one of Mao’s crash industrialization programs. What changed their mind was the stepped-up US intervention in Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. Suddenly, a US-led invasion of China from the south seemed like a realistic possibility; and Mao’s falling-out with Stalin had made a Soviet-led invasion from the north also seem a real risk.

Building Third Front projects was hard: it required mobilizing hundreds of thousands of workers and scarce resources to build things that were technically difficult, in inaccessible locations, at impossible speeds. There were easier, better and more efficient ways to develop the economy, and every analysis of the Third Front has concluded that it led to many failures and enormous waste (even an official government review in 1984 found that only 48% of projects were successful). The only possible justification for such a waste of resources was that it was necessary for the survival of the nation.

The Third Front helps make clear just how central security fears were to the organization of the Maoist economy–as they were also to the Soviet economy. In his review essay “Foundations of the Soviet Command Economy 1917-1941,” the historian Mark Harrison remarks that “Economists have tended to describe the Soviet economy as a developmental state that provided civilian public goods and pursued civilian economic growth, although inefficiently.” This perspective is fundamentally misleading, he argues, because Stalin was not really pursuing consumer welfare or economic development. The Soviet command economy was in essence a war economy: state ownership of industry, collectivization of agriculture, political purges and the all-pervasive security state were all necessary because the economy “had to be organized for defense against internal and external enemies acting together.”

That phrase also describes China in the 1960s quite well. A big reason why China under Mao systematically failed to develop the economy was because Mao was, mostly, not really trying to develop the economy. He was instead obsessed with political campaigns against real and imagined enemies inside and outside the country. And although Mao was paranoid, he did have enemies. Meyskens reminds us that the Cold War was only really cold from the perspective of the US, which carefully avoided direct conflict with the Soviet Union; from China’s perspective, it was pretty hot:

Similar to Moscow, Beijing also did not think of the Cold War in John Lewis Gaddis’s famous phrase as a period of “great power peace.” They considered the postwar world to be in a period of ongoing conflict in which China had directly fought against America in the Korean War, the capitalist camp constantly besieged socialist states, and the United States and European countries regularly interfered militarily in decolonization and the affairs of postcolonial states.

It is therefore impossible to separate China’s later successful economic development from changes in the international environment. If China’s leaders had continued to feel threatened militarily by both the US and Soviet Union, they may not have been able to focus on civilian economic development rather than military preparations. Meyskens suggests that the turning point for China’s economic development came with Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972, and the subsequent commitment by both sides to avoid military conflict. Soon after, the Third Front campaign was downgraded in importance, and planners began to direct more resources to light industry and consumption rather than defense and heavy industry.

Of course, it took many more years, and Mao’s death, for the leadership to settle on a coherent and successful program for developing the civilian economy. But, as Deng Xiaoping saw clearly, they would not have been able to de-militarize the economy without confidence that China’s borders were secure. Deng’s project of enlisting the US as a de facto partner of China against the Soviet Union was thus the necessary international condition for domestic economic reform and the opening to foreign trade. Meyskens’ essay on “the profound national consequences of international military tensions” makes for fascinating reading, but it is hard not to find its lessons troubling at a time when the US and China appear stuck in an escalating geopolitical rivalry.

China’s grassroots market liberals

The history of China’s reform era is inevitably a history of individuals: China started making different decisions after 1978 because different people were making the decisions. Much of the standard historical narrative focuses on the top leaders, figures like Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, who came to power after Mao’s death and led the country in a different direction. As the Chinese economist Wang Xiaolu writes in his recent book, The Road of Reform 1978-2018 (王小鲁, 改革之路:我们的四十年), those old Communists were realists rather than utopian theorists, who “had not learned theories of the market economy in a classroom, but because of their rich life experience were able to see clearly where China’s future lay.”

Wang’s book helps flesh out that standard narrative by focusing on a different group of people, the lower-level researchers who helped the government draft, implement and decide on its policies during the 1980s. Wang himself was one of these researchers, and his recollections are the liveliest and most interesting part of his book. He conveys the ferment of that early period, when old hierarchies were overturned and inexperienced youngsters were thrust into positions of responsibility. Here he recalls how he made his own transition into the official intellectual world (my translation):

In the second half of 1978, the newly established Chinese Academy of Social Sciences established a “writing group” on the recommendation of vice president Yu Guangyuan. The mission of the writing group was to criticize the extreme left theories promoted by the Gang of Four over the past decade. The writing group edited and published an unscheduled internal publication called “Unfinished Drafts.”

The journal was named by Lin Wei, the head of the writing group, and signaled toleration, so that some controversial articles could be published. Lin Wei had served as the director of the theory department of the People’s Daily in the 1950s. In 1959, he was labeled a “right-wing opportunist,” but was rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution. He was open-minded, pragmatic and tolerant; his hiring policy was not to ask about academic qualifications, resume and background, but boldly appoint young people.

During the Cultural Revolution, I spent more than six years in production teams in the countryside in Shanxi, and then spent four years as a worker in mines and factories. Before the Cultural Revolution, I had only completed junior high school and had never set foot inside a university. It was only because an article I had written on reform had been selected by the writing group that I went directly from the factory to work as an editor at “Unfinished Drafts.”

Another person who took a similar route to end up at “Unfinished Drafts” was Wang Xiaoqiang. He had worked on rural production teams in Shaanxi and Henan, and later studied tractors and worked in factories. For the two of us, all of our knowledge of social science came from our own study while we were in the countryside and factories. At that time, there were many young people like this who, driven by the broad trend of reform, directly entered the research field from the grassroots.

At the time, such “internal” publications were important channels for distributing ideas and research findings among people working in the government. Wang says that, over 1979-80, “Unfinished Drafts” published several research surveys on the situation of rural households in Anhui, where the first experiments in the household responsibility system were taking place, that helped convince government officials to endorse the reform. A group of like-minded researchers also formed the “Rural Development Research Group,” which carried out extensive on-the-ground surveys in the early 1980s. They eventually received more formal status:

In 1984, the Premier of the State Council [Zhao Ziyang] approved a plan to assemble several younger researchers from different agencies into a research institute under the leadership of the State Commission for Restructuring of the Economic System. The backbone of the research team came from the Rural Development Research Group, who had spent several years doing surveys and research on rural reform. There were also many who had been among the first students to take the university entrance examinations in 1977 and 1978, and then received degrees. Many of those researchers had spent the Cultural Revolution laboring in the countryside or in factories, and had a deep understanding of the grassroots situation. You could say that being “down to earth” (接地气) was one of the special characteristics of this research team.

What these groups of researchers had in common was a deep commitment to the market-oriented reforms that rolled back state controls and gave people the means to better themselves. But they had this commitment not because they had “learned theories of the market economy in a classroom,” but because they had extensive first-hand experience in the failures of socialist economic organization.

Working for years on production teams in farms, mines and factories gave them a deep understanding of how and why those structures were dysfunctional, and convinced them that China needed to find an alternative. These intellectuals drew what authority they had not from academic credentials–which they did not have, and which it had been largely impossible for anyone in China to obtain during the years of the Cultural Revolution–but from their demonstrated ability and personal experience. (I am reminded of Branko Milanovic’s remark that people who have led boring lives are unlikely to be very good social scientists).

I agree with Wang that this cadre of what you might call “grassroots market liberals” does deserve some of the credit for the success of the China’s first couple of decades of reform. Their unique background and perspective helped China avoid what Richard Bendix called the “polarization of the modernizers and the nativists” in developing countries. In his 1987 essay, “The Intellectual’s Dilemma in the Modern World,” Bendix pointed out that intellectuals in developing countries who want their country to advance often derive their ideas and models from developed countries (and indeed were often educated abroad). This means their proposals for reforms are often opposed domestically for implicitly disparaging their own country’s traditions and identity: “what appears desirable from the standpoint of progress often appears dangerous to national independence.”

The grassroots market liberals could avoid this trap because they were not using their foreign academic credentials to lord it over their local colleagues, or advocating that China adopt a set of foreign ideas. They were arguing for practical changes to obviously dysfunctional institutions, and did so mainly by presenting on-the-ground evidence that market reforms, such as allowing township and village enterprises, improved the lives of ordinary people. The grassroots market liberals were eager to learn from examples outside China, and were often eager collaborators with international institutions like the World Bank, but they could credibly present market-based institutions as being a Chinese solution to a Chinese problem.

These days, the protagonists in the domestic debate over China’s economic reforms are somewhat different. The grassroots market liberals are still around, but the new generation of scholars and researchers have more academic credentialing and more exposure to intellectual trends outside China. Those are not bad things exactly, but it is hard for the new generation of economics PhDs–who did in fact “learn theories of the market economy in a classroom”–to match the moral authority and life experience of the grassroots market liberals. Today, many of China’s best-known proponents of further market reforms have ties either to the financial industry, or extensive foreign connections. That means they can be, fairly or not, more easily criticized as self-interested or unpatriotic.

I wonder if this sociological change may be one of the reasons why the progress of market reforms in China has slowed (or reversed, according to some) in the last decade or so.

Daqing and the resource curse under socialism

China’s role as a massive global consumer of energy is so well-known that the fact that it is also a major energy producer is often overlooked. Like other geographically large countries–Russia, the US, Canada–China’s territory is expansive and diverse enough to include a lot of different mineral deposits. It has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of coal and also the 13th-largest oil reserves. In the 1970s and 1980s, China was even a net exporter of oil–the result of dramatic success in exploring for and producing oil under the extreme conditions of Maoist socialism.

Most of China’s oil production did, and still does, come from one major source: the Daqing oilfield in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. Its discovery was a formative event for the young People’s Republic, and Mao Zedong quickly seized upon Daqing as a model of the kind of socialist industry he wanted: ascetic, egalitarian, and dispersed (Daqing’s workers lived in packed-earth houses scattered across the oil field, and mostly had to grow their own food). The tale is very well told in Building For Oil: Daqing and the Formation of the Chinese Socialist State, a 2018 book by Hou Li (侯丽), a professor of urban planning at Tongji University.

China was a poor and badly governed country when it discovered oil at Daqing, and natural resources have often been very mixed blessings for poor and badly governed countries. There are numerous examples of how sudden resource wealth has led to massive corruption, poor government policy decisions, and a failure to successfully develop other parts of the economy–the so-called “resource curse.” Rich, well-governed countries, on the other hand, have generally not been knocked off their stride by sudden oil wealth. (A useful survey of the issue is Confronting the Curse: the Economics and Geopolitics of Natural Resource Governance by Cullen Hendrix and Marcus Noland.) Different countries’ institutions are affected in different ways by the shock from a resource boom, and the China that discovered Daqing was very different indeed, caught up in Mao’s radical political and economic experiments.

Timing matters. When large-scale oil production from Daqing began in 1963, China was recovering from the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s mad dash for industrialization that caused a nationwide famine. The disaster had discredited Mao’s aggressive approach, and economic policy was back in the hands of more rational policymakers like the cautious economic specialist Chen Yun and the conventional Soviet-style planner Li Fuchun, as well as respected political leaders like Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. They were beginning to draft a new five-year plan aimed at redressing some of the distortions in the economy. The initial draft of the Third Five-Year Plan reversed the Leap’s focus on heavy industry above all in favor of agriculture and light industry–things people could “eat, wear or use” (吃, 穿, 用).

The success of Daqing, however, provided evidence that a Maoist approach to heavy industry development could indeed work. In November 1963, oil minister Yu Qiuli, who had personally supervised the work on Daqing, delivered a report to the National People’s Congress in which he declared that the oil sector was the only one that had met, and exceeded, the targets set during the Great Leap Forward. This was the first time that much of the rest of the leadership had heard of Daqing, which had been a secret project, and Mao in particular was impressed. Indeed, the oil produced by Daqing would prove to be the single greatest industrial accomplishment of the Mao era, its growth eventually far exceeding the temporary surge in steel output during the Leap.

The oil produced by Daqing helped save China from major energy shortages during the 1960s. It also restored Mao’s confidence in his idiosyncratic approach to economic development, based on mass mobilization rather than orthodox planning, political enthusiasm rather than material incentives, and heavy industry and defense over agriculture and consumer goods. And everyone in the leadership, not just Mao, was impressed. Gu Mu, the experienced economic official who in the 1980s would play a key role in China’s opening-up to foreign investment, was then a member of the National Economic Commission and visited Daqing in 1960, 1962 and 1963. He later wrote in his memoirs:

The success of the Daqing oilfield provided a huge boost to China’s oil supplies after its good relations with the Soviet Union came to an end. It put an end to a longstanding geological myth about China’s oil reserves, and opened up a new door for China’s oil industry both in theory and practice. But more significantly, it demonstrated that the Chinese nation could survive and develop on its own rather than living on alms from others.

The discovery of oil, then, probably helped push China back toward industrialization campaigns at a juncture when otherwise it would have moved toward a more balanced and consumer-oriented strategy. Through 1964, Mao often expressed his discontent with the proposed direction of the Third Five-Year Plan. He repeatedly mentioned Daqing to other officials and praised oil minister Yu Qiuli, eventually promoting him over other economic planners.

But the example of Daqing alone was not enough to change the consensus among the leadership. Mao’s attempts to redirect economic policy did not meet with real success until after August 1964, when the Gulf of Tonkin incident precipitated greater US military involvement in Vietnam. Mao and other leaders feared that war was imminent, and the economy therefore needed to be immediately reoriented toward preparing for a potential invasion. That meant lots more projects like Daqing: military-style mobilization of labor to rapidly develop heavy industry in isolated areas that could be easily defended. The fact that Daqing had undeniably worked made this new campaign–a long-secret effort known as the Third Front–seem like a plausible strategy.

As with other examples of the supposed “resource curse,” the discovery of oil in Maoist China clearly had a big impact, but it is difficult to ascribe all the changes that followed to the effect of resources. Still, even today there is evidence of resource-curse-like phenomena within China on a regional basis, where areas heavily endowed with natural resources tend to have more state-dominated and less successful economies (see Manchuria rediscovers the resource curse). So one might hypothesize that the way the resource curse functions under socialism is by reinforcing socialist biases toward isolation and heavy industry.

Yet the rest of the story is more ambiguous. By 1972, the constant fear of invasion that had kept China focused on defense-industry projects had eased, thanks to Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing and the normalization of relations with Japan. At this juncture, Hou argues in her book, the oil industry did not push China back toward traditional socialism, but actually facilitated an engagement with the outside world and the introduction of new technology:

Accompanying the changing political and international climate were intense debates about ideology and strategy in the socialist state. Although Daqing Oil Field was constantly promoted as a model of self-reliance, the rising petroleum leaders understood the importance of advanced technology for sustainable growth and the limitations of an indigenous and labor-intensive model. They thus boldly introduced dramatic changes when drafting state plans.

China’s rising oil exports provided the hard currency with which it could purchase foreign technology, and Yu Qiuli proposed importing large amounts of foreign equipment to build downstream industries like chemicals, fertilizer and synthetic fibers. This push eventually developed into what was called the Great Leap Outward, a 1976 plan to boost economic development with large amounts of imported foreign technology. This plan was over-ambitious and proved short-lived, but the impulse to re-engage with the outside world that it represented persisted, and was refocused into the broader opening-up agenda pursued by Deng Xiaoping, Gu Mu and others after 1978.

One of the great virtues of Building For Oil is the way that it pairs a nuanced account of these high-level twists and turns of Chinese policy with a lively narrative of one woman’s life at Daqing. We get a powerful sense of how this political and economic drama felt to those living through it. It’s one of the best Chinese history books I’ve read in a while.

Xi Zhongxun’s failed attempt to moderate land reform

There are not too many sympathetic figures to be found in the waves of violence that swept the Chinese countryside during the Communist Party’s early pursuit of land reform, the subject of the Tulane historian Brian DeMare’s new book Land Wars: The Story of China’s Agrarian Revolution. But one of them was Xi Zhongxun, now best known as the father of current Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The elder Xi’s frequent disagreement with how the Party pursued land reform is known thanks to a major collection of documents published in 1988 (for internal distribution) by the National Defense University, one of the major sources on which DeMare draws.

Land reform–the forced redistribution of rural land from the rich to the poor–was central to the peasant-centered revolutionary strategy developed by Mao Zedong. He had formed his ideas on it by 1927, in investigating the peasant movement in his home province of Hunan. From the start, Mao conceived of the process as a violent confrontation between oppressed peasants and rich landlords, in which landlords were publicly attacked and humiliated before having their assets stripped from them. But Mao could not put this vision into practice while the Communist Party was in its United Front with the Nationalists to fight the Japanese invasion.

As that alliance started to break down into civil in 1945-46, Mao began to focus on radical land reform as a way to bring the peasantry onto his side. DeMare’s book is structured around the standardized process that the Communist work teams followed as they fanned out across the countryside: identifying disaffected elements within each village, labeling other residents of the village as class enemies, then organizing public confrontation and “struggle” sessions in which the “landlords” were humiliated and forced to admit guilt and give up their assets.

The resulting mob violence resulted in widespread torture, sexual assault and murder: “According to the party’s own accounting, in 1947 alone some 250,000 rich peasants and landlords were killed in the land reform campaigns of North China.” (Frank Dikötter’s chapter “The Hurricane,” in his The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, is a short history that vividly conveys the violence of land reform; see my post from 2018 for some more discussion).

Yet not all Communist Party leaders approved of the violent and often arbitrary score-settling that took place under the name of land reform. DeMare notes that the peak of the violence coincided with a January 1948 speech by Ren Bishi, a party theoretician, calling for a more nuanced approach to land reform and redressing errors. Around the same time, the elder Xi also intervened to try change the approach:

As mass violence threatened to derail agrarian revolution in early 1948, some party leaders began to speak out against land reform struggle. In the Northwest, Xi Zhongxun noted how activists had falsely created landlords, resulting in “manufactured struggle.” Campaigns that appeared spontaneous had in fact been jump-started by impure elements with dubious motivations. Activists in one poor peasant league, for example, had threatened to stone villagers to death if they did not take part in struggle; elsewhere, a work team ordered the local militia to string up landlords and beat village cadres. …

Writing personally to Mao, Xi was unflinching in his description of the extremes of rural revolution. In five days of land reform in Shaanxi’s Jia County, hooligans drowned victims in vats of salt water; they also poured boiling oil over the heads of struggle targets, burning them to death. Local cadres and their families were strung up and beaten in the search for wealth. Struggle even spread to a school for party children. There, teachers and students as young as seven years old were singled out as landlord running dogs. While these events were rare, Xi argued that they deeply affected rural society: peasants were so afraid they did not even dare to bury the dead. …

Xi even dared to question Mao’s assumptions about rural classes. Noting that middle peasants were already the dominant class in the Northwest, Xi argued that many of those who remained poor were in fact lazy. Putting these peasants in charge of land reform had resulted in chaos.

The worry was that the excesses of land reform were costing the Party valuable support during the civil war. By the middle of 1948, land reform was mostly put on hold, in favor of a return to an earlier, more moderate and reasonably successful policy of “double reduction”–negotiating lower rents and interest payments for farmers. But as the Communist Party approached victory over the Nationalists in 1949, land reform went back on the agenda.

The largest round of land reform came in 1950, when the Party recruited hundreds of thousands of people for “work teams” that would fan out through the countryside to reorganize rural villages. The Land Reform Law of that year was intended to correct some of the previous excesses of previous rounds of land reform, and DeMare goes out of his way to mention examples of peaceful, more legally restrained land reform in Shunyi, outside Beijing, and in Zhejiang. But the Party never abandoned the idea that land reform was fundamentally a violent struggle, and so violence continued.

For the party, any attempt to avoid struggle was unacceptable. Xi Zhongxun, long skeptical of struggle in the countryside, remained a true outlier. Reporting to Mao Zedong on the final stages of land reform in his Northwest Bureau, Xi once again found himself arguing against Mao’s grand narrative of rural revolution. Accepting the centrality of releasing the masses and struggle for raising class consciousness, Xi nevertheless insisted that the party not abandon leadership of land reform. Xi instructed the forty thousand cadres and activists under his direction to mobilize poor and middle peasants together, so that they might use “speak reason” struggle and prohibit “chaotic beatings.” …. Xi proposed embracing peaceful land reform, at least for the moment.

But Xi was a rare voice, and even he made concessions to Mao’s vision by arguing that this peaceful approach would “numb the enemy” and facilitate an eventual strategic attack on the landlord class. …Fierce struggle was essential to land reform and Mao’s grand vision of rural revolution. For the many who may have found such violence abhorrent, Chinese intellectuals were ready to provide a theoretical justification of class struggle.

DeMare includes quotes supporting the harsh approach to land reform from figures as eminent as Deng Xiaoping himself and the rural-policy specialist Du Runsheng, both of whom would be lionized a generation later for their roles in the rural reform of the 1980s. The land reform of the 1950s was less a prequel to that success than a violent political campaign that laid the groundwork for even more violent political campaigns: the collectivization of agriculture later in the 1950s, and then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The violent, extralegal “struggle sessions” that the Cultural Revolution made famous were modeled on those used during land reform.

The elder Xi’s attempts to push back against excesses and pursue more humane policies show what type of leader he was, even if those attempts were ultimately unsuccessful (and probably contributed to his being purged in 1962). That strength of character helps explain why there has always been such enormous goodwill visible toward him in China. As do his later contributions: after Xi was rehabilitated in 1978 and appointed to leadership roles in Guangdong, he played a key role in liberalizing the economy. That reservoir of goodwill also undoubtedly fed into the optimism that initially greeted the ascension of his son to the leadership.

Who won the battle of ideas in China?

Ideological struggle in China is not dead, only hidden. That is perhaps the shortest possible summary of Jude Blanchette’s lively intellectual history of China’s neo-Maoist movement, China’s New Red Guards. He aims to demolish the simplistic idea that China’s populace has agreed not to ask political questions in exchange for economic prosperity, and show how fierce debate over ideas has been a consistent feature of Chinese political life even after the death of the Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution.

His book contains a lot of fascinating and little-known history, starting with the left-wing criticisms of the renewed economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin in 1992. Those critics were quickly muzzled, but they sowed the seeds for what would become, in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, a lively intellectual movement that challenged China’s government for not being socialist enough. Blanchette vividly captures the ferment of the period. A particular highlight is his account of the public furor that a few clever intellectuals stoked with allegations of corruption in privatization of state firms, which led the government to ban management buyouts of SOEs. The substantive and symbolic victories for leftists accumulated even faster after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, and at times the neo-Maoists can barely contain their glee. One of the most striking passages comes toward the end:

“We won,” the nationalist writer Wang Xiaodong told me. “Maybe I didn’t win personally, but our ideas won.” Looking at the policies Xi adopted in his first five years in power, Wang saw much to commend. China had moved away from relying on the market to allocate resources, it had reversed what he saw as a decade-long trend of restricting the growth of China’s state sector, and the party was now embracing the idea of “national champion” firms serving China Inc. “The state of SOEs today is strong, roughly what I called for in the 1990s,” Wang said. “My position has basically been realized.”

It is tempting to read Blanchette’s book as a narrative arc in which the leftists move from despair in the 1990s to triumph in the 2010s. The structure of the book encourages this reading, as does the fact that it is often written from the perspective of the neo-Maoists themselves.

That would not be correct. It is hard to say the neo-Maoists have triumphed when they are still regularly censored and when Xi is still pursuing “rightist” policies like opening up China’s stock markets to more foreign investment (Wang Xiaodong’s victory lap is also from the perspective of a strong-state nationalist; he is not really a neo-Maoist). Blanchette makes this quite clear from the start, pointing out that the government is happy to use neo-Maoists as internet attack dogs when they serve its purposes, and happy to shut them up when they are not.

In short, Xi Jinping is in control of the neo-Maoists, not the other way around. Indeed, the neo-Maoists are well past their prime: they thrived in the more unfettered online environment of a decade ago, and like other schools of thought they now have very little space for open discussion. There is no longer any serious battle of ideas in public. So the story of ideological struggle in China over the past decade is not exactly one of the triumph of a fringe leftist intellectual movement. Rather, it is really the story of the triumph of Xi Jinping, who has imposed an increasingly stifling uniformity on the intellectual sphere. Like it or not, understanding the intellectual world of China today requires grasping Xi’s ideology.

While Xi is proficient at delivering “dog whistles” that excite the neo-Maoists, he is not one of them. Rather, his ideology draws on multiple sources, as the excellent book Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, by the French journalist François Bougon, makes clear. Bougon seems to have constructed his short and vividly written book through the simple strategy of reading a lot of Xi Jinping’s speeches and articles, and taking them seriously. By tracking down Xi’s various inspirations, he provides a more comprehensive overview of the important strands in China’s intellectual scene over the last couple of decades.

In addition to the neo-Maoists, these include the so-called “New Left” and “Neo-Authoritarian” thinkers, who tend to endorse nationalism and a strong state but without following the neo-Maoists into nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution. The most important of these is undoubtedly Wang Huning, a law professor from Shanghai who advised many previous leaders and has now been elevated to the ruling Politburo Standing Committee. Wang is credited with helping former leader Jiang Zemin draft his “Three Represents” policy that led to the admission of private entrepreneurs to the Communist Party–a decision seen as a disastrous mistake by the neo-Maoists. If someone were to write a book profiling the neo-authoritarians, Wang’s rise to top echelons of power would surely also deserve a “we won” moment.

Xi also regularly cites classical Chinese sources, including those from the schools of Daoism, Legalism and Confucianism. In doing this he of course he goes very much against the example of Mao, who wanted to expunge Confucius and other feudal remnants from modern China. The revival of traditional culture is another important recent intellectual movement in China, and one with wide influence and popular appeal. Bougon observes that “the alliance of Confucianism and Marxism…defies logic to an outside observer.” But to an insider, the political logic is quite clear: Confucianism and Marxism are in different ways both sources of national pride for China, and a nationalist government should harness them both.

Bougon perceptively argues that Xi’s ideology is ultimately an attempt to combine three distinct traditions: the socialist tradition originating with Mao; the heritage of Chinese traditional culture; and the prosperity-focused reformist tradition of Deng Xiaoping. All three traditions have appeal in today’s China, and attempting to combine them is not an original strategy. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao also tried to merge invocations of traditional culture with appeals to both socialism and economic modernization. Xi’s political skill is demonstrated by how he can better command support from adherents of all three traditions, and by how he has more convincingly combined these threads into a ruling ideology.

One of the best examples of the daring and verve of Xi’s intellectual fusion is one of his very first speeches, given on January 5, 2013 but not published until some time afterward (you can read Tanner Greer’s translation of the whole thing, or my translation of the key passages). This speech has become famous for its insistence on the equal status of China’s “two historical periods”: the 1949-78 period of socialism, and the post-1978 period of reform. Xi argued that “these two periods are not separate from each other, and are not at all fundamentally opposed” and that neither period can be used to “deny” or “repudiate” the other. Many people initially took this as a sign that Xi wanted to reverse economic reforms and bring back Maoism. In fact, as Bougon explains, it was political triangulation, Chinese-style:

He calls for a synthesis of the two first eras of the regime, the Mao era and the post-Mao era—between the Revolution, and ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’. He wants to perpetuate a form of capitalism that is under the aegis of the Party, as imagined by Deng Xiaoping—even if this involves glossing over the Party’s blunders under the rule of Comrade Mao.

In political terms, this meant that Xi struck a blow to both the left and the right. … It is also absolutely forbidden, therefore, to use one past to spite the other; to invoke Mao against opening up, or to criticise Mao in the name of opening up.

In this speech, Xi rejected the liberals’ call for jettisoning Mao–but he also rejected the neo-Maoists’ call for a reversal of economic reforms. In my view, this political synthesis is in the end not so different from the one imposed by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin in the 1990s. Jiang made it clear that conservatives nostalgic for the 1950s would not be allowed to stop economic development, and that liberals sympathetic to the 1989 protesters would not be allowed to erode Party rule. Despite a lot of twists and turns since then, China’s ruling ideas in some ways have not changed very much.

The Coasian argument for duplicate investment

China’s car industry seems to defy the logic of specialization. The industry had its origins in two big state-owned facilities founded decades ago: First Automotive Works, based in Changchun, Jilin province, and Second Automotive Works, based in Wuhan, Hubei province. Now known as FAW Group Corp. and Dongfeng Motor Corp., their corporate successors are still among China’s leading automakers. But auto production has spread far from its original locations: Guangdong and Shanghai are now the leading producers, and in fact most of China’s 31 provinces produce at least some cars. Rather than clustering in a few specialized regions, auto production is spread across the whole country.

This pattern holds true for many other industries, from steel to solar panels, and has long been seen as a sign of how China’s peculiar institutions distort market forces. From the Maoist push for local self-sufficiency in the 1960-70s to local protectionism and the debt-driven drive for growth in later decades, political pressures are seen as having led to unnecessary and duplicate investments across regions. As Ronald Coase and Ning Wang write in their 2012 book How China Became Capitalist:

Through specialization and trade, any specific industry will be concentrated in a few areas and different areas will specialize in supplying different products in accordance with their particular advantages. As a result, the fact that many regions in China make duplicative investments in the same industry is taken as unambiguous evidence of the presence of policy distortions in the economy, contradicting the economic logic of specialization and trade.

There are many interesting things about their book, starting with its authorship: Coase was over 100 years old at the time of its publication, and it was his last major work before his death in 2013. Rather than a theoretical treatise, most of the book is a quite detailed historical account of Chinese economic policymaking based on primary sources in Chinese. It is distinguished from more standard accounts both by its factual narrative, which de-emphasizes the role of Deng Xiaoping and emphasizes the contributions of local figures and other leaders, and by how it places these those developments in a clear analytical framework.

Their discussion of the pattern of duplicative investment across regions is the occasion for one of the more interesting and unconventional arguments in the book: that these seemingly superfluous investments are actually a sign of regional competition, and that this regional competition is an important motor of China’s economic development. The fact that every locality in China seems to want a car plant and a steel plant is not, on their argument, a sign that Maoist self-sufficiency still holds sway in China, but an indication that every locality can now participate in a unified national market. The competition among regions may seem wasteful from the perspective of returns on capital invested, but it has benefits to human capital and overall development:

Without some degree of duplicative investment across regions, it would be impossible to allow regions to compete with each other head-on. If we view the development of a market economy as an open learning process, in which economic actors must figure out what to produce and how to organize the production, some “waste” in duplicative investment on the part of firms is inevitable.

While duplicative investment has led to the underutilization of physical capital, it has at the same time helped to spread manufacturing technologies and significantly improve workers’ skills all over China. The gains in human capital outweigh the losses from the underutilization of physical capital. From a different angle, the repetitive and duplicative investment across China can be seen as an effective mechanism of social learning: quickly spreading industrialization to a largely agrarian economy.

This is an interesting and persuasive argument. China does have many patterns that tend to look bad at the firm level but are good at driving overall economic development–a distinction that Coase and Wang refer to using Alfred Marshall’s distinction between “internal economies” (within the firm) and “external economies.”

But I wonder whether this is another example of an argument that works for one phase of China’s development, and not for all. The narrative of events in their book mostly ends in the late 1990s, and does not deal with post-2008 events at all. The patterns of local government-led investment in China has changed substantially with the explosion of debt-driven infrastructure projects since 2008. The dynamics of elite politics and policymaking are also quite different these days, and have lost many of the positive features that Coase and Wang highlight. It is not a given that gains to human capital will always outweigh losses on physical capital, and the balance may have shifted by now.

The best books I read in 2019

This is now the eighth year in which I’ve written up my favorite reading (see links below for previous installments), and every year it ends up being one of the things I most enjoy writing. 2019 is no exception: I have lots of good books to share. Since there isn’t a good way to rank books I like, the lists are in alphabetical order by author:

Nonfiction

  • Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea. Though usually described as a memoir, this book could not be more different from the personal confessions that lately typify the genre. Instead, it is a lovely set of interconnected essays about nautical life, and more fundamentally about the joys of craft and profession. I also enjoyed another classic 19th-century nautical memoir, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, which has some amazing moments although also many longueurs.
  • Fuschia Dunlop, Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking. I enjoyed Chinese food for years, but it was not until I ate at home with my Chinese family that I really got it. This book captures that delightful hidden culture: not just cooking techniques, but a whole way of eating and structuring meals. I did not know recipes could be beautifully written, but hers are: concise, precise, poetic. And every one has been a hit in my house.
  • Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. The United States is not quite accurately named. The country is composed of states, but not only states: there are also various territories and possessions, and also, at one point, colonies. Immerwahr’s history of the US from the perspective of its margins is eye-opening, and includes not only lots of little-known information but much fascinating analysis of foreign policy, war, and even technology. A further appreciation is here.
  • Timothy Larsen, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith. As an undergraduate in anthropology, my intellectual heroes were the British social anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century. They combined deep immersion in empirical research with systematizing intellectual ambition in a way that few social scientists have since matched. Larsen’s lively intellectual history of the period brings their debates and ambitions to life, and his focus on religion is unusual and illuminating. I wrote more about this book in my post “Atheism and the objective understanding of society.”
  • Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet. An overstuffed masterpiece from the brilliant science writer. I couldn’t believe how ambitious Mann’s structure was, combining a dual biography with in-depth discussions of technical issues in agriculture, energy and climate change, but somehow he pulls it off.
  • Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness and Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales. My favorite parts of these posthumously-published essay collections are Sacks’ pieces on the history of science, which are some of the best I have ever read. Sacks beautifully conveys his deep and affectionate engagement with a tradition of intellectual inquiry stretching back to Freud, Darwin, Davy, and others. I wrote more here.
  • Christina Thompson, Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. How did humans come to settle all those tiny islands scattered across the Pacific? Just as interesting as the answer to this question is how the answer was arrived at. Thompson’s fascinating book is a great example of how effective it is to approach a question historically.

Fiction

  • Ted Chiang, Exhalation. The second collection of mind-bending and heart-rending vignettes from the master of the science-fiction short story. Perhaps not quite at the exalted level of Stories of Your Life and Others, but still very good.
  • Tom Franklin, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. A pitch-perfect evocation of growing up in the Deep South in the 1970s. That is where and when I grew up, and I can tell you that Franklin gets every detail exactly right. Oh, but technically it’s a murder mystery.
  • W. Somerset Maugham, Ashenden, or the British Agent. One of the very first portrayals of espionage in fiction (from 1929), and still one of the best. I pulled this one from Ethan Iverson’s amazing list of recommended crime, detective and spy fiction; another very good one from his list is Brian Garland’s Hopscotch.
  • Daniel Mason, The Winter Soldier. A startlingly vivid portrayal of a young Polish doctor’s travails in the Great War, emotionally wrenching and free of cliché.
  • Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. A dreamlike piece of historical fiction following a traumatized soldier’s search for normalcy after his return from the Napoleonic Wars.
  • Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha (translated by Lisa Hayden). The best novel I read this year: huge, engrossing, enthralling. Winner of multiple prizes in its Russian original, its appearance in English translation should also be a major literary event.

Previous lists: 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

Capacity to transform

That is the title of a chapter in Charles Kindleberger’s 1962 book Foreign Trade and the National Economy. I immediately loved the phrase, and found that it helped me crystallize some thoughts.

The capacity to transform, in Kindleberger’s formulation, is essentially an economy’s ability to re-allocate resources in response to market signals. He discusses it in the context of exports, but it is clearly broader than that:

Capacity to transform is capacity to react to change, originating at home or abroad, by adapting the structure of foreign trade to the new situation in an economic fashion. … A higher price leads to more labor, land, and capital being attracted to a given product, and more output. A lower price results in reduced production.

The capacity to transform varies. Kindleberger thought that traditional societies with pre-modern economies had a lower capacity to transform, as social strictures prevented people from changing occupations or established business practices. The process of economic development is thus in some sense the process of increasing the capacity to transform:

These reactions require responses to profit and to income differences on the part of entrepreneurs and owners of factors which disregard traditional usage. Entrepreneurs are ready to shift to new occupations, labor to take on unaccustomed tasks. There must be occupational, spatial, and probably social mobility to accommodate the shifts of factors required by evolving economic opportunities. Upward social mobility must be possible through economic success, and not only through the army, church, and politics. A minimum of education and literacy are required–more is better–to permit the retraining of labor and its instruction in new tasks.

But he saw clearly that capacity to transform does not simply rise in a straight line, and varies from place to place and time and time. The mobility of labor, workers moving changing locations and jobs to better their pay, is one of the most obvious indicators of capacity of transform. Yet there are numerous examples of workers who did not respond in that way to price signals:

Underdeveloped economies are not alone in their incapacity to adapt. … Distressed areas, pockets of unemployment, and low-income industries and regions are found in countries of all levels of average income.

The reasons for incapacity to adjust are social in developed countries as well as underdeveloped. In Lowell, Massachusetts, the young do not move away when the cotton mills cut back output; they share the work on short time, or take turns in working full time in the mills and drawing unemployment relief. The green valleys of Wales similarly clung to their youth when coal was depressed in the 1930s. Brittany and the Southwest in France and the South of Italy contained disguised unemployment in agriculture, along with industrial workers at less than average national wage rates who refuse to migrate to increase their earnings.

Similar failures of mobility have gotten increased attention in economics in recent years, as research has shown that in countries as different as India and the US, workers often did not move away from regions with declining industries. Here is a recent op-ed on this point by fresh Nobel laureates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee: 

When jobs vanish and the local economy collapses, we cannot count on people’s desire to seek out a better life to smooth things out. The United States population is surprisingly immobile now. Seven percent of the population used to move to another county every year in the 1950s. Fewer than four percent did so in 2018. The decline started in 1990 and accelerated in the mid-2000s, precisely at the time when the industries in some regions were hit by competition from Chinese imports. When jobs disappeared in the counties that were producing toys, clothing or furniture, few people looked for jobs elsewhere. Nor did they demand help to move or to retrain — they stayed put and hoped things would improve. As a result, one million jobs were lost and wages and purchasing power fell in those communities, setting off a downward spiral of blight and hopelessness. Marriage rates and fertility fell, and more children were born into poverty.

From that, they conclude that in general, “Financial incentives are nowhere near as powerful as they are usually assumed to be.” And they are surely right that “status, dignity and social connections” are the main motivators for human beings, who are fundamentally social creatures.

But it still seems that it would be more productive to treat capacity to transform as a variable, and try to understand how it changes over time and how it varies among different places. The decline in the mobility of labor over recent decades in the US is well-documented, and surely calls out for some kind of theory.

Kindleberger seemed to think that a weakening capacity to transform in advanced economies–like a loss of labor mobility, or the phenomena Tyler Cowen has grouped under the labels of “stagnation” or “complacency”–was part of the natural course of history. He did not quite offer a theory of this, but he sketched the outlines of a model:

Capacity to transform probably follows a pattern. In traditional societies it is minimal. With exposure to the modern world it increases. At some stage in the growth process it reaches a peak, and then there seems to be some diminution in it.

Kindleberger cites the adage “three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” (which has an exact counterpart in the Chinese saying 富不过三代 “wealth does not survive three generations”) to illustrate our intuitive understanding that success can weaken the drive to change. So one could posit a “Kindleberger curve” in which capacity to transform first increases as the economy develops, and then decreases.

Such a curve would be close to the mirror image of what James Galbraith proposed, in his 2012 book Inequality and Instability, as the “augmented Kuznets curve,” which shows how inequality evolves as an economy’s level of income rises. Simon Kuznets had originally argued that in the early stages of the transition from traditional agriculture to industry, inequality would first rise as incomes rose, but as that transition advanced further, inequality would decline substantially even as incomes kept increasing. Galbraith recognized that in the decades after Kuznets wrote, inequality in industrialized countries had stopped declining and started to rise again. He argued that another structural transition, involving a rising economic role for finance and high technology, was responsible. Galbraith therefore augmented Kuznets’ original curve by adding an upward swing at the end:

Based on the experience of the US, it seems like the downward slope of the augmented Kuznets curve should roughly coincide with the upward slope of the Kindleberger curve, as should the subsequent rise in inequality and decline in capacity to transform. Since inequality could itself constrain the capacity to transform, and reduced capacity to transform could entrench inequality, these two changes could be related.

But while a declining capacity to transform can be problematic, this does not mean that capacity to transform must always be maximized. Kindleberger also wrote that “Worse than not being able to respond to an economic stimulus may be, under certain circumstances, responding too much.” The examples he gives of “capacity to transform with a vengeance” are less about the re-allocation of labor and more about investment flows: how lags in production of agricultural goods or housing can encourage too much investment in response to higher prices, resulting in a crash later on.

This made me think of China, and its policy-driven booms and busts. Typically, money floods into a sector when it receives government favor and subsidies, leading to a surge in production, and later overcapacity, falling prices, and a shakeout as the government reconsiders subsidies (see: solar panels, wind power, electric vehicles). In terms of labor, the willingness of Chinese migrant workers to uproot themselves and their families also shows no shortage of capacity to transform, but perhaps at too high of a social cost. So while capacity to transform in the US may now be too low, China’s might be too high.

Re-reading the chapter again, it’s still impressive to me how Kindleberger, in this short and quite casual treatment, managed to identify some of the major issues that are still puzzling economists some 60 years on. His concept of “capacity to transform” feels overdue for revival.

Also, here is my previous post on another interesting part of this Kindleberger book.