A novelist’s view of China’s rise, from 1983

Walter Tevis’ 1983 science-fiction novel The Steps of the Sun is mostly not a very good book; unlike some of his other books (the excellent chess novel The Queen’s Gambit, or The Color of Money) it has not aged well. The one thing about the book that does seem ahead of its time is the worldbuilding: it is set in a future world in which China has unquestionably risen. Here is one background passage:

Half the people on the street were Chinese. By midsummer New York always seems to be a Chinese city, a kind of cultural suburb of Peking. The Russians are ahead of everybody else at heavy industry; the art comes from Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro; the political life in Aberdeen and Hangchow is far more lively than New York’s; and if you want to make a really big business arrangement you go to Peking, the world’s richest city.

But New York is still New York, even with its elevators not working and a total of one hundred fifty taxis permitted to operate (Peking has thousands, they are electric powered and have leather upholstery). But Peking is still a stodgy businessman’s city, with all the old China erased from its neoclassical architecture. The Chinese come to New York for the civilized life.

New York is the major city of a second-rank power, of a country whose time is slipping away; but it still has a bounce you don’t find anywhere else. There are restaurants with white tablecloths, with waiters in tuxedos that look like they came from the last century, and, however they beer-feed and hand-rub their fat old steers in Japan, the Kansas City steak served in a New York restaurant, with the dim lights and the polished wooden bar and the tuxedoed waiters, is still one of the delights of the world. And New York theater is the only theater to hold anybody’s interest for long; American music is the most sophisticated in the world.

The Chinese are still, behind those stuffy facades, the greatest gamblers on earth and the trickiest businessmen; they’ve accommodated their ideology and their asceticism of the last century to their present wealth with the ease of the Renaissance Popes; they are Communists the way Cesare Borgia was a Christian. And they love New York.

Some of these details are remarkably prescient: the Chinese tourists crowding the streets of New York, and the way the city serves as a kind of living museum of a certain type and period of culture. The bit about China being ahead of the US in electric vehicles also has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. In another passage, a billionaire shows off his ability to speak Chinese (remind you of anyone?).

This is pretty unusual stuff for 1983, when Americans were obsessed with the rise of Japan and had barely begun to notice China. William Gibson’s much more famous Neuromancer, from 1984, chose Japan as the natural setting for its hyper-technological fantasies. So I am curious what might have inspired this aspect of the book; there is little in Tevis’ biography to suggest a particular interest in or knowledge of Asia.



Are giant factories a symptom of labor repression?

That is the suggestion made in Deborah Cohen’s interesting review of Joshua B. Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World.

Giant factories were a feature of both the US and Soviet economies in the 1930s, which led some observers at the time to speculate that capitalism and socialism were converging toward a single economic form. But this convergence turned out to be quite temporary, as giant factories lasted much longer in the USSR:

By the late 1940s, the era of the showcase factory was over in the United States. The strength of unionization, particularly demonstrated by the formidable strike wave of 1945–1946, made clear to industrialists the danger of concentrating workers in a few plants.

More than simply a means of controlling costs or rationalizing distribution, the drive to open smaller and decentralized plants, especially in the low-wage, nonunionized South, was also a strategy to ensure that a company’s entire operation couldn’t be hamstrung by a strike.

At the same time, by contrast, industrial gigantism continued apace across the Eastern Bloc. The East Germans built the steel town of Stalinstadt (now Eisenhüttenstadt); in Poland, there rose Nowa Huta, with a workforce of nearly 30,000 by 1967. Crippling labor unrest wasn’t a problem that particularly worried leaders in the Eastern Bloc, who could count on a network of spies as well as a cadre of factory workers who were fervent believers in socialism.

The current world champion of industrial gigantism is, of course, China. The “Foxconn City” facility in Shenzhen is generally thought to be the world’s largest manufacturing facility, employing something over 200,000 workers. Strikes in China are not uncommon but tend to be short-term events related to specific disputes, rather than an organized strategy as part of collective bargaining. This of course is because China does not have independent unions; the state-controlled union tends to side with management. So the risk to a company’s operations from an individual strike is still low–though it is worth noting that Foxconn does not depend on one single large facility but instead has lots of large facilities, in China and many other countries.


The Volgograd Tractor Factory in the 1930s


What surprised Pieter Bottelier about Chinese economic history

Pieter Bottelier has observed a lot of recent Chinese economic history, starting with his tenure as head of the World Bank’s office in China from 1993-97. But his new book, Economic Policy Making in China (1949-2016): The Role of Economists, goes farther back, and opens with an interesting collection of “puzzles and surprises” he encountered doing research on these earlier periods.

I quite enjoyed these observations; here is a selection of a few of them:

  • Surprise: The Chinese communists, who were relatively inexperienced in economic matters when the CPC was gaining strength in the 1930s and ’40s, were more effective in suppressing inflation in areas they controlled than Chiang Kai-shek’s more experienced Nationalist government.

If Chiang Kai-shek had been able to control hyperinflation during the civil war, it would have been much harder for the communists to prevail in that conflict. I was surprised to see how much importance the communists attached to financial stability and how effective they were in fighting inflation before the establishment of the PRC in 1949. …While most historians typically focused on the political and military achievements of the CPC, I found that the financial history, including a surprising degree of fiscal conservatism and appreciation of the importance of financial stability, deserves more attention.

  • Surprise: The extent to which initial economic reforms in the late ’70s were influenced by the need to create jobs for the millions of people (especially youth) returning to the cities from the countryside after the Cultural Revolution had ended.

To reduce the risk of social instability, there was a compelling need for job creation in urban areas after the Cultural Revolution. One of the first and most important reform measures in the late 1970s was to legitimize and facilitate street vending and other labor-intensive retail trading. Most of the millions of people returning to the cities after the Cultural Revolution had been forced by the Party to undergo “re-education” through labor in rural areas. If it hadn’t been for the special efforts to create job opportunities in urban areas for these people, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms might not have been as successful as they were.

  • Surprise: The importance of coining the term “socialist market economy” in 1992 to describe the kind of economic system China wanted to establish.

I was surprised to learn how important this had been in the evolution of China’s reforms. In the West, we normally don’t attach a lot of importance to names; we ask rhetorically: “what’s in a name?” By contrast, in China the name of a person, thing or concept is typically very important; a name has real meaning. One of the more important contributions Jiang Zemin made to China’s reform efforts when he was the Party’s General Secretary (1989-2002) was to give a name to the goal of these efforts.

  • Surprise: I was surprised to find that leading Chinese reform economists consider Gu Zhun, a philosopher/economist and historian (who was trained as an accountant and who died in 1974), the “father” of China’s market reforms.

Gu Zhun is now recognized as one of the most important thinkers of the Mao era. He was a brilliant and courageous intellectual; an original thinker with a fiercely independent, some say stubborn, mind. Like Sun Yefang, he opposed some of Mao’s economic policies in the 1950s. He died (of lung cancer) at the age of 59. Had his health kept up for another decade, he might have emerged as one of the most important Chinese reform economists under Deng Xiaoping. Given the breadth and depth of his interests and academic pursuits, he would be called a “Renaissance Man” in the West.

There are several more surprises discussed in the introduction, and I could have read even more of them – it’s a nice format. But the book then shifts gears, and becomes mainly a series of biographical sketches of a number of people who were influential on Chinese economic policymaking (despite the title, not necessarily trained economists). Both parts were reminders of just how much there still is to learn about even fairly recent history in China, so much of which is still obscured by a combination of official propaganda and reformist mythmaking.


Making sure our expectations for the future are sufficiently weird

As someone who is professionally required to at least occasionally issue prognostications about the future, I enjoyed this passage from Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, in which a character warns against the perils of straight-line extrapolations:

End-timers used to project our consumption levels forward, multiplying our population by our needed resources, and get to this point where we’d run out of planet in a generation and there’d be famine and war.

That kind of linear projection is the kind of thinking that gets people into trouble when they think about the future. It’s like thinking, ‘well, my kid is learning ten exciting new things every week, so by the time she’s sixty, she’ll be smarter than any human in history.’

There are lots of curves that start looking like they go up and to the right forever, but turn into bell curves, or inverted Us, or S-curves, or the fabled hockey-stick that gets steeper and steeper until it goes straight vertical.

Any assumption that we’re going to end up like now, but moreso, is so insufficiently weird it’s the only thing you can be sure won’t happen in the future.

That’s a fairly self-referential statement for a character in a science-fiction novel to make, but thankfully most of the characters in this piece of utopian fiction do not go around making speeches; Doctorow is very good at writing real, vivid people, not types or abstractions.

Perhaps the line is meant to highlight that the world Doctorow imagines in Walkaway is indeed very much like now, but moreso: it’s a straight-line extrapolation of rising inequality, increasing automation and declining labor participation. What he’s trying to imagine is the moment when that curve starts to turn into something else.


Varlam Shalamov’s prose of the future

For the last couple of weeks I have been steadily working my way through Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, a newly-translated collection of tales drawn from the author’s experiences at the most notorious outpost of the Soviet Gulag system. Perhaps not everyone shares my fascination with prison literature, but I found these stories remarkably fresh and closely observed.

One of the closest things to a statement of purpose from Shalamov comes at the opening of the 1960 story “The Necktie”, when the narrator asks himself how he can make his story “a piece of the prose of the future”:

In the past and at present a writer needs to be someone like a foreigner in the country he is writing about if he wants to be a success. He has to write from the viewpoint—interests, vision—of the people he grew up among and from whom he got his habits, tastes, and views. A writer writes in the language of those in whose name he speaks. And that is all. If a writer knows his material too well, the people for whom he is writing won’t understand him. The writer will have betrayed them and gone over to the side of his material.

You mustn’t know your material too well. Every writer in the past and the present had that defect, but the prose of the future demands something different. It will be professionals with a gift for writing who will speak out, not writers. And they will tell us only about what they know and have seen. Plausible accuracy is the force behind the literature of the future.

Shalamov was not a foreigner in the country of the Gulag: he was very much on the side of his material. In his stories he does not explain too much about the camp system, but simply recounts the actions of its participants, and this is usually all that is really required to understand how it works. As the translator, Donald Rayfield, observes in his introduction, “Despite his own assertion…Shalamov knew his material perfectly, and he wrote in a way that everyone can understand.”


Should China be in the Global North or Global South?

I’ve never been a big fan of the terms “Global North” and “Global South,” which in some quarters are used as synonyms for “developed” and “developing” economies. This is mainly because their actual meanings are too disconnected from their literal meanings. If the south of the globe means anything, it means the southern hemisphere. And yet the “Global South” is conventionally understood to include China, which is, let’s face it, in the northern hemisphere. To me, it doesn’t seem to clarify things to use a term from geography in a way that makes its geographical meaning incoherent.

So I was interested to come across William Polk’s new book Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War Between the Muslim World and the Global North (thanks to a nice review by Malise Ruthven), in which the conventional identities of the Global North and Global South are slightly altered. He calls the Global North “the relatively rich, advanced, and formerly imperial powers” and the Global South “the relatively poor, traditional, mostly former colonial peoples–here, specifically those of the Muslim world.”

Yet China and Russia are, in his view, unquestionably members of the Global North, along with usual suspects Britain and France. Not being a small-minded geographical pedant like myself, he does not focus too much on the fact that both are located in the northern hemisphere. What seems to matter for Polk is that they were clearly imperial powers, who acted toward Muslims in ways not very different from the imperialists of Western Europe. Here is an example:

When the Northern powers set out to conquer and control the Muslim South, they saw Arabic as a sort of defensive wall. It encircled nations and united generations. The Chinese, Russian, British, and French imperialists each tried to suppress it and to replace it with their own languages. …

In dealing with the Chinese-dominated Turkish-speaking peoples of Central Asia, Chiang Kai-shek went even further than the British and French imperialists. Following revolts in 1933 by the Kazakh peoples and the proclamation in 1944 by the Uyghurs of the short-lived East Turkish Republic, Chiang decreed that there were no such people as the Turks, even though the Chinese had a name for them, Chantou. He said that they were just part of the “greater Chinese race.” He tried to force Turkish speakers to give up their native language and learn Chinese. Chiang’s successors in the People’s Republic of China still employ his policy: they are linguistically “denationalizing” the Uyghur people.

At the same time as Chiang was suppressing the Uyghurs, Joseph Stalin was tightening the linguistic screws on the Asian peoples who had been conquered by the tsars. The better to dominate them, the Soviet Union divided what had been the common written language (Ottoman Turkish) “horizontally” by converting all written materials from the traditional (Arabic-based) script first to Latin in 1926– 1927 and then to Cyrillic in 1936.

I have to say that this grouping makes some sense to me. It is useful to recall that the only only major nineteenth-century imperial power whose borders are largely unchanged today is China.

China is these days unquestionably a great power, whose relationship with other developing countries is not exactly one of equality. The term “Global South” was originally coined in the 1970s, when it was more plausible to see China as differing from other developing countries mainly in its size. I wonder if Polk’s book might mark the beginning of a rectification of these names for groups of countries, for a time when it seems more appropriate to put China in with other large economies and great powers.


Pointless opinions about everything

Of late he had become especially tired of pointless opinions and was trying to get rid of them. He would catch himself thinking as everyone does: too hot, too cold, too green, too fat, too spicy, ugly building, old slippers, loud music, homely woman, fat man. Not, he thought, that one couldn’t discriminate but it had grown boring to get in a dither over rehearsing opinions about everything. To the degree that he had gotten rid of this propensity he felt a bit lighter and more fluid.

That is from Jim Harrison’s novella “The Man Who Gave Up His Name,” which is in his 1978 collection Legends of the Fall. I found this piece generally weaker than the other two novellas in the collection, “Revenge” and the title story, which are excellent. But I liked this passage, despite the fact that I am in the business of having and expressing opinions. Not all opinions are worth getting riled up about.