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.

What Xi Jinping thinks about development economics

In September 2001, when he was still merely the governor of Fujian province, Xi Jinping published an article on development economics in the journal of the Fujian Academy of Social Sciences. This is not perhaps as unusual as it might sound: Chinese leaders are expected to be scholars as well, and to make their own contributions to Marxist-Leninist ideology. The article has recently been recirculated on the Chinese internet, and makes for fascinating reading.

The General Secretary has never been a specialist in economic policy, and these days appears to spend most of his time on foreign affairs, the military, and ideology. But he clearly does have views on the economy, and this piece gives us a glimpse of their foundations. Xi seems to be a very consistent thinker: many of the key elements of later policy and rhetoric are already apparent in this early work. The most fundamental of these is that China is essentially different from the West, a difference that has deep roots in both Chinese traditional culture and the post-1949 socialist system.

The article is titled “Development Economics And Developing Economies: On The Theoretical Lessons From Development Economics For Developing A Socialist Market Economy” (the Chinese citation is 习近平, “发展经济学与发展中国家的经济发展—兼论发展社会主义市场经济对发展经济学的理论借鉴” 福建论坛 (经济社会版) 2001年09期4-9). While Xi praises development economists for paying attention to real problems and making progress in understanding them, his overall take on the field is not hugely positive:

Although development economics has developed into one of the newest, most exciting and most challenging branches in the field of contemporary economics, on the whole it has not achieved the status of a mature and perfected scientific discipline, and still has some obvious defects.

Many development economists use a large number of hypothetical assumptions in their research, allowing them to derive conclusions by assuming what they wish to be true. …It is incomprehensible that although some people already know that it is incorrect to assume that the market economy of developing countries is mature, complete and unified, they are still eager to use a theory derived from this incorrect assumption to guide practice.

This is…not all that wrong. Xi sees that development economics as a discipline was largely created by Western economists using their own economies as a model, rather than being an indigenous creation of developing economies. This history supports his view that development economics has rarely been able to successfully prescribe a course of action that would allow developing nations “to raise their overall national strength and throw off the control of Western developed economies.” Nonetheless he recognizes that in more recent decades, development economics has gone through a process of self-reflection and correction, and has come to a “deeper understanding” of the problems of developing countries. And he does think it has come up with some useful insights, the most important of which is the following:

Economic development cannot be simply equated with industrialization and the growth of gross national product or national income: economic development is not equivalent to economic growth, but includes economic growth. …Economic development refers to a level of social development, that is, a process of economic growth that is accompanied by changes in economic structure, society and the political system. It includes growth in output, changes in the structure of output and income, and change and development of economic conditions, political conditions and cultural conditions.

Almost two decades after writing this piece, Xi would put this idea into practice. In his report to the Nineteenth Party Congress in 2017, Xi broke with the practice of his predecessors and declared that the “principal contradiction,” in Marxist jargon, was no longer how to meet the Chinese people’s material needs, but instead how to meet their desire for a “better life.” This broader concept encompasses social, cultural and environmental factors, and is as much about quality as quantity. While bound by his predecessors’ promise to double China’s per-capita GDP by 2020, Xi reinforced the shift by not setting a new goal for GDP after that. And indeed since Xi’s speech, it has become quite clear that goals for economic growth, while far from being ignored, no longer trump all other policy aims.

Yet aside from the important idea of development as a multidimensional rather than solely economic process, Xi does not not actually seem to find much of value in development economics. Much of his article is devoted to undermining the premise of the title: although he says that China needs to make use of theoretical tools to plan its development, he does not think that it can directly apply insights from this academic discipline. Theoretical ideas from abroad are only useful after they have been adapted to Chinese conditions. This discussion is worth quoting at length:

China is a socialist country, and the market economy we are building and developing is a socialist market economy. There is an essential difference between the socialist market economy and the capitalist market economy. This is that the socialist market economy is an organic combination of the basic socialist system and the management system of the market economy: it is using the means of the market economy to develop the basic system of socialism. The relationship between the two is that socialism is the foundation, the basis. Therefore the essential difference between the socialist market economy and the capitalist market economy is that the basic social system is different.

Since development economics was born in Western developed countries, its theoretical basis is bourgeois economics. Its purpose is to use the market economy to develop capitalism in developing countries. This value orientation runs through all the research and practice of development economics, which makes some of its theories not suitable for guiding the development practice of the socialist market economy.

For example, the catch-up strategy based on the model of Western developed capitalist countries, the radical “shock therapy” reform based on the premise of changing socialist public ownership, and the so-called international economic integration theory that completely accepts the rules of the game of Western monopoly capital, and so on, are not suitable for China’s specific situation.

Using a Chinese idiom, Xi sums up his argument by saying that the “shoes” of development economics should be cut to fit the “feet” of socialism, and that socialism cannot be cut to fit the ideas of Western development economics. Since the “basic socialist system” means the rule of the Communist Party, this means that economic reforms cannot be allowed to challenge the nation’s political framework.

More generally, Xi clearly believes that the economic ideas and practices of the West are based on its particular interests, rather than being based on universal values or truths. They do not automatically have any validity outside of the context in which they were created. China can and should study these ideas, because it should try to learn from the experiences of all human civilization. But ultimately these are just raw material that China will use to learn its own lessons and find its own way:

In our building and developing of the socialist market economy, we must be good at absorbing nutrition from the independent discipline of Western development economics, study and learn from its useful results, use them to guide our practice, and combine them with our own explorations to establish a socialist development economics.

All told, this article could not be a clearer statement of the view that China’s model will not and cannot converge with that of Western developed countries. And Xi had all this worked out all the way back in 2001, at the height of the euphoria surrounding China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and its integration with the global economy. You can’t say he didn’t warn us.

Xi Jinping visits a village in Fujian on September 4, 2001

The afterlife of Marx’s footnote on Chinese currency

The number of times a Chinese person has cited Marx is by now, with the Chinese Communist Party approaching its centennial, surely uncountable. The number of times Marx cited a Chinese person is countable, and small.

It is an interesting piece of socialist trivia that in his Capital, Marx mentions only one Chinese person by name: Wang Maoyin, who held a position something like chancellor of the exchequer under the Xianfeng emperor of the Qing dynasty. He appears in footnote 36 to Volume 1, Chapter 3, the chapter on money and the gold standard, where Marx mentions Wang being reprimanded for a monetary proposal he had made to the emperor.

This mention has not, of course, escaped notice in China. The English-language Peking Review in 1983 excerpted an article about Wang that explains the background:

The debate took place between 1853-54 during the reign of Emperor Xianfeng of the Qing Dynasty. Wang Maoyin, Vice-President of the Board of Revenue and Population, opposed a proposal to mint copper coins in large denominations. During the debate, Emperor Xianfeng was in favour of coining this devalued currency. He and his ministers mistakenly held that the value of metal currency was determined by the state and that the people could not violate it. At the time, the capitalist commodity economy was not developed in China. Wang Maoyin understood that “the state may determine the value of the currency, but cannot impose restrictions on the prices of commodities.” To counter devaluation which results from issuing unconvertible metal currency, Wang suggested that a limited amount of convertible banknotes be issued. The emperor not only refused to accept his suggestions, but dismissed him from office.

The economic historian David Faure, in his China and Capitalism: A History of Business Enterprise in Modern China, also credits Wang for being one of the early Chinese thinkers to be aware of the “independence of the market”: the reality that the state could not simply dictate economic outcomes, because companies and people would respond to its actions. This idea was an independent development out of China’s own “statecraft” tradition of literature on the practical management of resources, taxation and markets. Faure summarizes Wang’s argument as “although the government had the power and means to devalue the coinage, it did not have same power and means to prevent the people from raising prices.”

At the time of the Peking Review article, the idea that economic activity was a realm subject to laws of its own was making a comeback in China. The people who were trying to move China away from arbitrary, politicized decision-making argued that the government had to respect reality and “seek truth from facts.” The idea that there were economic laws, and that China needed to figure them out and respect them, was an important piece of the intellectual framework of the early reform era. It’s interesting how vehement the author of that 1983 piece is on this point:

This footnote by Marx indicates that there is an economic law governing the relationship between currency and commodities, which is independent of man’s will. Marx affirmed the correct view of Wang and jeered at the self-indulgent rulers who knew nothing about the objective laws of economics.

It’s pretty obvious who the author is using Marx to implicitly criticize here, just a few years after the death of Mao, the end of the Cultural Revolution and the trial of the Gang of Four.

But while the invocation of objective laws of economics was, in the political context of the 1980s, usually a way to argue for the government to step back from interference in the economy, it does not have to serve that function. Xi Jinping is himself clearly a believer in such objective laws, but he sees them as enabling rather than preventing a strong government. Because such objective laws exist, they can be understood and mastered; as I put it in an earlier post, Xi thinks that there are laws of history, and they work in China’s favor.

Statue of Wang Maoyin in his ancestral village in Anhui

A very fine reallocation of resources

The launch of China’s reform era is conventionally dated to 1978, when the Communist Party’s Third Plenum agreed on a major change of economic strategy. But a major sign that China was embarking on a new direction came a year earlier, in 1977, when Deng Xiaoping directed universities to restart entrance examinations. Many universities had by that time reopened, after closing for a few years at the height of the Cultural Revolution. But admission was still reserved for “workers, peasants and soldiers” and admission decisions were largely driven by political recommendations. Deng’s instruction to de-emphasize politics and emphasize competence were a welcome sign that rationality and pragmatism were on the way back.

The general outlines of this story are well known, but I enjoyed the details in this account:

Young people, many of whom had seen their schooling opportunities delayed for more than a decade, hastily dusted off their textbooks and began studying to prepare for the college entrance exams. That year, 5.7 million entered their names for the exams, and 273,000 were enrolled. Because the number of applicants far exceeded the expected figure, for a time the authorities could not procure enough paper to print the exam papers. The problem was not resolved until the central authorities made the urgent decision to ship in all the paper previously allocated for the printing of the fifth volume of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong.

I just love that last bit–it perfectly captures how poor and politicized China was at that time. The quote is from Breaking Through: The Birth of China’s Opening-Up Policy, a book by former vice-premier Li Lanqing (in English translation).

The consequences of that decision to reallocate resources away from propaganda and towards education were far-reaching, and the experiences of that first wave of new students have been subject of numerous books and articles. Many of the people who took those 1977 exams and enrolled in university went on to become rather influential figures (see these recollections by longtime foreign correspondent Jaime FlorCruz, who was one of them).

Indeed, we may now be living at the peak of the influence of the so-called Class of 1977. A September press conference ahead of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China gathered together three of China’s top economic technocrats: central bank governor Yi Gang, Finance minister Liu Kun, and National Bureau of Statistics director Ning Jizhe. In an unusually personal moment for such an event, they mentioned that all three of them had taken the college entrance exams in 1977.

September 24, 2019: (l-r) Moderator, Ning Jizhe, Liu Kun, Yi Gang

Who deserves the Nobel for China’s economic development?

The awarding of the Nobel Prize in economics to three academics “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty” has prompted some caustic commentary about how much, or little, global poverty has actually been reduced by the highly targeted, small-scale policy interventions evaluated by such experiments.

It’s well known that most of the reduction in global poverty in recent decades, however it is measured, is accounted for by rapid economic growth in big Asian economies. On the World Bank’s numbers, China alone accounts for about 60% of the decline in the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide (China’s poor population declined by 742 million people, while the world’s declined by 1.16 billion people).

The contribution of randomized controlled trials to China’s poverty reduction has been, to a first approximation, zero. Yao Yang, the dean of the National School of Development at Peking University, wrote in an English-language op-ed that “Experiments might help policymakers improve existing welfare programs or lay the foundation for new ones, but they cannot tell a poor country how to achieve sustained growth.” In a similar vein, Harvard professor Dani Rodrik tweeted: “Remarkable how little today’s development economics has to say about the most impressive poverty reduction in history ever.”

So if the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences were to award a prize for “contributions to sustained economic growth in China,” who should it go to? This is not a straightforward question. The prize is usually given to academics for contributions to theory and research, not to practitioners for implementing economic policies. As Bruno Frey noted in a 2018 article on China’s absence from the history of winners of the economics Nobel, “It may be argued that the Chinese economy has been successful without the help of high-ranking academic economists.” There are also few Chinese economists that appear in lists of the most-cited scholars–possibly because Chinese economists have historically tended to focus more on advising their own government than publishing in English-language journals.

It’s true that the decisions that led to China’s sustained economic growth were not mostly driven by research published in peer-reviewed journals. But that does not mean that economic ideas did not play a role in those decisions, or that the role of economists was not important. At least, as long as one does not hold to an excessively credential-focused definition of “economist” as meaning only a person holding an economics PhD. Pieter Bottelier’s recent book, Economic Policy Making in China (1949-2016): The Role of Economists, introduces many of these Chinese economic thinkers, few of whom are widely known abroad. One figure particularly stands out: Xue Muqiao. Bottelier writes:

I agree with Wu Jinglian that Xue (who died in 2005, when he was almost 101) was the most important Chinese economist of the 20th century. He was already involved in economic policy and management before the establishment of the PRC in 1949, and after 1949 under Mao. He then became one of the principal architects of market reform under Deng Xiaoping. The evolution of Xue’s thinking on how to develop a “socialist economy” mirrors Deng’s.

While Deng Xiaoping is these days often remembered mainly as an economic reformer, in fact he was not a specialist in the economy, and largely delegated economic management to other leadership figures. Xue seems to have been quite influential in the formation of Deng’s economic thinking.

Xue is particularly famous for is a letter he wrote in 1977, after Mao’s death but before reforms had begun, to Deng and Li Xiannian that laid out many of the problems in the economy. He focused in particular on agriculture, noting that farm output had grown no faster than the population despite collectivization and massive investments in machinery. The letter is translated in the English-language Collected Works of Xue Muqiao:

The CPC Central Committee has pointed out the importance of having agricultural production catch up with industry’s Great Leap Forward. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has recently proposed twelve significant measures to attain this goal. It recommends an increase of investment into agriculture of RMB 30 billion. These measures are necessary, but I think it is more important to implement agricultural policies that improve farmers’ lives, and that arouse their enthusiasm for agricultural production. … It is hard to motivate farmers if growth in agricultural production cannot bring corresponding growth in income. Any interest in working suffers if extra work is not rewarded. … Boosting farmers’ enthusiasm for agricultural production therefore outweighs improving the conditions for agricultural production.

“Enthusiasm” is the term often used in Chinese during this period for what we would today call “incentives.” And there is no economic insight more fundamental than “incentives matter.” This early insight by Xue laid the intellectual groundwork for the later decision to allow farmers to break out of agricultural collectives and farm their own land–a massive change in incentives for agriculture that resulted in a huge boom in productivity. For Xue to be able to break through the deadening grip of Maoist political correctness and recognize that incentive problems were keeping China’s rural population mired in poverty must surely be counted as an intellectual achievement of the highest order.

Over his long life and career, Xue did much more than write one well-timed and well-placed letter. The economic historian Fan Shitao last year made a catalog of Xue’s achievements in the pages of Caixin magazine, in a letter arguing that “Xue should be credited with making the most comprehensive contributions to China’s early reform and opening-up.” I won’t reproduce the entire thing here, but here are a few highlights:

In a long speech presented to the Central Party School in autumn of 1978, Xue was the first official within the ruling Communist Party elite to criticize the catastrophic consequences and painful economic lessons of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.” By warning that similar mistakes should not be replicated in the future, Xue’s speech paved the way for subsequent adjustments to China’s economic policies. …

As the most authoritative expert on price in the Communist Party, Xue was the first person to point out that price reforms were key to China’s economic reforms. He also differentiated between overall price stability and flexibility of individual prices. In agreement with German economic expert Armin Gutowski, Chinese American economist Gregory Chow, and experienced economist Edwin Lim, Xue promoted price reforms, which was one of the major decisions of the Third Plenary Session in 1984. …

In 1978 Xue pointed out that instead of administrative regions, economic development should focus on economic zones based on resource flows. The economic zone in Shanghai contributed to its becoming one of China’s most capital-abundant cities. Xue’s proposal also later led to the launch of other regional development plans.

So Xue’s intellectual influence can arguably be detected in agricultural decollectivization, the overhaul of central planning, the transition to market prices, and the coastal export manufacturing boom. That is a pretty staggering list.

Of course, China’s decades-long series of economic reforms had no one author or leader. But China’s system of closed-door debate and collective decision-making has long obscured the important contributions of individuals like Xue, and Du Runsheng, another major figure in rural reform.

Xue Muqiao

Rawski on the costs built in to China’s system

Loren Brandt and Thomas Rawski, two of the best economists and economic historians working on China, have a new edited volume out under the somewhat daunting title of Policy, Regulation and Innovation in China’s Electricity and Telecom Industries. It promises to be essential reading for anyone interested in how industrial policy works in China–a topic that, thanks to the massive scale of various subsidy programs like Made in China 2025 and the US trade war that has been launched in response, is now of far more than specialist interest.

I have not yet read the book, but I did watch a September 26 event at CSIS in which Brandt and Rawski discuss their work, under the catchier title “Can China’s industrial policy work?” Sadly, if not surprisingly, the book does not provide a simple answer to that question. Here is how Rawski put it:

We have no big theory. We cannot predict which policies will produce success and which policies don’t. We see the same policies affecting the semiconductor industry, which has done very poorly, the thermal power equipment industry, which has done well, and ultra-high-voltage power transmission, which is a world leader technologically. What is the key? Perhaps it is the difficulty of the technical obstacles that these firms confront. Perhaps it is quality of management. It’s hard to say. There’s no simple way of saying what works and what doesn’t work in China’s industrial policy.

If they do not have simple answers, they do provide a lot of important insights into how China’s system, with its hybrid of market mechanisms and top-down political direction, actually works. I particularly liked the concept of “system costs” which Rawksi brings up in his very interesting discussion of the electricity industry (these are my notes from the video, lightly edited):

Another feature that we see across the board is that they prioritize technical objectives over economic objectives. I think this partly reflects the Soviet legacy. One of the lessons of this book, for me at least, is that the legacy of Soviet influence in the Chinese economy is much larger than I thought it was when we started out on this project. The objectives of the Made in China 2025 program read like the first Five-Year Plan. There’s no discussion of markets, there’s no discussion of competition–it’s about physical targets.

Another important conclusion is that this is a system that has very high built-in costs. Electricity provides a vehicle for looking at this because it’s simple: there’s one product, five firms produce half the output, two firms distribute 90% of the output. So by looking at a very small number of firms we can see what’s going on in the whole industry. We can quantify some of the system costs people like Ken Lieberthal associate with China’s “highly negotiated” political system.

Negotiation means time and energy, and to us that means system costs. In the American electricity industry, the share of managers is 6.8%; in China it’s 17.8%. You need this extra manpower to work things out. We find that the cost of generating and delivering electricity is 30% higher in China than it is in the US, even though the ingredients are cheaper in China than they are in the US.

Our authors find many areas in which technical upgrades produce no economic benefit. As one engineer at a power plant said to us: we spent a large amount of money improving our equipment to lower our coal consumption, but of course if we had just increased the utilization of the existing plant, we could have gotten the same reduction in coal consumption at zero cost. Many episodes of this sort. We find low utilization in the telecom networks, in the electricity grid. In the US, engineers recommend 15% extra capacity compared to peak load in power systems. In China, the provincial average is 90%. In Inner Mongolia, which is the biggest power generating province, it’s over 200%.

And finally, quality issues. A deputy minister says that Chinese machinery is useful but not too reliable because of small defects. In high technology industries, this is very dangerous.

So what we’re looking at is a tug of war. We see huge resources being poured into innovation, we see the creativity and entrepreneurship of the Chinese people and Chinese firms. This is good. And we see also system costs and inefficiencies which are moving in the other direction.

The Q&A also covers China’s role in the global productivity slowdown, safety in nuclear power, the use of labor in coal mining, and other interesting topics. Worth watching.