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.

Why China isn’t sending money to everyone

Global crises are revealing. How different countries are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic can tell us a lot about how their systems function. One of the most interesting differences is in how governments are offsetting the economic damage caused by extended lockdowns. Unprecedented reductions in economic activity have led many countries to rapidly adopt unprecedented policies, such as direct relief payments to households, or government grants to companies to cover worker salaries. These measures have been derided as “socialism” by some of their critics. But China, an actual socialist country, has not used them: it has not delivered any kind of broad-based grants to households. Why?

The reason clearly has nothing to do with Chinese culture, Confucian philosophy, Asian values, or whatever. In late February, the indubitably Chinese territory of Hong Kong became the first government to announce a direct cash payment: a HK$10,000 handout to every adult Hong Kong resident. And it has since announced a program to subsidize 50% of wages for employers who pledge not to lay off workers. Despite having this example close at hand, mainland China has not done anything comparable.

It’s not for lack of ideas. A number of prominent Chinese economists have advocated income support measures. Liu Shijin, the former head of the State Council’s Development Research Center, has advocated giving low-income workers a month’s worth of wages. Yao Yang, the dean of the National School of Development, has called for giving 2,000 renminbi to every household earning less than half the median income.

Yet the best time to deploy those measures may have passed. As Yu Yongding, an well-known independent economist, has pointed out, China is already over the worst of the epidemic and many of its restraints on movement and daily life have been lifted. It seems unlikely that China would copy policies that Western governments used in the most urgent phase of their outbreaks when its own situation is no longer quite so severe. While there is still an ongoing debate about the next stage of China’s economic-policy response, the first wave of decisions about how to respond to an emergency have already been made. It is telling that universal or near-universal relief for household incomes was not one of the tools China reached for.

One reason some have given for this decision is simply fiscal conservatism: universal income support costs a lot of money, which China can ill afford. Jia Kang, the former head of the Ministry of Finance’s in-house think tank, is one of the most prominent figures publicly arguing against direct income support:

For China, given that our our per-capita fiscal resources are still very low, and that the fiscal situation is very right, to give money to everyone–Jack Ma gets some, I get some, you get some–is really not necessary. …There are many places where we need to spend money, and China has to be careful with its spending. If I were allowed to make suggestions, I would take this plan of distributing money to every person off the table. It would be better for the government to focus on helping low-income and vulnerable groups while keeping appropriate control of spending.

In more recent remarks, Jia expanded on this theme, arguing that the government should not issue debt just to support short-term household consumption. Rather, it should use its fiscal resources on infrastructure and grand projects that will help China’s economy develop over the longer term. The best way of supporting household income growth, he argued, is to ensure that China is on a sustainable development trajectory and not stuck in the middle-income trap.

Jia is an effective spokesman for a brand of fiscal conservatism very widespread in Chinese official circles. But this fiscal conservatism is not of the sort found in right-wing Western political parties, which emphasizes restraint on government spending so that households can keep more of their money and decide how to spend it themselves. The Chinese version is rather a kind of government-knows-best conservatism. The reason the state needs to be conservative with its resources is so that it can use them to develop the economy in the best way, as only the state is capable of determining.

In fact, this is a very typical Chinese socialist way of thinking. It’s a caricature to think that socialism is just about maximizing the delivery of state benefits to households. Deng Xiaoping talked about achieving common prosperity for everyone, but through state-led development and growth rather than social welfare payments. Even at the apex of Stalinist high socialism in the 1950s and 1960s, China’s social welfare system was not astonishingly generous. State benefits were originally provided only to workers in urban state-owned enterprises, a minority of the population. Those workers were treated better because they were working in the core industrial sectors given priority in economic development plans. Relative prices were set to funnel any surplus from agriculture, where the majority of the population earned their living, into the development of heavy industry.

Chinese planners today have a much broader conception of strategic sectors than just coal and steel, and appreciate the virtues of market pricing. But their producer bias, the tendency to favor production over consumption, is still present. China is also notable for still having a fairly regressive system tax system that does relatively little redistribution. The social benefits provided by the Chinese state are more of a combination of programs for specific groups than broad, universal guarantees. They have evolved out of the narrow benefits provided to socialism’s privileged class of state workers, and are based on careful distinctions rather than an equalizing ideology. The means-testing for China’s minimum-income support program (dibao) is famously strict.

Of course, the socialist tradition also contains powerful themes of equality and the state’s responsibility for its citizens, and these have been periodically mobilized to put pressure on China’s government to expand its provision of social welfare. Yet the inequality between privileged urban workers and their rural compatriots has been an enduring feature of Chinese society for decades, one that has only been exacerbated by the disruptions of Covid-19. Judged by actual practice rather than rhetoric, producer bias has been a much more enduring theme in Chinese socialism than generous redistribution.

These historical legacies are not immutable, and received ideas are not a prison. Since late April, China’s government has stepped up its rhetoric about helping those people suffering from the economic disruption brought by the coronavirus outbreak, and it has pledged to expand access to existing programs that provide benefits to unemployed and low-income people. It’s still possible that the government could decide to offer much more broad-based support to household incomes than it has so far. Nonetheless, China has clearly moved more slowly and reluctantly in this direction than many other countries.

I think it would be a mistake to interpret this reluctance as a sign that China is now more capitalist than the capitalists, or more right-wing than the Republicans. Rather, the pandemic is once again revealing how its socialist legacy is still very much alive.

The coronavirus crisis and China’s inequality

Walter Scheidel’s book The Great Leveller argues that pandemics, along with war and state collapse, are among the historical forces that have been able to drastically reduce economic inequality (I am sorry to say I have not read Scheidel’s book myself, so am relying on reviews for this summary).

Yet less epochal crises, like your common or garden-variety recession, generally tend to increase inequality. When the proportion of the population that is unemployed rises, inequality widens. A recession therefore always increases inequality, at least temporarily; whether that increase is later reversed depends on how the recovery plays out. The people who lose their jobs in a recession, and the companies who have to shut down, are often those whose situations were most fragile to begin with. Bigger companies and wealthier individuals are pretty much by definition better placed to handle economic downturns, so economic stress can reinforce inequality.

It’s an interesting question what kind of crisis the coronavirus epidemic, and the massive shutdown of China’s economy that it has sparked, will prove to be: one that reinforces existing inequality, or one that breaks the mold? My guess is that this crisis is going to strengthen China’s patterns of state-capitalist inequality. The quarantines, travel restrictions and business closures are not a process of breaking down institutions, but rather the exertion of China’s state power on a massive scale. The people and companies who suffer most from the shutdown are those that were already disadvantaged in the system.

The strict restrictions on cross-provincial travel (which are starting to be unwound) and quarantine requirements for people who cross provincial borders disproportionately affect China’s hundreds of millions of migrant workers, people who leave their home regions for jobs elsewhere. For decades migrants have fallen through the cracks of social programs and government policy because their job and their household registration are not in the same place. Now they can’t even get to their jobs, and if they don’t lose their job will still have lost weeks of pay they will not get back. White-collar office workers may grumble about the tedium of working from home, but at least they are still drawing a salary. Wage and income inequality is therefore likely to widen this year.

The loss of revenue to businesses from the extended closures and quarantines is also uneven. Most of China’s state-owned enterprises declared they had reopened soon after the official holiday ended on February. But it has taken much longer for smaller and private-sector companies. According to the industry ministry, only 30% of small- and medium-sized enterprises had resumed operation as of the last week of February. Even among China’s largest 500 companies, more state companies got back online than private-sector one. State companies tend to be larger, have more cash reserves and better access to credit than private-sector ones, so they are inherently better positioned to survive the shutdown. It thus seems very likely that large and/or state-owned companies will gain market share this year as small businesses struggle.

Businesses closed during the outbreak

The government has announced numerous policies to aid small and private businesses suffering as a result of the coronavirus, but getting this special help usually requires getting on some government list. Forcing companies to jump through administrative hoops is an inherently unequal process that favors more-organized and better-connected companies.

Officials surely have good technocratic reasons for preferring these kind of “targeted” measures. But there could be a distributional case for using more macro policy: lowering interest rates for all companies, not just those on a list designated for special support, and running the economy hotter so that those who lost their jobs during the shutdown will get them back more quickly. To which the counter argument might be: stimulus would also just flow to local governments and state enterprises, and increase economic imbalances in the bargain. Which shows just how hard it can be to alter an entrenched structure of inequality.

The theater of state power

This is my second Chinese epidemic. In 2003, I was living in Beijing when the SARS outbreak happened, and in 2020, I was in Heilongjiang province visiting family for the holidays when the coronavirus outbreak went national. As we watched the streets empty and facemasks become obligatory, the sense of SARS deja vu was very strong: here we go again.

As the days went on, and we struggled to make our way across the northeast back to Beijing and back to the US, it became clear that this in fact was not SARS all over again. The government’s response has been much more heavy-handed and extreme: it has locked down cities and closed businesses across the country to stop the spread of this virus (which, while less deadly than SARS, is much more infectious).

The proliferation of guards and barriers everywhere, the ostentatious temperature-checking in public places–all recall the “security theater” that enveloped the US in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (the term was apparently coined by security expert Bruce Schneier, and popularized by James Fallows). Who really knows if all these procedures help, but they make us feel safer, so we have to do them. The historian Maura Cunningham dubbed China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak “quarantine theater“.

Empty streets in Beijing on February 1, 2020

But I feel there is more going on here than the usual human overreaction in the face of crisis. The commands cascading down the chain of the Chinese government, from Xi Jinping’s meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee down to the management of individual city districts and even individual residential compounds, are not simply technical public health measures. They are the product of a mindset that perceives the virus outbreak as a challenge to the power and authority of the Chinese party-state, to which the only appropriate response is to demonstrate that the Chinese party-state indeed has the power and authority to overcome it. As Xi Jinping himself declared, the outbreak is “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance.”

No global public health expert advised locking down the city of Wuhan, or forbidding people to leave their homes even in other cities with very few cases. Indeed some experts think the whole focus on drastic measures to stop the spread of infection is misguided. There is clearly an element of theater, of performance for the public, in China’s response, but the theme of this theater is not so much security or health as it is state power. By its overwhelming response and massive disruption of everyday life, the Chinese party-state is showing just how much power it has, and that this power is being used to stop a feared enemy.

The leaders of the Chinese party-state believes their distinctive version of socialism is superior, and that this superiority consists of an ability to exercise state power more forcefully and effectively than other governments. What then-Premier Wen Jiabao in 2010 called “the incomparable superiority of the socialist system” manifests itself in the Chinese government’s ability to “make decisions efficiently, organize effectively, and concentrate resources to accomplish large undertakings.” (I chose a quote from Wen rather than Xi Jinping to make the point that this kind of thinking is a characteristic of the Chinese leadership as a whole, rather than Xi personally.) Therefore the instinctive response to any challenge to China’s “capacity for governance” is precisely to demonstrate this forcefulness, this effectiveness, this capacity for doing big things.

In my experience at least, many Chinese people do find the theater of state power reassuring rather than threatening. The Western media, which is ideologically predisposed to look for discontent with authoritarian rule, has unsurprisingly emphasized the doubts and worries among the public about the handling of the outbreak. But much of this public discontent in fact reveals how effective the theater of state power actually is. Most of the complaints are about how the promise of all-encompassing and effective state power has failed to be achieved in every instance: the fact that the government has not, for instance, somehow been able to instantaneously supply everyone in the country with facemasks every day.

Fewer people question the premise that the handling of epidemic disease should be an occasion for the overwhelming display of state power. While worries over the economic impact of the unprecedented closures are certainly growing, the central leadership is already painting the most extreme measures as misguided efforts of local officials that will be corrected.

“The coronavirus is not frightening as long as everyone listens to the Party”

Ultimately, I suspect the coronavirus outbreak will be treated in official history as another victory for Chinese state power–just as the response to SARS was, or the relief effort for the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. Some epidemiologists argue that the outbreak is very likely to burn itself out eventually as rising outside temperatures and humidity decrease the viability of the virus (as happened with SARS, and as happens with the flu season every year). Whatever finally happens with the outbreak, the one thing that the propaganda narrative will not allow is a full debate over the costs and benefits of the government’s response. The only possible answer is that only state power could solve the problem, and it did.

The state capacity that is so dramatically on display in China right now is very much for real. One thing that the China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has conclusively demonstrated is that the Chinese state is in fact more powerful, more effective, and more organized than it was in 2003. Its response to this outbreak is more forceful than the response to SARS because, in part, it can be.

I feel like this increase in state power should be a bigger part of the standard narrative of how China has changed over the past two decades than it now is. (In this regard I must recommend Xu Jilin’s brilliant 2011 essay “The Specter of Leviathan: A Critique of Chinese Statism since 2000” as an indispensable piece of intellectual history; it is available to English readers thanks to David Ownby’s translation in Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique). What it not yet so clear is whether the Chinese state is getting better at deploying that power in service of the public interest.

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