It only looks like ideology from the outside

Ideology seems to be everywhere in today’s China: there is a huge apparatus devoted to propagating the correct official views on the big questions of the day, from the Covid-19 pandemic to financial regulation. Given how much effort the Party and the government put into criticizing incorrect ideas and repeating correct ones, it’s natural to think that ideas are truly central to Chinese politics.

An alternative view emerges from Joseph Torigian’s recent book, Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China After Stalin and Mao, a detailed account of the internal battles at pivotal historical moments in two Leninist systems. Torigian suggests that what in standard historical accounts appear as epic struggles over the direction of the nation were in fact narrow arguments over specific political issues, that were driven less by differences of ideas than by maneuverings to gain personal power. It’s certainly a deflating, cynical view, but given the historical evidence he marshals, it is hard to say it is wrong.

Take for instance one of the most famous ideological statements in China’s recent history, the 1978 decision that the Communist Party should shift its focus away from class struggle and toward economic growth. Generalists like me tend to see this as a major historic turning point, when China’s leadership turned its back on Maoism and embraced pragmatism and markets. This corresponded with a change in leadership from Mao’s handpicked successor Hua Guofeng to Deng Xiaoping. But in Torigian’s account, this statement turns out not to be about “class struggle” in the general sense but only a recent internal campaign:

At the November 1978 work conference, [Hua Guofeng] did not oppose changing the party’s “key link” from “class struggle” to economics. The idea that Deng somehow triumphed over Hua on this issue is wrong. During Hua’s tenure, “class struggle” did not have the same meaning that it had during the Cultural Revolution. Then it meant the campaign to expose and criticize the Gang of Four. … At the Eleventh Party Congress in 1977, the plan of Hua and the top leadership was to finish the “ferreting-out” phase of exposing and criticizing the Gang of Four within the year or a little longer. At the Fifth National People’s Congress in February and March 1978, Hua said that the “ferreting-out” campaign was basically finished on a national scale.

Torigian agues that discussion among the top leadership on was mainly over the precise wording of how to announce the end of “class struggle” in this restricted sense, and that Hua and Deng were basically in agreement on the need to end the campaign.

Standard historical accounts present the 1978 third plenum as the culmination of an ideological struggle between Hua’s retrograde leftism and Deng’s free-thinking pragmatism. What was at stake was encapsulated by a phrase in a People’s Daily editorial in 1977 which became known as the “two whatevers”: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” The official account of this debate appeared in a note to the Collected Works of Deng Xiaoping, and it has since been followed by many scholars:

After the downfall of the Gang of Four, the Party Chairman, Hua Guofeng, who was in charge of the work of the Central Committee, clung to the erroneous notion of the “two whatevers” and reaffirmed the wrong theories, policies and slogans of the “cultural revolution”. On April 10, 1977, Deng Xiaoping wrote a letter to the Central Committee, proposing that to guide the work of the Party, it should use instead a correct understanding of Mao Zedong Thought as an integral whole. Later, he talked with Party comrades on many occasions, explaining to them that the “two whatevers” did not accord with Marxism.

On September 19, 1977, when talking with the leading member of the Ministry of Education, Deng said that seeking truth from facts was the quintessence of the philosophical thinking of Mao Zedong. On May 11, 1978, Guangming Ribao carried an article entitled “Practice is the Sole Criterion for Testing Truth”, which stated that the most fundamental principle of Marxism was the integration of theory with practice. This was a criticism of the principle of the “two whatevers”. It was this article that gave rise to the debate about the criterion for testing truth.

Hua Guofeng and others tried to suppress the debate, but as the majority of the central leaders, including Deng Xiaoping, were fully in favour of it and took the lead in it, it gradually spread throughout the country. The debate demolished the “Left” ideology that had long shackled people’s minds and laid the theoretical and ideological foundation for the convocation of the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee.

The attempt by Party historians to paint Hua as the slavish follower of Mao always lacked a certain plausibility: after all, Hua had in 1976 led a coup against the Gang of Four, Mao’s chief hangers-on during the Cultural Revolution. Torigian’s account of this event makes clear that the arrest and trial of the Gang of Four was in fact a coup, in the sense of a violent and illegal change of government, because the arrest was not formally approved by the Party and was accomplished through the use of force. Hua’s willingness to risk instability by forcibly removing Mao’s favorites just a month after the great leader’s death reflected the urgent need he and other leaders felt to move on from the Cultural Revolution. Why, then, would he change course in 1977 and argue so forcefully that Mao’s wishes needed to be respected? Torigian says he didn’t, and it was all a misunderstanding:

New evidence shows that the origin of the “two whatevers” had nothing to do with political or economic orthodoxy. … What, then, did the “two whatevers” actually mean, and why did so many individuals in the elite misinterpret the expression? The key to understanding this puzzle is that the immediate challenge facing Hua was how to show his flexibility without raising concerns that he was moving too quickly to reject the Maoist legacy. Unfortunately for Hua, he handled this problem in a particularly clumsy way, and it was this clumsiness, as opposed to political dogmatism or opposition to Deng, that led to the “two whatevers.”

The “two whatevers” ended up in the People’s Daily not because Hua was trying to send a top-down signal of the country’s political direction, but because Hua’s speechwriters were trying to find a way to ease the concerns of the still-numerous supporters of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. Obviously the expression turned out to be easily misinterpreted, and it upset Deng, for which Hua later made a self-criticism. In Torigian’s account, this sloppy drafting turned out to be a political windfall for Deng, allowing him to portray himself as being on the right side of a major ideological debate. But this ideological debate was largely an illusion, a cover for Deng’s maneuverings against Hua. In order to oust Hua, Deng went on to say a lot of things that he very clearly did not actually mean:

In August 1980, Deng famously gave a speech criticizing “feudal practices” and calling for an institutionalized political system. The speech is often interpreted as a programmatic statement in favor of “political reform.” However, this is a fundamental misreading of the speech’s origins and implications. Criticisms of feudalism and calls for political reform were not a real platform but rather an ideological justification for Hua Guofeng’s removal from the leadership. …

As Deng Liqun freely admitted, “This speech by Comrade Xiaoping in actuality was directed against Hua Guofeng; it was preparation for Hua to leave his position, to find a theoretical justification.” When a friend pointed out that this speech was a reason why many people believed that Deng Xiaoping supported real inner-party democracy and institutionalization, Zhao Ziyang discounted this analysis, saying, “At this time, Deng was primarily addressing Hua Guofeng; he was struggling against Hua Guofeng.”

Torigian’s detailed reconstructions of the politics behind ideological debates are impressive, but also somewhat depressing for those of us trying to understand China’s contemporary policymaking. Much of the evidence he uses for his revisionist account of the 1970s and early 1980s has only emerged fairly recently, and similar detailed behind-the-scenes evidence is much less available for recent decades.

After digesting his book, it’s harder to have confidence in analyses that take Chinese ideological debates and statements at face value. Most of the time, it seems, outsiders to the system do not really know the precise context for the Party’s various political slogans and the internal uses to which they are being put. What looks like a struggle over ideology on the outside may just be a plain old power struggle.

Watching the gap between rhetoric and reality

One of Xi Jinping’s accomplishments as China’s leader has been to narrow the gap between political rhetoric and policy reality. During the tenure of his predecessor Hu Jintao, this gap was so wide as to be a standing joke: various government promises of reform were repeatedly followed by little or no action. Important economic-policy decisions seemed to be driven less by declared priorities and more by expediency and interest-group bargaining. Perhaps in reaction, Xi has focused on making China’s governing apparatus more disciplined, more effective and less corrupt. He has recast the administrative structure to ensure that there is more coherence between his own top-level pronouncements and the actions of lower-level officials.

To take just one, highly consequential, example: after Xi declared a “battle” against financial risk in 2017, the annual growth of banking-system assets slowed sharply to 7-10% in his second term from the 15-17% of his first term. The shift was a dramatic contrast to the repeated failure of the Hu administration to rein in the credit boom they had unleashed in the response to the 2008 global financial crisis. In the initial stages of Xi’s financial-risk campaign, there was a lot of skepticism that Chinese regulators would ever meaningfully control the growth of debt. Now, the crackdown on debt has gone so far that it has triggered major financial problems at property developers, with huge knock-on effects on the real economy. If anything, the problem is that regulators have been too zealous in implementing Xi’s top-level priorities, and haven’t done enough bargaining with affected interest groups.

The size of the gap between rhetoric and implementation is therefore an important indicator of Xi’s power, one that he himself is focused on (he has given many speeches criticizing officials for passivity or inaction). In the runup to October’s Party Congress, which is all but certain to cement a third term for Xi as Party chief and all-round supremo, there has been a lot of fantasizing about scenarios in which his power would be more limited. These range from him being deposed in a coup to having to share power with supposed “reformers.” None of these are particularly realistic: despite plenty of grumbling, there’s no evidence of any organized or effective internal political opposition. The Party Congress is most likely to feature high-level rhetorical affirmation of Xi’s signature goals, and a new leadership lineup that is dominated, though perhaps not completely, by Xi loyalists.

But, as Jude Blanchette suggests in a typically thoughtful recent piece, it will be worth watching for any sign that the gap between rhetoric and reality is widening back to a historically more normal size:

Prognosticating on China’s future has always been an invitation to be proven wrong. But the most sensible starting position is that Xi is not going anywhere, and for all the apparent setbacks China is now facing—many of which can be directly tied to actions taken by Beijing in recent years—the discrepancy between public frustration and an organized leadership challenge remains significant.

This opens up a third path for Xi somewhere between unchallenged dominance (which he may well lose if problems continue to mount) and full-on leadership change (which he is unlikely to have to confront): Xi as a bruised autocrat with China as a diminished global power. In this scenario, Xi is able to retain his grip on power, but without the elan and appeal that seemed to follow him over the 18th and 19th Party Congresses. His major policy pronouncements would receive a polite reception, and then be ignored summarily or (purposefully) misconstrued. Policy paralysis and policy dislocation would typify the rollout and implementation, or lack thereof, of new government regulatory efforts.

The excerpt is from CPC Futures, a useful, and free, recent volume from the East Asian Institute in Singapore that compiles several pieces explaining political and economic trends under Xi.

Currently, the best candidate for a Xi policy pronouncement that fails to get translated into reality is the slogan “common prosperity,” which summarizes a general desire to narrow income and wealth inequality. Xi rolled out the slogan with much fanfare in 2021, writing it into the five-year plan and devoting a high-level meeting in August to its discussion. At the time, the term was associated with the crackdowns on internet platforms and real-estate developers, the sectors responsible for creating most of China’s billionaires. But by early 2022, the slogan seemed to be a lower priority in official propaganda, with Premier Li Keqiang mentioning it only once in his annual government work report in March (see my previous post What happened to common prosperity?).

A quick search in Baidu Index, the Chinese equivalent of Google Trends, quantitatively confirms these impressions. The screenshot below is an index of how often the term “common prosperity” appears in news reports: there’s a huge spike around Xi’s meeting in August 2021, which then rather quickly falls back to previous levels.

It’s understandable that such a longer-term aspirational goal would be less urgent at the moment, given the serious shorter-term challenges the government has had to deal with this year. But it’s still notable how little substantive progress the working machinery of the government has made on it: there is no sign, for instance, of a promised “action plan” for common prosperity. The slogan has certainly not vanished from official discourse, and given Xi’s firm control over the propaganda and ideology apparatus, it is highly unlikely that there would be any formal retreat from common prosperity. The Politburo meeting in August specifically mentioned that the Party Congress would cover how to achieve common prosperity, so the term seems likely to feature prominently in Xi’s speech setting out his agenda for the next five years.

The question is what ends up happening in practical terms as a result of this declared priority. It is possible, for example, to imagine a scenario in which Chinese officials and scholars spend months discussing and debating how to deliver common prosperity per Xi’s instructions, and then, at the end of an exhaustive exploration of possible options, decide that the best course is to make some modest adjustments to existing policies (such as more funding for regional development initiatives in lagging areas). Any signs of officials slow-walking Xi’s priorities, or talking them to death, would be indeed be a significant change from the current rush to show eager participation in his campaigns.

What was the Cold War, and is it over?

I belong to the first generation for whom the Cold War is mainly history rather than lived experience. By the time I went off to college and started learning about the wider world, the Soviet Union had already collapsed. Even though the events of 1989-90 were in fact very recent, to me they did not seem like the news of the day but history that had already acquired the aura of age and inevitability, like the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution. Communism seemed faintly ridiculous and largely irrelevant; even the left-wing student radicals invoked it as more a symbol of opposition to mainstream America than as a serious system of ideas. This impression was only reinforced when I moved to China in the late 1990s: China at the time seemed to be busily dismantling the apparatus of socialism and building ties with the US and the rest of the world.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for why I never got around to learning much about the Cold War; I had managed to acquire the quite mistaken impression that it was not something urgent to understand about the world. When in 2022 foreign-policy commentators began busily proclaiming “the start of a second Cold War” (Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times) or that “the Cold War never ended” (Stephen Kotkin in Foreign Affairs), I realized that I could not evaluate those claims because I did not have a clear definition of my mind of what exactly the Cold War was. So, I read a book about it: Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War: A World History. Although it’s a long book with lots of details, the Cold War is helpfully defined on the very first page:

The Cold War was a confrontation between capitalism and socialism that peaked in the years between 1945 and 1989, although its origins go much further back in time and its consequences can still be felt today. In its prime the Cold War constituted an international system, in the sense that the world’s leading powers all based their foreign policies on some relationship to it.

Westad’s definition of the Cold War has two aspects: that of an ideological conflict between two totalizing and incompatible systems, and that of an international system, which forced many different issues and conflicts among countries into alignment with that ideological conflict. I found this is a useful distinction, as the arguments for a contemporary Cold War generally focus on the second aspect, the pattern of international relations. There’s no question that, since the invasion of Ukraine, the US and Western Europe are in increasingly direct rivalry with Russia and China. The continuity of this division with that of the Cold War period is what Rachman and Kotkin focus on in their essays.

But it’s harder to see a similar ideological conflict underway today. Westad consistently emphasizes how in the twentieth century both the US and the USSR were highly ideological states, organized around universalizing ideas not just national interests. Both countries were led by elites who believed that they were spreading the right ideas about the way to organize human societies throughout the world, and that their right ideas were mortally threatened by the other side’s wrong ideas. “It was its ideological origins that made the Cold War special and hyperdangerous,” Westad writes. The existential struggle between capitalism and socialism made every minor issue seem like a terminal conflict, encouraging both sides to raise the stakes.

While there have been occasional attempts on both sides of the current divide to paint it as essentially ideological as the same way as the original Cold War, these are less convincing. I found this interview with Chinese foreign-policy scholar Wang Jisi, translated by David Cowhig, to be a useful contribution:

Q: The question of whether there is a “new cold war” between China and the United States is now more controversial in academic circles. How do you see this issue?

A: Compared with the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War, the current U.S.-China relationship is still different in many ways. First of all, neither side can resort to “bloc politics”, so the U.S. and China will not become a bipolar opposition like the U.S.S.R. By “poles”, I mean attracting other countries to unite around them and form a united camp. The United States wants to do this, but it is difficult to do so. China, for its part, does not seek to build such a camp. In contrast, as the gap between other countries and China and the United States grows, the future may turn out to be a world in which the two powers stand side by side, but there will not be two camps as there were during the Cold War.

Secondly, from the ideological aspect, the competition between China and the United States is not as obvious as the ideological confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, but is mainly a manifestation of nationalism. Therefore, there is no ideological struggle between China and the U.S. like the one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union back then.

His analysis that what is underway is a conflict between national interests rather than totalizing ideologies seems correct to me. The US foreign-policy elite is historically prone to prone to seeing global events in ideological terms, and has tried to portray the current division as one of democracy and liberal values in opposition to authoritarianism. This is par for the course for the US; as Westad notes, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “American foreign policy rolled on, unperturbed by any significant adjustments in strategic vision or political aims.” Since the US saw itself as the victor in the ideological conflict, its ideology was not in need of adjustment.

On the other side, though, the role of ideology has changed. Although Russia and China famously proclaimed a “no limits” partnership just before the invasion of Ukraine, this is founded more on a shared desire to resist US power than any shared ideology. The leaders of both Russia and China have articulated some grand theories underpinning their foreign policies, but both are more interested in national greatness for their respective nations than exporting a universalizing system of thought. The pattern is less of two broad ideological camps than of varying forms of opposition to US global leadership.

This is more or less the pattern that Ken Jowitt predicted in his essay “The Leninist Extinction,” originally published in 1991 (it’s available in his book of the same name, which I’ve previously praised here). Given how fresh the collapse of the Soviet Union still was at the time, the piece is remarkably insightful in its broad analysis of the consequences (though some of the specific predictions have not panned out). It’s worth closing with a lengthy excerpt of what now seems like quite a key passage:

The primary axis of international politics has disappeared. Thermonuclear Russia hasn’t, but the Soviet Union/Empire most certainly has. Its “extinction” radically revises the framework within which the West, the United States itself, the Third World, and the countries of Eastern Europe, the former Russian Empire, and many nations in Asia have bounded and defined themselves.

The first imperative is to anticipate national environments characterized by conflict (along both civic-ethnic and regional fault lines) and an international environment whose primary characteristic will be turbulence, not the stereotyped, fundamentally apolitical quality of international life during the Cold War. Turbulent environments produce more than their share of simultaneous emergences for a significant number of national and sub-national elites. An emergency environment calls for different political skills and leaders than the stereotyped bipolar environment of largely contained, and occasionally ritualized, emergency characteristic of the Cold War. On balance, in a turbulent world environment, leaders will count for more than institutions, and charisma for more than political economy.

Liberal capitalist democracy has generated a heterogeneous set of opponents: Romantic poets, Persian ayatollahs, aristorcrats, the Catholic Church, and fascists. However, for all the genuine and substantial differences separating these diverse oppositions, one can detect a shared critique. Liberal capitalist democracy is seen as one-sided in its emphasis on individualism, materialism, achievement, and rationality. The Roman Catholic preference for the family over the individual and the Nazi preference for “race” in place of the individual are radically different critiques, but the general critique is the same: liberal capitalism fails adequately to provide for the essential group needs and dimension of human existence.

As long as the West retains its partisan liberal capitalist democratic identity, it will regularly generate movements–internally and externally–opposing or attacking, attempting to reform or destroy it; movements that in one form or another will emphasize the value of group membership, expressive behavior, solidary security, and heroic action.

All of these have indeed come to pass: a “turbulent” international environment, an increasing role for charismatic leaders, and the persistent popularity of critiques of liberal values. The legacy of the Cold War is still very much with us, but its particular style of global ideological conflict probably is over, having been replaced with something not yet properly named.

What will self-reliance mean for China?

Self-reliance seems to be an important value for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In a public discussion with agricultural experts in March, he invoked the term to urge attention to food security: “Who will feed China? China has to put its faith in self-reliance, and feed itself!” Xi declared, “in a resounding tone,” according to the account in the People’s Daily. In Liaoning province in August, on a tour of a robot manufacturer, he used it again in the context of technology: “We must adhere to self-reliance, make developing the strength of the country and the nation the basic point, and firmly grasp the initiative of development.”

The phrase conventionally translated here as “self-reliance” is zili gengsheng (自力更生), which has historical resonances in Chinese that the neutral English translation fails to capture. Zili gengsheng was a key slogan during the Mao era, and Xi’s repeated use of the term in recent years is one of the things that make people think he wants to return to the autarky of the 1950s.

But like many good political slogans, zili gengsheng works to elicit an emotional response–who doesn’t want to be self-reliant?–without necessarily referring to a specific set of policies. The best short explanation of the term I’ve found is in Jason M. Kelly’s recent book Market Maoists: The Communist Origins of China’s Capitalist Ascent, a history of foreign trade policy during the Mao years:

Trade with capitalists was indispensable, but also dangerous. It must be controlled. This view produced an early and abiding tension in CCP trade policy. On the one hand, the Party must remain aloof from foreign capitalists to safeguard China’s independence; on the other, it must “struggle” to engage them. The Party reconciled these divergent aims in the concept of zili gengsheng, or “revival through one’s own efforts.” Zili gengsheng, which became a pillar of economic policy in the Mao era, was never just a policy. It was a disposition, a blend of caution and ambition from which Party leaders could derive the orientation and scope of China’s economic interaction in a given historical context. The term offered a foundation for thinking about the political implications of trade, especially the dependencies and vulnerabilities that accompanied it. Trade could breed dependency if not carefully controlled, and dependency brought vulnerability. In its broadest sense, zili gengsheng meant never trusting one’s fate to outsiders and never placing all of one’s eggs in a single basket.

I think this applies to the contemporary use of zili gengsheng as well. Xi’s use of the term conveys a conviction that China exists in a dangerous world surrounded by rivals and competitors. Because no one else is going to help China become rich and powerful, it must do that on its own, without depending on outsiders. Xi’s choice of this specific term, out of many possible synonyms for self-reliance, is certainly a gesture to the Mao era. But the use of zili gengsheng signals more of a “disposition,” in Kell’s term, than an endorsement of the specific policies of extreme isolation that Mao pursued. China’s central position in the global trading system means the starting point for any pursuit of self-reliance today must be quite different. The total value of its imports and exports is equivalent to around 35% of China’s GDP, a high ratio for a large economy, compared to around 5% in the 1950s.

During the Mao era, zili gengsheng was a general political value with varying interpretations, not a single program. Another very interesting book on trade policy in the Mao era, Lawrence C. Reardon’s The Reluctant Dragon: Crisis Cycles in Chinese Foreign Economic Policy, explains how Zhou Enlai in the early 1960s articulated an alternative to Mao’s version of self-reliance. Zhou agreed that China needed to become self-reliant, as the break with the Soviet Union had led to a major loss of foreign investment, aid and technical advice. But he argued for controlled foreign trade to obtain China’s needs, rather than autarky, and more orthodox socialist planning to guide development, rather than the disastrous campaigns of the Great Leap Forward.

Zhou did argue that “China’s strategic policy is to obtain self-reliance,” but also that “it is impossible to close the door to the outside world to implement communism.” He thought China should export the goods it knew how to produce in order to earn the revenue to import what it needed to develop further. The debate was not over whether China should be self-reliant, but over the best program for achieving that self-reliance: Zhou’s relative and flexible one versus Mao’s extreme and doctrinaire one.

Zhou ended up losing the debate on economic policy to Mao, and the more moderate development model he and others proposed in the early 1960s was abandoned for mass campaigns and autarky during the Cultural Revolution. their ideas lived on, and were an inspiration for some of the initial moves away from Maoist autarky in the late 1970s. But in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping abandoned self-reliance entirely and pursued a different model, of export-oriented growth and attracting foreign investment. The level of trade openness that Deng endorsed was a fundamental change from what socialist economics had previously considered desirable.

Xi Jinping’s renewed invocation of self-reliance, and related concepts like “dual circulation,” show a discontent with Deng’s outward-focused model and a desire to reduce China’s external vulnerabilities. At the same time, there is a recognition that China’s position as the hub of global supply chains gives it economic power and influence over other countries, which Xi wants to enhance rather than abandon. Given this context, Maoist autarky is not a practical option. Despite the occasional rhetorical gestures to Mao, Xi seems to be more of a strong-state nationalist than a true Maoist (see this previous post, “Who won the battle of ideas in China?“). The renewed pursuit of self-reliance in today’s China may end up being a variation of Zhou Enlai’s strategy of accepting the necessity of trade while guiding it to benefit the nation.

Surpassing America

The further downward spiral in US-China relations since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has laid bare how central the rivalry with the US is to much nationalist sentiment in China. Many Chinese see the US as the only thing preventing the realization of their long-cherished dream of bringing Taiwan under mainland control. But this is a problem that time will solve: once China is big enough and strong enough, it will not have to defer to the US any longer, and can finally exercise its will. One of the most direct expressions of this way of thinking came from prominent Renmin University professor Wang Wen (quoted in a useful summary by Tuvia Gering):

The crux is that China needs to outperform the US in terms of economic power, attain financial and military strength comparable to that of the US, and develop an overwhelming capacity to counter international sanctions. By doing this, the US will no longer be able to form an external force to interfere in our affairs after the reunification and in the long run.

The idea that it is necessary for China to overtake the US as the world’s leading economic and military power has a long history. Perhaps the earliest and most forceful expression came in a speech by Mao Zedong on August 30, 1956, entitled “Strengthen Party Unity and Carry Forward Party Traditions.” In that speech Mao called for China to overtake the US, specifically in steel production, but also in more general terms:

Once built up, China will be a great socialist country and will radically transform the situation in which for over a century it was backward, despised and wretched. Moreover, it will be able to catch up with the most powerful capitalist country in the world, the United States. The United States has a population of only 170 million, and as we have a population several times larger, are similarly rich in resources and are favoured with more or less the same kind of climate, it is possible for us to catch up with the United States. Oughtn’t we catch up? Definitely yes. …

Given fifty or sixty years, we certainly ought to overtake the United States. This is an obligation. You have such a big population, such a vast territory and such rich resources, and what is more, you are said to be building socialism, which is supposed to be superior; if after working at it for fifty or sixty years you are still unable to overtake the United States, what a sorry figure you will cut! You should be read off the face of the earth. Therefore, to overtake the United States is not only possible, but absolutely necessary and obligatory. If we don’t, the Chinese nation will be letting the nations of the world down and we will not be making much of a contribution to mankind.

As William Callahan explains in his short intellectual history of Mao’s speech–“Surpass“, a chapter in the 2019 anthology Afterlives of Chinese Communism–Mao was here making an early expression of the radical ideas that would in 1958 become the Great Leap Forward. Although more cautious planners in the party criticized Mao for promoting a “rash advance” that ignored social and economic realities, Mao would ultimately be able to prevail and implement his vision of rapid development through mass political campaigns, with disastrous results.

What’s interesting is that the tragedy of the Great Leap Forward and the mass famine that followed did not completely discredit Mao’s vision of surpassing the US. According to Callahan, the 1956 speech was left alone for decades, but enjoyed something of a revival among nationalist intellectuals in the 2000s. China’s rapid economic growth had made it seem plausible that it would eventually become a larger economy than the US, and some thinkers appreciated that Mao had early on “dared to dream” of China as the world’s top power. Here are a couple of examples:

Mao is heroic for [military intellectual Colonel] Liu [Mingfu] because he dared to craft a grand plan to surpass America, stating again that beating the US would be China’s great contribution to humanity. Liu is fascinated by the Great Leap Forward, seeing the outrageous ambition of this Maoist mass movement as the key to China’s success in the twenty-first century. …

[Economist] Hu Angang also quotes the “Strengthen Party Unity” speech at length to argue that Mao and the speech are important because they created “the strategic concept of catching up to, and then surpassing the US.” He elaborates on Mao’s materialist quantitative way of measuring power and status, quoting him to explain that because of its large territory, large population, and superior socialist system, China is the only country in the world that is capable of catching up to and surpassing the US.

The ideas of such strong-state nationalists have been quite influential over the past decade or so (see my earlier post on Who won the battle of ideas in China?), and Xi Jinping himself is reportedly quite focused on the economic competition with the US. What is interesting is that the government, for all its anti-American rhetoric, consistently denies that it cares about overtaking the US. Here, for instance, is foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying from May 2021:

China’s strategic intent has been open and transparent. We never aim to overtake the US. Instead, our goal is to constantly improve and go beyond ourselves, make sure that Chinese people can live a better life, and that China will contribute more to world peace and development through its own development.

A more recent example came from deputy foreign minister Le Yucheng in a speech on China’s diplomacy in January 2022 (given at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, the think tank run by Wang Wen, the professor quoted above). While overall rather aggressive in tone, he reserved his strongest criticism for US rhetoric about “extreme competition” with China. And in other comments at the event, he disavowed any interest in surpassing the US economically:

Exceeding the US in GDP–we are not interested in it, and this is not what we are going after. To meet the people’s desire for a better life, this is what the Communist Party of China aims for.

These kind of statements remind me of the old journalistic adage to “believe nothing until it has been officially denied.” Of course the Chinese government is eagerly looking forward to becoming the world’s largest economy, and it’s clear that lots of people in the vast quasi-official apparatus surrounding the government think and talk about this eventuality all the time.

But someone has clearly decided that it is best not to say these things too directly. Part of the reason may have to do with the checkered intellectual history of the “surpassing America” meme and its association with Maoist radicalism, which has never been widely popular domestically. And part of the reason is probably that some Chinese politicians have realized it does not actually display great self-confidence to obsess about your country’s standing relative to other countries.

China’s housing crisis is an institutional crisis

There’s a tendency among economic and financial analysts to treat all housing crises as essentially the same. Housing is a long-lived asset purchased with leverage, therefore it’s not surprising to see a common pattern of a buildup of leverage leading to higher prices leading to excess construction, which at some gets out of hand and then is followed by collapsing prices, construction and leverage. Yet the details of housing markets do matter, and vary quite a lot between countries. As with Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families, every housing crisis is a bit different and exposes a different set of institutional flaws.

The housing crisis that China is now experiencing centers on its peculiar institutions for selling housing before it is built. Housing sales are plunging, not precisely because households can’t get mortgages or fear falling prices, but because they no longer trust that developers will actually complete and deliver housing bought in advance. There is good reason for that, as some of the nation’s largest developers have become so financially stressed that they have stopped construction on projects, including those that have already been paid for. Households that own units in the affected projects have tried to draw attention to their plight with online protests and threats to stop paying their mortgages.

It is a bit complicated to explain how this extraordinary sequence of events happened, but I have not yet seen a better explanation of the issues in English than in this piece from Caixin, which is worth quoting at length:

Although developers in many countries are allowed to sell homes before they finish building them, the practice in China is special in two ways.

First, homebuyers have to pay in full when they decide to buy. Usually, they produce a downpayment for a mortgage and the bank covers the rest. But in other countries like the UK, buyers of presale homes only need to come up with a deposit to reserve a property. They don’t need to pay off a mortgage until their homes are delivered. This full-payment requirement has helped developers raise cash quickly.

Second, until recently, Chinese developers had been allowed to use the bulk of their presale revenue for whatever they wanted. Although China has laws and regulations requiring developers to set aside enough money to finish construction on their housing projects, local governments and banks had allowed them to sidestep some of the rules, including the requirement that presale funds must be deposited into government-supervised escrow accounts. Instead, a vast amount of presale funds ended up in developers’ own accounts.

It didn’t really matter that developers hadn’t socked away as much money in escrow as they were supposed to. They were still able to finish their projects because they could always get their hands on more money, either through loans from banks and trust companies and issuing bonds, or by starting new projects. New homes were usually easy to sell. But when this changed, and it became harder to get financing and sell new homes, the business model fell apart.

The two issues here are that 1) China’s system for financing the construction of new housing put an unusual amount of risk onto households, 2) the legal safeguards in place to protect households from those risks were in practice routinely ignored. A recent post by Ren Zeping, a celebrity economist who used to work for China Evergrande, the giant developer whose troubles precipitated the current crisis, explains more of the background to both issues. Why does China have such a peculiar system?

The simple story is that the advance sale of commercial housing originated from Hong Kong, as a way for developers to put on leverage. In the mainland, the 1998 housing reform borrowed from Hong Kong’s experience and introduced the presales system due to the shortage of commercial housing and the shortage of funds at developers. In fact, a presales system currently exists in many countries around the world.

But here is the important point! Developed countries generally have very strict regulatory safeguards. Developers can start selling only after the project has been approved by the government, and buyers do not, as in China, pay the full amount of the purchase price at once with a bank loan after paying a deposit, but pay in installments according to the developer’s construction progress before delivery is completed. Therefore, the presales system requires strict supervision of funds with installment payments and penalties for default as safeguards.

The first cause of the current loss of faith in China’s housing institutions is thus that those institutions were poorly designed at the outset. In the early stages of the creation of a commercial housing market, when the priority was financing new construction to replace the dilapidated Maoist-era housing stock, it probably made sense to prioritize the interests of developers over those of urban households. That initial decision, however, created a path dependency, so that developers were permitted to keep transferring risk to households long after there was a reasonable justification for it.

The second cause, as the Caixin article clearly demonstrates, is the failure to enforce the rules that actually existed. When homebuyers paid in full for a housing unit that they would not take possession of for years, their interests were supposed to be protected by requirements to use those funds to actually complete the project. It was an open secret in the industry that these requirements were not enforced. Caixin quotes an executive at a property developer saying they could actually do whatever they wanted with 90% of the presales revenue they received.

Ren Zeping describes a couple of ways in which developers could get access to the funds. The property developer and the contractor could collude, with the contractor requesting more money for construction than was actually needed, and then sending the excess to the developer (which could then use it to start more projects). Or the developer could convince the local government and the bank that are supervising the funds to approve the release of money from the account, for instance by exaggerating the actual progress on construction.

There are undoubtedly many other such dodges and schemes. But the general point is that the institutions that were supposed to be protecting the interests of Chinese households in the housing market did not, and instead were corrupted by developers. It’s no wonder people are protesting. The authorities who were tasked ensuring developers met their obligations to households failed to do so until it was far too late (local governments have reportedly tightened supervision of presales funds over the past year). The current housing crisis is thus not simply a failure of technical regulation, but also a failure of ethics and the rule of law. Proposals for institutional fixes will have to reckon with this demonstrated difficulty in ensuring even-handed enforcement of rules around real estate, an area where corporate and local government interests are so strong.

The strange case of China’s self-employment statistics

It is a well-known habit of Chinese government officials to pepper their public remarks with statistics. Very occasionally, this habit leads to the disclosure of some new information. At a press conference early this year, a deputy director of the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), which among other responsibilities handles the legal registration of businesses, waxed enthusiastic about the rapid growth in small businesses–specifically getihu, meaning individual businesses or sole proprietorships. In the process, he dropped some big numbers:

The Party Central Committee and the State Council attach great importance to the development of individual businesses. By the end of 2021, the number of registered individual businesses nationwide had reached 103 million, accounting for two-thirds of the total number of market entities. Passing 100 million is a historic breakthrough. Among them, 90% are concentrated in the service industry, mainly in wholesale and retail, accommodation and catering and residential services.

According to a survey, the average number of people employed by individual businesses is 2.68 people. Based on this survey, it is estimated that individual businesses nationwide provide employment for 276 million people in our country. This is very impressive.

The last two figures cited by Pu Chun are indeed very impressive: 276 million people is 37% of the nationwide employed population, an extraordinary figure. Employment by sole proprietorships, which basically means self-employment, is the most internationally comparable way of measuring informal employment. It is, for instance, the measure adopted in a recent World Bank report, The Long Shadow of Informality, which collates and compares worldwide data on the informal economy. If the SAMR figures are correct, they would indicate that self-employment and thus informal employment in China are much more prevalent than previously thought.

Prior to SAMR’s announcement, the government had not published a figure for the number of people employed by sole proprietorships for the past two years. The last published estimate by the National Bureau of Statistics was that sole proprietorships employed 177 million people as of 2019, equivalent to 23.4% of the employed population. As SAMR reported 83 million registered getihu that year, those figures imply that sole proprietorships employ an average of 2.14 people each. The most accurate estimate is probably from the 2018 economic census, a massive effort to enumerate all businesses in China conducted every five years, which counted 149 million people employed by getihu, or 21.2% of the workforce; the census figure of 63 million getihu works out to an average of 2.37 people each.

The SAMR survey cited by Pu Chun, about which no other information was disclosed, therefore implies that either roughly 100 million people moved from formal employment to self-employment in two years; or that all previous estimates of self-employment had somehow missed around 100 million people and that SAMR, an agency with no previous experience in collating employment statistics, had gotten it right. Neither of these possibilities is very likely.

SAMR itself holds the administrative records for business registrations, so there is no reason to doubt its count of the number of sole proprietorships. But its survey showing average employment of 2.68 people, 25% more than the historical data, is hard to believe. Given the recent increase in gig workers such as delivery drivers, many of whom are independent contractors registered as sole proprietorships, it’s more likely that the average number of employees per getihu is falling not rising. China’s 103 million sole proprietorships do probably employ well over 200 million people, but the 276 million figure is implausible.

What is somewhat mysterious is why SAMR officials would wish to exaggerate the extent of self-employment in China in this way. A high degree of self-employment is usually considered a sign of a less developed economy; to quote the World Bank report, “countries with larger informal sectors have lower per capita incomes, greater poverty, less developed financial sectors, and weaker growth in output, investment, and productivity.” The World Bank uses the economic census figure of 21.2% of China’s workforce being self-employed; that puts China right along the trend line of a cross-country comparison (see the chart below reproduced from the report). If instead 37% of China’s workforce is self-employed, as SAMR effectively claims, then China would actually be an international outlier with an unusually high level of informality for its level of income. Having a very high level of self-employment doesn’t actually make China look better in a global context.

The best explanation is domestic political incentives. Over the past several years, Premier Li Keqiang has waged a campaign to improve the environment for small businesses, and he never misses a chance to talk about how important they are to the Chinese economy. Li has also implemented several measures that have lowered the costs and simplified the procedure for registering businesses. Their most dramatic effect has been in new registrations of getihu, which have surged to 9-10 million per year from 5-6 million previously (see my previous post, What’s behind China’s boom in company formation?).

Since SAMR, as the agency in charge of business registrations, can take credit for this increase, it has some incentive to claim that its efforts are benefiting the economy by creating jobs. As the National Bureau of Statistics has, for whatever reason, stopped publishing the standard data on self-employment, SAMR has an open field to put its own numbers out there. The size of self-employment has thus become a figure by which SAMR can advertise its administrative accomplishments rather than an objective tool for analyzing the structure of the labor market.

It’s a pity that the it is becoming harder to understand the evolution of China’s labor market, as the changes in recent years have been dramatic. The rise in self-employment is part of a trend of polarization: there has been relatively low growth in high-paying manufacturing and service jobs and lots of growth in worse-paid labor-intensive service jobs. The key text documenting this shift is an open-access paper by Scott Rozelle and several co-authors: “Moving Beyond Lewis: Employment and Wage Trends in China’s High- and Low-Skilled Industries and the Emergence of an Era of Polarization,” much of which is also summarized in a useful CSIS briefing.

Even if the share of self-employment is not as high as SAMR claims, it has still been rising over time. Based on available data, I estimate it was about 29% in 2021, up sharply from just 17% in 2016; however, there’s a lot of uncertainty about this estimate because much of the recent surge in registered sole proprietorships could be an administrative rather than real phenomenon. Nonetheless, the trend is clearly the opposite of what one would normally expect to happen as China, already an upper-middle-income country, gets closer to high-income status.

Robots in Chinese literature circa 1902

The concept of the “robot,” a mechanical replacement for a human worker, seems to have been one of those things that was just in the air at the turn of the twentieth century, across the world. As is now well known, the English word was coined by the Czech writer Karel Capek (who credited his brother Josef for the inspiration, from the Czech word robota, forced labor). In the interesting short article, “Techno-Utopias And Robots In China’s Past Futures” in the new, free anthology Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour, Craig A. Smith details the early history of robots in Chinese literature, which is not completely unlike the Western science fiction of the day. Here are some excerpts:

The idea of animated or mechanical humanoid servants and labourers appeared in classical Chinese texts. Mozi, a utilitarian philosopher active in the fifth century BCE, even created mechanical birds and beasts, and is now the namesake of a technology company. However, the concept of a ‘machine-man’ (机器人, the modern Chinese word for robot) only made its way from elite texts into the popular imagination towards the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Around the turn of the century, the entire world became fascinated with the idea of humanoid automatons and their potential for labour. The most memorable example of this in the West is the Tin Woodman from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), a depressed cyborg lumberjack yearning for a heart. Chinese fiction was in step and introduced labour automatons but with decidedly Chinese characteristics. In 1905 and 1906, the newspaper Southern News serialised a lengthy novel by Wu Jianren entitled The New Story of the Stone (新石头记).

Although other Chinese science fiction writers penned stories with automatons at the time, Wu’s novel was a wonderland, its plot following Jia Baoyu, the protagonist of the eighteenth-century Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), China’s most famous novel, into a twentieth-century technological utopia. Passing through a technological device called a ‘civilisation mirror’ (文明镜), Jia enters this utopia and is immediately served tea by a talking automaton ‘boy’ servant. The journey then proceeds through a melange of advanced technologies, including flying machines and submarines.

It might have been around this time that Kang Youwei wrote the Book of Great Unity (大同书). The complete volume did not appear in regular print until 1935, eight years after his death, leading to controversy and numerous studies on the dating of the text. Tang Zhijun’s extensive research has shown that Kang most likely finished his manuscript in 1902, a finding corroborated by Wang Hui.

Building on a few short chapters from [the Confucian classic] The Book of Rites (礼记), and contextualising these ideas within the modern reality of nation-states and new political economies, Kang envisioned a future world with no suffering. He saw robots playing an important role in his Confucian utopia, yet his position as a member of the literati class shaped his understanding of how robots would bring an end to the traditional hierarchies: ‘There will be no slaves or servants, but their functions will be performed by machines, shaped like birds and beasts.’

Kang imagined that ‘in the time of the Great Peace, there will be no suffering. Labourers will only find enjoyment.’ This will be possible because they will only put their skills to use in creating works of
art, as the heavy lifting will all be done by robots. Like H.G. Wells, Kang saw technological advancements bringing an end to toil and opening the door to universal leisure: ‘One will order by telephone, and food will be conveyed by mechanical devices—possibly a table will rise up from the kitchen below, through a hole in the floor. On the four walls will be lifelike, “protruding paintings”.’

This great trust in the emancipatory potential of science continued throughout the twentieth century, and revolutionaries, including Mao Zedong in his youth, found Kang’s work inspirational. However, largely
due to his promotion of constitutional monarchy, Kang is now remembered as a conservative opponent of revolution.

What’s unprecedented about China

I’ve been struck recently by how often Western observers are describing China’s current political-economic-social model as unprecedented. The first example comes from the eminent economic historian Joel Mokyr, in a very good interview with Allison Schrager. Although China is not the main topic of their discussion, she does ask him this question: “Do you think the culture they have now is conducive to innovation?”:

That is a really hard question and I go back and forth on it. But my sense . . . I was in China about 12 years ago and I taught a long course in Shanghai at Fudan, and at that time I actually would’ve answered that they could. I would’ve been very bullish about China. It was before the authoritarian crackdown of Xi Jinping, and I become more skeptical about China because I actually think that a society that penalizes people for thinking in ways that are not convenient to the government, those societies in the end will not be nearly as creative as societies in which there’s some freedom of thought in which the government basically shrugs and takes an agnostic view, and you can say and think whatever you want. If the market for ideas accepts your idea, good. If they don’t, that’s your problem, and we’re not going to put you in jail for saying things to annoy us.

Now, that wasn’t the case in Stalin’s Russia or in Brezhnev’s Russia for that, and as a result, they fell behind radically behind the West in this 1970s, 1980s, and eventually their system collapsed. What China is trying to do is to have it both ways, to let people think relatively free about things that are technical and don’t matter, and suppress people who come up with social-political ideas, which they don’t like. And whether that model actually works, I am doubtful about, but the truth is we haven’t actually tried anything like that in human history. It has nothing really to go by.

I mean, in Stalin’s Russia it wasn’t just social and political ideas were suppressed, they actually took an active interest in science, and they basically decided what science was good, what science was bad. The same was true for a shorter time, with similar results, of Hitler’s Germany. They suppressed large amounts of physics because it was Jewish science. I mean, if you start thinking like that you are going to fall behind.

The economist Chang-Tai Hsieh takes a different angle, in a very interesting short piece called “Two Strong Hands: China’s Vision for the Private Sector” that analyzes the “the political foundation for China’s support of the private sector” (there is also a video presentation on the themes of the article that is worth watching). In it he tries to explain the apparent contradiction between the government’s crackdown on large companies and its support for small ones:

The Party has targeted large private firms, not because of a desire to return to Mao’s socialist economic vision, but due to fear that their growing power threatens Party control. At the same time, there is a widespread recognition that without a vibrant private sector, the economy will wither and the Party cannot survive. The result is what I call a strategy of using “two strong hands”: The first involves eliminating all threats to the Party’s control, while the second lends support to private firms that serve its interests by delivering growth, jobs and innovation — without becoming too powerful.

The default view of Chinese economic reformers is that the ‘two strong hands’ strategy will not work long-term, because total Party control will eventually undermine the market economy. Smaller companies might stop investing to grow, for fear of becoming ‘too big’ and hence finding themselves in the Party’s firing line. In this view, the ‘two strong hands’ are thus fundamentally incompatible.

The default view of Western political scientists is similar, albeit coming from a different angle. They would argue that the ‘two strong hands’ will come into conflict with each other, as millions of entrepreneurs and a rising middle class will eventually threaten the Party’s control of the political sphere.

Whether or not the ‘two strong hands’ can co-exist successfully is ultimately an empirical question. If the Chinese economy can maintain its private-sector driven growth momentum while the Party consolidates its power, the strategy will be judged a success. The key unknown is whether the Party’s efforts to support its favored parts of the private sector can spur enough growth to outweigh the negative effects of its crackdown on other, less favored areas. How much is lost if entrepreneurs know that it could be dangerous to be the next Alibaba, and how much is gained by the creation of millions of new small firms? Can a private sector of many “million-dollar companies” drive an economy with fewer “billion-dollar companies”?

What’s clear is that this model has never been seen before: a market economy with a large private sector under the control of the Communist Party. China has returned to a Maoist model of political control, but not the Maoist economic model of central planning and reliance on state-owned firms.

Both of these interventions are useful in clarifying points of tension in China’s current approach: can the government control political discourse without dampening scientific discourse? can the government limit the power of large firms without harming incentives for entrepreneurship? These are indeed empirical questions that cannot be answered a priori, although it’s clear where the sympathies of both authors lie.

Yet I can’t imagine that calling their strategy “unprecedented” would be received as a criticism by China’s Communist Party leaders, who since their abandonment of the Stalinist and Maoist models have never claimed to be following a predetermined blueprint. They have always said they are exploring their way to a new development strategy based on China’s actual conditions. And of course, similar questions were raised in earlier decades about the attempt to combine socialism with market economics; no one less than Janos Kornai thought their halfway house was inherently unstable and would soon collapse. Chinese officials are no strangers to the simultaneous pursuit of apparently conflicting ideals.

State capacity and the income tax

State capacity is a difficult concept to make concrete: a government’s ability to do stuff is obviously important, but how to tell if it is high or low? As a useful overview over at the Broadstreet blog shows, the most common way to measure state capacity in general is to measure fiscal capacity: the government’s ability to extract revenue from the economy. This makes sense historically, as the growth over the last few centuries of governments’ ability to do things like wage wars and provide social benefits went hand-in-hand with the development of tax systems and debt markets.

For the 20th century onward, the authors suggest a more precise metric: “To measure the fiscal capacity of the modern state, we use the share of income tax revenue in total tax revenue, as the collection of the income tax calls for high administrative capacity to ensure compliance.” This is an interesting choice, as on this measure China is a real edge case. Taking a quick look at the OECD Global Revenue Statistics Database, which covers over 100 nations, here is a list of the dozen countries with the lowest share of individual income tax revenue (for China only a 2019 figure is available, the others are the average of 2015-19):

CountryIndividual income tax,
share of tax revenue
Côte d’Ivoire0.3%
Bolivia0.8%
Paraguay1.7%
Antigua and Barbuda1.8%
Guatemala3.4%
China4.8%
Costa Rica5.7%
Colombia6.2%
Nicaragua6.3%
Togo7.0%
Cameroon7.0%
Mali7.3%
Source: OECD Global Revenue Statistics Database

A measure of state capacity on which China underperforms Nicaragua and Mali is probably a measure that is not capturing some important dimensions of actual state capacity. To take just some of the most obvious physical manifestations of administrative and technical ability, the governments of the other countries on this list are not operating their own rovers on Mars, or managing massive numbers of infrastructure construction projects both domestically and across borders. And whatever you think of China’s zero-Covid policies, it is unquestionable that local governments are displaying extraordinary logistical capabilities in organizing the mass testing of millions of people on short notice. The common claim that these policies demonstrate “China’s strong capacity for resource mobilization” is certainly correct (whether resources are being mobilized in the best way is another question).

Why does this measure get China wrong? To some extent, the focus on income taxes overly privileges a particular set of institutions as representing capacity. The actual structure of taxation reflects more than just administrative ability: which taxes are levied is a political decision. In recent decades, China’s government has consistently made the political decision to exempt most of the lower classes from income taxes, and to tolerate plenty of tax evasion by the upper classes.

It would indeed be difficult for China to build the administrative systems to levy a more broad-based income tax, but probably not impossible. China has, for instance, successfully administered a broad-based value-added tax for more than two decades. If you were to rank countries instead by the share of value-added taxes in total taxation, then China’s share of 30.2% would put it comfortably above the OECD average of 20.3% (and the US, of course, would be at the bottom with zero, as it has consistently made the political decision not to levy a VAT).

Nonetheless, there is still some useful information in the fact that China is an outlier in terms of this particular measure of state capacity. It suggests that the nature of China’s state capacity is different from that of your common or garden-variety Western social welfare state. The Chinese government’s ability to extract and mobilize resources does not work primarily through formal fiscal channels. It is well known that off-budget instruments like local-government land sales and the operations of state-owned enterprises are extremely important in the economy.

More broadly, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Chinese state are tied up with its peculiar institutional structure and political heritage. China is a Leninist party-state that penetrates the private sector and civil society, operates more through political directives than formal legal instruments, and regularly undertakes mobilizational campaigns to achieve society-wide transformation. The capacity of its Leninist institutions is hard to measure precisely because they often hide behind conventional state forms, but is no less real for that.