The Coasian argument for duplicate investment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Xi Jinping thinks about development economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The afterlife of Marx’s footnote on Chinese currency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statue of Wang Maoyin in his ancestral village in Anhui

A very fine reallocation of resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who deserves the Nobel for China’s economic development?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xue Muqiao

Rawski on the costs built in to China’s system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Housing and the Chinese middle class

I have thought for a while that China’s privatization of urban housing is one of the most important and least understood events in its modern economic history. The entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 has been exhaustively studied and its effects are still being vigorously debated today. The downsizing of state-owned enterprises in the late 1990s has also been repeatedly dissected and analyzed.

Housing privatization, which like SOE reform had its high-water mark around 1998-2003, has received much less attention. Which is strange, because the launch of a private housing market not only created the Chinese business cycle as we know it–basically all of China’s booms and busts over the past two decades have been driven by housing–but created the major source of private household wealth. So it seems obvious to me that housing reform deserves a comprehensive economic and social history, which I have not yet seen.

I dug into Luigi Tomba’s 2014 book The Government Next Door: Neighborhood Politics in Urban China in hopes of getting closer to that. He seemed to immediately grasp the central role of housing in the transformation of urban Chinese from socialist functionaries to a prosperous bourgeoisie. In the introduction he recalls how his initial fieldwork in Beijing in the early 2000s looking for a “middle class,” he found that

Most of the young people I was talking to did not fit the image of the wealthy entrepreneurs that dominate the mainstream portrait of a glamorous Chinese middle class often presented by the international media. Rather, they seemed to be, in large part, professionals and public employees whose housing careers often owed much to their position “within the system” of public employment.

That initial insight led Tomba to start to piece together the complicated story of just who got housing and how. Still, this book is not a complete account of housing reform, nor does it claim to be. Only one chapter of his book is really about housing reform, and most of the rest is too heavy on political-science jargon and too light on detailed history for my taste. But it does contain some important insights on how housing works in China, particularly its political implications:

Housing privatization, which began with a massive transfer of housing stock from public to private hands in the 1980s and 1990s, has provided an opportunity to engineer a middle class systematically, through selective incentives and subsidization. It also built on the converging interests of local governments and developers in selling and developing their land, which remains the main source of income for urban governments to balance their budgets and finance infrastructural projects. These policies have inevitably favored those who had already been privileged by the unequal redistribution of housing in the socialist period because of their employment in the public sector. The resulting boost for a property-holding middle class went therefore mostly toward employees and families actively employed in the public sector, who became the first large cohort of Chinese homeowners during the housing reform of the late 1990s.

The key point here is that housing privatization replicated and amplified, rather than overturning, the pattern of inequality inherited from the planned economy. In that system, there was little inequality in wages or money income, but there was greater inequality in living standards, because housing and consumer goods were preferentially allocated to those with higher political status. The combination of SOE downsizing and housing privatization did remove some socialist foundations, particularly the ironclad guarantee of a job and housing for urban residents. But reform replaced them with something that would prove much more valuable over the longer term: privileged access to assets that were rapidly appreciating in value. So rather than weakening political support for the Chinese government, housing reform bolstered and broadened it:

China’s long-term processes of privatization and reform have, in fact, worked to reinforce, rather than reduce, the legitimacy of the authoritarian rulers, as the state and its policies are perceived by the weakest groups as the last line of defense against the deregulation of the market and by the middle classes as the guarantors of newly acquired “rights.” …

It is increasingly becoming clear that the political apparatus of the socialist hierarchical state is still in place; after more than three decades of marketization, there is little sign of the system that would successfully supplant it. Its role in defining the practices of power is still overwhelming, although perhaps more fragmented and not felt as directly by some of its citizens as in the years of mass campaigns and class struggle.

So China’s housing privatization, in addition to being one of the largest transfers of wealth in history, may also have been one of the most successful political strategies.

What triggered the China backlash?

Richard McGregor’s new short book Xi Jinping: The Backlash is a useful summary of how much of the world’s view of China has changed over the last few years, and not for the better. The catalog of the things that have upset foreigners dealing with China is now quite a long one:

The construction, and then militarisation, of islands in the South China Sea from 2013 galvanised hawks in Washington and allies in the region, not least because of its sheer audacity and scale. Foreign businesses, once advocates of engagement with Beijing to open the Chinese market, became disillusioned when they saw their access truncated. The seemingly ceaseless theft of trade secrets and technology hardened cynicism in governments and companies alike. The detention of up to a million Uighurs in re-education camps in Xinjiang in the name of anti-terror from 2017 highlighted human rights abuses in a way the jailing of individual dissidents never could.

And that is even without going into the somewhat different dynamics of the developing world’s backlash against China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Given all this, it may be a fool’s errand to try to identify any single trigger for the world’s reaction to a more assertive China. It is overdetermined, in the social science jargon, with many causes all pushing in the same direction. Nonetheless I very much agree with McGregor’s assertion that:

If there is a period that crystallised perceptions of Xi, and his world view and ambitions, that moment was in late 2017 and early 2018 when foreigners, and many Chinese as well, finally started to take him at his word. Xi was reconfirmed as leader of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2017 and then abolished term limits on his presidency in March 2018, removing any obstacles to his remaining in power in perpetuity. … In one decision, Xi confirmed his critics’ view that he was an unrepentant autocrat willing to take China backwards in the service of his agenda.

This jibes with my own observation of the dramatic shift in the consensus of the US China-watching community (and here is a similar observation from someone with more foreign-policy expertise than me) . As a few people have pointed out, what has really changed over the last couple of years is not the views of the China hawks–it is the views of the China doves. People who had long felt that China, was moving, albeit imperfectly, in a more positive direction over the long term, began to concede that, in fact no, China was not really moving in the right direction anymore. Xi’s decision to abolish term limits helped convince the waverers and solidified this trend. It was a move that was almost perfectly indefensible. After all, abolishing term limits is something only tinpot dictators of third-world countries do.

China clearly did not anticipate the blanket foreign-media coverage and criticism of the move, but its explanations only highlighted how poorly officials understood the perceptions of their system abroad. Chinese official media justified the removal of term limits as being a minor administrative adjustment to bring the term limit for the presidency in line with the other two offices Xi holds (Party general secretary and Central Military Commission chairman), neither of which have term limits. The official argument is that it’s important for the leader in China’s system to hold all three offices (something Jiang Zemin, the first to do so, had also said). What this argument actually implies is that Xi had already decided to stay for a third term as general secretary, and that the rules had to accommodate this decision by not forcing him to give up the state presidency.

Given the consequences that have since flowed from it, Xi’s decision on term limits must go down as one of the greatest geopolitical own-goals of all time. So I was a little disappointed that McGregor, author of the classic and still-relevant The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, did not dig deeper into the background of this decision. Not that anyone in the Chinese system would have any incentive to talk to him about it. The full story of that fateful moment in early 2018 is likely to emerge only after Xi eventually passes from the scene.

Does China have an ideological “red line”?

Not so long ago, the conventional wisdom in the US was that Chinese leaders were essentially hardcore pragmatists, capitalists in all but name, who would do whatever they needed to do to keep the economy growing and unrest contained. Now it seems that the pendulum has swung the other way, and the Chinese government under Xi Jinping is often portrayed as a hyper-politicized system locked in to an ossified Communist ideology. Those who hold this view do not expect much out of the US-China trade negotiations, since they think Chinese officials are so ideologically committed to their current system that they cannot accept any changes.

It would indeed be a mistake to deny the important role of ideology in China’s socialist system. But the ideology that the Communist Party is promoting these days is curiously content-free when compared to the demands of the original early 20th-century socialists. Having recently spent some time reading a few of the latest ideological tracts, I can report that they contain nothing about class struggle. Indeed they contain almost no statements at all about the right and proper way to organize a society or manage an economy–quite strange since such demands were what socialist ideology was originally all about.

The ideology of socialism that the Communist Party promotes today has one key principle: that the Communist Party must be in charge of China. As Xi Jinping himself said, in a phrase that has been endlessly repeated:

The leadership of the Communist Party of China is not only the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics, but also the greatest advantage of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.

Why does the Communist Party get to be in charge? Because it always makes the right decisions. Here is how Wu Degang, of the Central Research Institute of Party History and Literature, expressed it in a piece in the People’s Daily in April:

The Communist Party of China thoroughly grasps the laws of a ruling Communist Party, the laws of building socialism and the laws of human social development, so that its leadership always follows objective laws, reflects the wishes of the people and promotes practical development. This is the fundamental reason why the socialist system with Chinese characteristics has great vitality and superiority. …

Practice is the only criterion for testing truth…Whether it is in overcoming disastrous floods, or fighting SARS, or recovering from earthquakes; whether it is dealing with the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2008 international financial crisis or the current complicated international situation, the socialist system with Chinese characteristics has, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, fully demonstrated its superiority. Without the leadership of the Communist Party of China, China would not have withstood so many storms.

What’s interesting about this is that Wu does not tell us what the objective laws of human social development actually are, as a previous generation of socialists would have been only too eager to do. He believes that there are such objective laws, and that the Communist Party knows what they are. But it is not the people’s job to hold the Party to account for whether or not it acts in accordance with those laws, but rather to uphold the Party’s political leadership. Even as he insists that results have validated the Party’s rule, he enters into a kind of circular logic familiar from authoritarian systems: the Party leads because the Party’s decisions are correct, and we know those decisions are correct because the Party made them.

The ideology of the Communist Party is, mostly, that the Communist Party is always right. And indeed it would be hard to come up with a strict ideology that would logically encompass all of the twists and turns that China has gone through since 1949. The Party has both collectivized and decollectivized agriculture, and Party members must believe that both decisions were correct. The Party has both nationalized private firms and privatized state firms, and Party members have to support both decisions.

In fact, it’s a distinctive feature of recent Communist Party slogans that they emphasize the simultaneous pursuit of conflicting objectives: “unswervingly” developing state enterprises while “unswervingly” supporting the private sector, or strengthening the role of both market forces and the role of the government. There is no objective standard that people can bring to bear to know what is the right way to balance those conflicting objectives: they must simply obey political guidance from the top.

So I generally don’t see ideology as a real constraint on what policies China’s leaders can pursue, or on what kind of deal they can negotiate with the US. If Xi Jinping decides that X is good, then Communist Party ideology means that X is good and that Party members need to fall in line. China’s June white paper on the US-China trade declared that there are “red lines” beyond which China cannot go in the negotiations, but it did not say what those are. That’s because it is the Communist Party’s privilege to decide them.

Of course, none of this means that China’s leaders are likely to be willing to overhaul their economic policies just because the US asks them to. They like their system and they don’t see any real reason to change it. If anything, US pressure may just make them feel more strongly attached to it (see this previous post). My point is just that ideology in the contemporary Chinese system lacks a lot of specificity, and so is not really a constraint on the tactics the government can pursue at any given time.

Nor do I think that this tactical flexibility and ideological emptiness mean that China is no longer actually “socialist.” There is a lot of useless debate about the meaning of socialism these days, but I still hold to the classical definition of socialism from Janos Kornai, the great Hungarian scholar of socialist economics: “The primary attribute of the socialist system is that a Marxist-Leninist party exercises undivided power.” Xi Jinping could not have put it better himself.

Gu Mu, China’s champion of export discipline

The concept of “export discipline” is an important one in my understanding of the development of Asian economies, and the functioning of industrial policy more generally. The phrase, which I take from Joe Studwell’s 2013 book How Asia Works, describes a particular type of relationship between the government and business, one in which the government pushes business to make sure that its energy and investment are going into improving national productivity. Exporting does that by forcing companies to compete in global markets and meet global standards. Absent such discipline, businesses can easily turn into lazy monopolists, rent-seekers, or property speculators–activities that generate lots of profits for them but do not do much to raise the nation’s living standards (see my last post on the topic).

Of course, this is easy to say in the abstract, but how is export discipline actually applied in real-life politics and business? Studwell’s book has some good stories about this, for instance the one about how South Korean president Park Chung Hee in 1961 put the nation’s leading businessmen in jail until they agreed to do what he wanted: develop heavy industry and obtain foreign technology.

The official history of China’s economic reforms is rather more sanitized, but the memoirs of Gu Mu (谷牧), who was vice premier in the 1980s and in charge of foreign trade, do help show how export discipline was applied in the Communist bureaucratic system (see this post for some more interesting tidbits from Gu’s memoir).

China initially decided to open up to foreign trade through the famous Special Economic Zones: the coastal cities of Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, and Xiamen that were given dispensation from many of the stifling rules and procedures of the planned economy. And from the beginning there was some ambiguity about what the function of the SEZs would be, as Gu relates in his account of the March 1980 meeting that decided to create them (these and following quotes are from the official English translation of his memoir):

During the discussions, in light of the practice of starting the special zones, the comrades also considered that we should not only develop industry, but also commerce, tourism, real estate and other sectors. We should not only expand export trade, but also play multiple functions in the economic life of the whole country. So the term “special export zone” could hardly cover all of their functions and roles. Based on these discussions, I came up with the term “special economic zone,” which had a wider connotation and was endorsed by everyone.

In other words, the SEZs were originally general laboratories for economic reform, rather than solely being solely focused on exports (as an aside, it’s interesting that Gu takes credit for coining the term SEZ). And Gu relates how the deregulation in the SEZs allowed them to quickly become centers for smuggling, which attracted lots of criticism from conservative elements in the Party. While he is emphatic that Deng Xiaoping’s strategic justification for the SEZs was mainly to export and attract foreign technology, he also makes it clear that many people in the SEZs were reluctant to sign up to this vision.

From 1979 to the end of 1984, five special documents were issued by the Party Central Committee and the State Council on SEZs or containing content relevant to SEZs. For the orientation of the economy of SEZs, these documents repeatedly pointed out: “Priority should be given to the utilization of foreign capital,” “Priority should be given to conducting industrial productive projects,” “Products should be mainly for export,” “Great efforts should be directed to introducing advanced technology.” The basic intention was clear.

But some comrades who worked in Shenzhen SEZ and several experts and scholars had long held different opinions. They thought that the conditions were bad for Shenzhen to develop industry. Products for export ran against the investment goal of foreign businessmen, which was for their products to enter the Chinese market. Their proposal was to build Shenzhen into a financial, commercial, foreign trade and tourist center, and their cries became louder and louder.

Here is the impulse that export discipline has to counter: local bureaucrats and businesspeople want to make money in ways that are convenient to them, but that don’t build national productivity. Gu worked consistently against these arguments, and tried to stop Shenzhen from focusing so much on property development:

I agreed the SEZs should develop tertiary industry like finance, commerce, foreign trade and tourism. But priority should be given to industry, and related industries should be developed correspondingly to make them comprehensive export-oriented SEZs centered around industry. Without industry on a certain scale and level, their economic foundation was not solid, with no source of goods for export, or vehicles for the introduction and digestion of advanced technology, and other industries would not develop. … So this argument, which went against the policy of the Party Central Committee and the State Council, was inadvisable and unrealistic.

Since I perceived these problems, I wanted to hold a meeting to unify the understanding and action. … I talked about the positive situation of opening up in the country, about the new progress of SEZs, and also pointed out some problems that needed careful attention, including the overextended scale of capital construction, too fast increase of funds for consumption, and the gaining of easy money by taking advantage of the preferential policies. … I emphasized that SEZs should not be content with erecting big buildings; they should not be average industrial cities. They should become export-oriented special economic zones based principally on industry earning foreign exchange through export, so that their products could enter international markets and earn foreign exchange for the state. …

At the meeting I focused on guidance rather than criticism. But this was no easy problem to solve. The meeting was over, but there was no agreement on how to develop an export-oriented economy. Some SEZs still acted according to their own beliefs. In 1985, the scale of construction in Shenzhen was even bigger, with the plan increased by 40 percent over the actual scale of 1984. My opinions were dismissed, and little attention was paid to similar criticisms from others. … I realized that general talk would not solve the problem and we needed systematic work.

The bureaucratic maneuvering that followed is too detailed to quote in full, but basically Gu commissioned some expert reports that would back up his goal of an export-oriented economy, and sent some of his trusted cadres to Guangdong to convince working-level officials of the rightness of his views. The leadership team of the Shenzhen SEZ was also reshuffled, which presumably (though Gu does not say this directly) helped lessen resistance. He then organized a nationwide meeting, running from late December 1985 to early January 1986, of almost all the central and local government officials involved in SEZs, where his speech advocating for export-oriented SEZs achieved the backing of the top leadership. That ensured that the local officials got the message:

This meeting was new starting point for the SEZs to advance in a pioneering spirit. The SEZs unified their understanding and carried it out properly. … they stressed industrial production and a better range and quality of products; they made great efforts to open international markets and increase exports; they cleaned and reorganized companies and overcame disorder in product circulation. These measures were carried out swiftly and resolutely. In that year, Shenzhen cut 51 buildings of more than 18 stories from its capital construction planning. Its scale of capital construction was reduced by 30% from that of the previous year. Hundreds of substandard companies were removed or merged. This was a major shift in focus.

Gu Mu (2nd from right) in Shenzhen in 1980

After reading this account, it hard not to feel that the importance of effective bureaucratic battlers like Gu is probably underrated in recent Chinese history (and probably all history) relative to charismatic leaders like Deng Xiaoping. I also have to wonder who in the current Chinese leadership is serving as the champion of export discipline?