Zhou Tianyong says 100 million people have missed out on urbanization

Here is an interesting article from Zhou Tianyong, a well-known professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, that adds a fresh angle to the discussion over the effects of China’s hukou system. He argues that there is now a large group of people who have been prevented from urbanizing by hukou restrictions, and who realistically will never be able to urbanize in the future–thereby resulting in a permanent loss of income.

The piece is short and very clear, so without further ado here is my (slightly abridged) translation (Chinese original here):

A person has a natural life cycle, from birth to old age, from entering the workforce to retirement, from being able to adapt to the urban environment to being less able to adapt to the urban work and living environment in middle and old age. Thus in an individual’s life there is a fixed window of time when they can migrate to the city. If they cannot enter the city and become city people in that window, then they have missed out on urbanization. This is a phenomenon that occurs under China’s system, and needs to be carefully examined and analyzed to understand the transformation of China’s dual [urban-rural] structure.

In 2013, some economists put forward the view that urbanization will drive the rapid growth of China’s economy in the future. This is because because the level of urbanization in China was only 52.6% in 2012, while in developed countries urbanization has reached 75% or even 80%. The lag in China’s urbanization compared to developed countries is, in this view, actually a latecomer’s advantage. China’s urbanization rate can in the future increase by 1 percentage point every year, and become a strong driver of national economic growth. This is one of the arguments that some people use to argue that China’s economy can grow at more than 8% for the next 15 to 20 years. …

There is another point of view that China’s “floating population” of rural migrant workers face a lot of obstacles in urbanization. Many rural people are able to migrate to cities when they are young, but in the end they cannot bring their families with them to the city and cannot become city people. This group of people have missed out on urbanization because of the hukou system and control of migration: because cities do not provide education and other public services, or because they do not have any income from rural land while urban housing prices are too high.

How many of these people are there? The technique I use to calculate the number of people who have missed out on urbanization is based on the gap between potential urbanization (estimated based on the urbanization level in South Korea, Taiwan and other countries) and actual urbanization. I also consider that the potential urban population below the age of 50 still has the potential to urbanize. The formula is therefore the potential urban population minus the actual urban population times the share of the total population over the age of 50. The results of this calculation are shown in the chart [Y-axis unit is ten thousand persons]:



You can see that with the growth of the population, the population that has missed out on urbanization has also steadily risen, although the growth rate has slowed in recent years because of some relaxation of migration controls. In 2015 the population that has missed out on urbanization totaled 98.42 million—almost one hundred million people—or 7.16% of the population.

But urbanization does not wait for people. The high fertility rate and high population growth rate of the early period of industrialization have created a huge potential urban population, but many of them cannot enter the cities, or once they enter the cities they cannot become city people. Young people leave the village to work, and old people leave the city to return to the village. Those who cannot become city people at the right time of life end up becoming rural people who have missed out on urbanization.  …

And because of the decline in fertility and population growth at the later stages of industrialization, which is especially sharp in China because of its forced family planning policies, the proportion of people in rural areas who can still urbanize is falling. This is quietly lowering the rate at which the future rural population can urbanize.

Thus, in countries where there are obstacles to migration during the process of industrialization, the level of urbanization that can be achieved at the end of industrialization may be much lower than countries with free migration or that provide assistance for migration. With 7% of China’s population already having missed out on urbanization as of 2015, and this proportion set to gradually rise in coming years, it is impossible to reach 75% urbanization within 10 years.

The existence of a large group of people who have missed out on urbanization creates economic losses in three ways. First, an overly large labor force in agriculture results in relatively low productivity. These people could have higher productivity in the city, but in rural areas they can only do some basic agricultural work, which is a huge loss for the national economy. Second, the delay in urbanization results in a loss of consumer demand. Because rural migrant workers cannot easily urbanize, there is a big gap between their spending power and that of true urban residents. Third, people do not realize their potential to create and distribute wealth, which leads to a huge loss of national income. Much rural land is abandoned because it cannot be used for large-scale operations, houses are rundown and the woods empty because the land cannot be allocated by the market and re-purposed by investors. In fact rural land is becoming a zombie asset that cannot be re-allocated to other uses because of restrictions on private capital, resulting in a huge loss of potential output and value.

My guide to the debate raging over China’s Northeast rust belt

Over the past week or so, an impassioned debate has broken out over what should be done to help China’s struggling rust belt in the Northeast. Justin Yifu Lin, perhaps China’s most famous living economist, sparked the debate when his think tank released a long (400+ pages!) report proposing an industrial policy strategy for Jilin, one of the three Northeastern provinces. The report’s recommendations were seemingly innocuous–develop more light industry, tourism, and agriculture-related businesses–but they nonetheless attracted vociferous online criticism.

Why? The summaries in the English-language press (see the SCMP and Caixin) give the impression that it’s a debate over whether government policies should promote light industry, or something else. If that were the case, this would be a typical academic tempest in a teacup. In fact, a lot more is at stake: the debate over what to do about the Northeast (aka Dongbei, aka Manchuria) involves fundamental differences over how to understand Chinese economic history and the development trajectory of countries and regions really develop. The debate over how to help such struggling regions is also one where conventional Western economic wisdom has little to offer, so the field is wide open. After doing some reading on both sides, here’s my guide to the debate (warning: this is a long post).

Continue reading →

Is the Manchurian Recession over?

China’s provinces are reporting economic data for the first half of 2017, and the long-suffering northeastern provinces, where the recent economic downturn was most severe, are putting up some better numbers. The main exception is Liaoning, but this is because an anti-corruption investigation found that the province had inflated some statistics and forced them to be marked down–however the historical figures haven’t been revised so growth rates don’t make any sense right now. While Liaoning’s numbers look worse than the others, in reality it’s probably doing the same or better.


The downturn in the northeast prompted a national-level effort to boost growth in the region, so the pickup is getting a lot of attention. At least one article declaring the “worst is over” for the northeast has appeared in print, and this cautiously optimistic tone is common in official channels. Here is how, Sun Donghai, the director of the Anhui provincial Development Research Center, summarized the situation:

In the technology-intensive regions, represented by Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shanghai, economic growth is stable, and there is a lot of momentum for both upgrading traditional industry and developing new industries. … Regions heavily dependent on natural resources, such as the three northeastern provinces, Shanxi, and Hebei, are facing great pressure to transition, but developing new growth drivers will require a long time. At the same time, we can see some positive changes, some resource-dependent provinces have reversed the declining trend since 2013, and economic growth has bottomed out and recovered. Jilin’s GDP grew 5.9% [in the first quarter] for a stable start to the year: economic growth has returned to an appropriate range, and has started to move on a normal track.

A more in-depth view of official thinking comes from Fan Hengshan, a deputy secretary-general of the National Development and Reform Commission who has traveled frequently to the northeast. In May he gave a lengthy interview on the northeast to the China Economic Times. He starts out in the conventional way, attributing the improving indicators to the government’s supportive policies for the region, but also noting the recovery of commodity prices (more significant in my view):

The government’s implementation of the new round of the northeast revitalization strategy is now taking effect, objectively speaking it has provided an effective policy environment and systemic support for the stabilization of the northeastern economy. At the same time, the rollout of supply-side structural reform has had a clear impact on the internal dynamism of economic growth. Following the implementation of supply-side structural reform and the stabilization of international commodity prices, industries that are significant for the northeast, like oil, coal, and steel, gradually returned to stability. For resource-dependent and single-industry cities this alleviated the severe mismatch between fiscal revenues and expenditures.

While maintaining the requisite note of optimism, Fan’s discussion of the problems in the northeast’s economy focuses on deep-rooted structural issues that seem quite difficult to solve. Here are some excerpts (my translation):

The problems faced by the northeast are, on the surface, caused by a lack of external demand and weakness in investment. In fact, they are the manifestation of the institutional, systemic and structural problems of an old industrial base.

From the institutional perspective, the northeast region’s level of marketization is still insufficient compared with the developed eastern region. The decisive role of market mechanisms has not been fully developed, and efforts at economic development still have a pronounced administrative tone. The historical burdens of state-owned enterprises are heavy, their vitality is insufficient, and a modern system of enterprise operation and governance has not been completely established. The old problems of incentives and restraints for state-owned enterprises have not been completely eliminated. Development of the private sector is insufficient, and the spirit of entrepreneurship in society is weak. The northeast has a strong foundation in education and science, but these scientific resources cannot be effectively transformed into real activity.

In terms of economic and industrial structure, out of the three growth drivers of investment, exports and consumption, the northeast’s economy is excessively reliant on investment. The investment rate is too high and the efficiency of investment is relatively low, and this kind of growth model is not sustainable. The industrial structure is not adapted to market demand: the leading industries are mainly the investment-facing sectors of energy, raw materials and heavy equipment manufacturing, while new emerging industries are small and undeveloped. Many cities have undiversified industrial structures with only a single pillar industry or two interrelated industries. From the perspective of industrial organization, there are many gigantic enterprises but few small and medium-sized enterprises. A development model based on industrial clusters and the integration of large, medium and small enterprises has not yet formed.

It’s interesting that Fan talks about the northeast in the same way that many foreigners talk about China: the problem is obvious, their economy is too dependent on investment and state-owned enterprises are stifling the vitality of the private sector. It’s all relative I guess.

But the northeast has an additional burden: people are leaving in droves, and companies can’t get them to stay (see my previous post on the emerging demographic crisis in the northeast). Here is more from Fan:

Many enterprises and research institutions in the northeast have told me that in recent years it has gotten more difficult to attract and retain personnel. Some graduates of top universities choose to go elsewhere for jobs, and some local technical and management personnel also leave the northeast to seek better job opportunities.

The northeast still has a “big government, small market” environment, where local governments are still directly allocating resources and micromanaging. This kind of system is a constraint on the development of enterprises and people. Particularly in recent years companies in many traditionally strong industries and sectors have encountered difficulties, so the salary, benefits and career development opportunities they can offer are pretty limited compared to companies in the east. Objectively speaking, their ability to attract mid- to high-level staff has declined.

In addition to salary considerations, people are also increasingly looking at a city’s level of modernization, the convenience of its transport, and social, cultural, ecological and other “soft” environmental factors. It is worth noting that some local governments and businesspeople report that, because the northeast’s winter is cold and long, the low temperatures are increasingly becoming a reason for some people to choose not to stay in the northeast and work. This creates many challenges for high-tech enterprises in the northeast to attract talent, and some companies have no choice but to set up branch offices in the south in order to attract high-level staff.

This all rings true: the northeast  has a brutal climate and a closed economy where it is difficult to get ahead if you don’t have government connections or an SOE job. This is, in my experience, more or less what Chinese people from the northeast say about their home–it is no mystery why they leave.

So I would lean toward viewing the current recovery in the northeast as reflecting the recovery in commodity prices more than anything else–although if China’s government can succeed in keeping prices stable with its many interventions into commodity demand and supply (policies that go by the somewhat deceptive moniker of “supply-side reform”) that unquestionably will help these provinces.

More broadly, I think the current regional problems in the northeast are another reason to see China’s SOE reforms of the late 1990s and early 2000s as incomplete and only partially successful (see a previous post on this topic). The northeast felt the brunt of the layoffs of that era, but once the commodity boom evaporated so did many of the apparent improvements. Here is a nice piece of oral history that gives a worker’s-eye view of the trajectory of a major SOE in Heilongjiang:

It was with honor that a sprightly 19-year-old Wang Dianyu heeded the central government’s call and joined the ranks of China’s heavy industry workers. Almost 60 years later, his eyes still glow with the pride of having worked for one of his country’s largest state-owned factory groups: China First Heavy Industries (CFHI).

Founded soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, CFHI was a beacon of the country’s industrial ambition, churning out gigantic pieces of machinery both civilian and military from its base in Fularji, a district in Heilongjiang’s second-biggest city, Qiqihar. “We had a lot of catching up to do,” Wang tells Sixth Tone of China’s then-inferiority compared to the might of international rivals. “Heavy industry is the backbone of a country.”

Today, that backbone is buckling. Economic growth in the industrial northeast, once fondly known as “the Republic’s eldest son,” is slowing, and an era of overproduction for the region’s heavy industries has given way to rampant borrowing. For the 2016 fiscal year, CFHI reported losses of 5.73 billion yuan (around $850 million), compared with 2015’s loss of 1.8 billion yuan and 2014’s loss of 25.7 million yuan; it is now scrambling to pay back debt by selling off shares to its parent company, China First Heavy Industries Group Co. Ltd.

CFHI’s troubles were compounded in 2015 when its chairman, Wu Shengfu, died suddenly just weeks after the state’s anti-corruption watchdog launched an investigation into CFHI’s parent company. Some news outlets at the time quoted sources stating that he was found hanging in his office, a detail that was downplayed in later state media reports. The anti-graft investigation discovered a number of infractions, including mismanagement of state funding, violations of recruitment procedure, and “indifference toward Party principles.”

Ren Zhiqiang has an acerbic take on Xi Jinping’s urban planning

There’s been an extraordinary amount of hype about the government’s plan to build a new city southwest of Beijing; some are saying it could be China’s biggest public-works project ever. The plan for the Xiongan New Area was personally overseen by Xi Jinping himself, according to an official account, and it has been lauded as a qian nian da ji, or roughly a “great plan for the next millennium.”


Xi Jinping inspects the Xiongan New Area

Xiongan is the latest development in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei integration plan, a pet project of Xi’s that aims to develop the regions around the capital. The official line is that the creation of the new city will ease Beijing’s pollution and congestion problems by allowing some less essential facilities and functions to be relocated out of the capital. But the enormous propaganda blitz has not permitted much detailed discussion of the specific benefits and costs of these initiatives.

So this seems like a good moment to air some critical views, which are not being permitted much space domestically. The piece below was published by the outspoken property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang in August 2015, before Ren was censured for his public criticism of Xi Jinping’s policies. The article has been repeatedly deleted from Chinese internet sites, though it can still be found by searching for its title. Since the Xiongan announcement, the piece has been getting forwarded around again, and its argument is still relevant.

Here is my somewhat abridged translation:

Once again a new wave of construction is being prepared, in the name of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei integration and to support the development of the capital. It has really made everyone excited! But after reading these propaganda documents and summaries, I do not see there is anything that should make people happy.

China has shouted out the slogan of “urban-rural integration” before, but why was there no way to achieve such a goal? The root cause is that there was no way to break down the restrictions on free movement and migration in the hukou system. And this has produced a whole series of related problems.

In the planned economy era, population movements were restricted, and the people’s communes used the so-called “integration of government administration and economic management” to tie farmers to the land. After the reform of the household responsibility system and national identity cards, farmers could leave their land and go to the cities. But the hukou system did not allow them to change their identity as peasants. “Rural migrant workers” took the place of the working class. Social security, healthcare, education, housing, family–all are still linked to the land.

Whenever I see these slogans of “urban-rural integration” and “Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei integration” I think, if we cannot make human rights equal, and completely eliminate all vestiges of these differences [created by the hukou system], then how can we discuss integration? Can Hebei and Tianjin people equally share all the rights of Beijing hukou holders? Can they share Beijing’s benefits of education, health care, social security, employment and so on?

This so-called integration is nothing more than Beijing squeezing out the industries, businesses, and people that it doesn’t want, and arranging them in Hebei and Tianjin. In this way Beijing can still enjoy the goods and services they provide, but does not have to bear the burden they put on Beijing. The end result of this so-called integration is to dump a big burden on the surrounding areas, in order to ensure that Beijing can meet its goal of strictly controlling its population.

Even the purchase of housing in Tongzhou [a suburb of Beijing where some city government offices are being relocated] by people who have a Beijing hukou and pay taxes in Beijing has become a barrier that integration cannot cross. So how can the population of Hebei and Tianjin be integrated?

Urban density is the result of market competition, and also the result of a choice between urban and rural areas. Not to acknowledge the role of competition and choice, and to attempt to use the government’s administrative power to force integration, must result in failure.

Market competition necessarily leads to concentration of technology, resources, human capital and innovative capability; these resources will be matched with the most advantageous areas, where their returns are highest. Currently they are being concentrated in cities, especially large cities. No administrative power can change these flows and this concentration. Economic rules cannot be changed by decree.

Some people say the equalization of public services and public resources can solve this problem. Can public services really be equalized? Yes, they can. But this requires the whole society to have reached a relatively high level of economic development. Currently even developed countries like the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Japan cannot achieve this goal, so how can China in its current circumstances achieve it?

Let me ask a question: to punch someone with the most force, do you open your fingers, or close them into a fist? If we took those great professors who are concentrated in Peking University and Tsinghua University and “equalized” them by sending them to backward regions, would this raise or lower the overall level of education? If all of Beijing’s good doctors were “equalized” out into backward areas, would this improve the level of health and research capabilities?

Does the process of “integration” and “equalization” raise the efficiency of resources? Or is it just the use of [political] authority to redo the allocation of industries and human resources? And will the market agree?

When Tongzhou prevents people who do not have a local hukou from entering, can it develop talents on its own? It is hard to see how blocking talented people from moving in can benefit Tongzhou’s overall development. When Beijing strengthens these kind of restrictions in order to control its population, can it attract talented people? How can you know who can become a great entrepreneur or political leader?

When urban incomes are so far above rural incomes, when incomes in Beijing are so far above those in Hebei and Tianjin, how can people not be allowed to seek those high-income jobs? 38% of China’s rural population is engaged in agricultural work, but this only generates 9.5% of its GDP. This is root cause of the urban-rural divide and income gap. If urbanization cannot be used to lead more farmers to change their economic role, how can this income gap be eliminated?

All countries in the world have faced the same conflicts in the process of urbanization, but there is not one that has used administrative power to limit urbanization. All have dealt with it by using market methods and allowing people to freely choose. And in fact when people in the cities can get along harmoniously, this raises the efficiency of cities. …

After many years of reform in which China has moved from complete public ownership to allowing some private ownership, most people have already become property owners. Even more people are working hard in hopes of becoming property owners. So the allocation of financial and other assets is decided by their owners, not by administrative power. If it limits property owners’ freedom to deploy their assets, then they will have no choice but to move abroad.

The backward areas of Hebei may feel that these industries that Beijing is getting rid of are actually an advance for them. Those industries that Beijing thinks use too many resources and generate too much pollution can perhaps generate higher incomes than agriculture. But is it only possible to reduce pollution in advanced regions, or is it also possible to reduce pollution in backward regions? Is this kind of transfer of industries being more responsible to society and to nature, or is it just passing off responsibility?

Perhaps the final goal is still to integrate Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei, and to optimize the city of Beijing. But this goal is not one that can be decided by administrative power.

Today China Mobile just canceled roaming charges among the three regions [of Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei]. But how many restrictive policies have not yet been canceled? Can cars without Beijing license plates freely enter Beijing? Why can Beijing create restrictions, but Tianjin and Hebei cannot? Can this lead to integration?

When a society based on small farmers modernizes, individuals become the main actors in both economic production and social life. The prosperity of a region or a city, and even of a nation and a people, depends on the innovative capabilities of individuals, and is decided by the depth and extent of innovation. It is not something that can be decided by administrative power. When any administrative official limits or blocks an individual’s innovative capacities and ability to choose their environment, it must weaken the spirit and development of innovation, and harm the overall economy.

This so-called integration is not a market-based process. A shift to rely once again on administrative power to arrange the pattern of economic development must ultimately be a failure.

In conclusion, when CCTV is cheering for Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei integration, a rational understanding of the story behind it may be necessary. A clear head leads to fewer mistakes.

I don’t really agree with Ren’s market fundamentalism, which is rather explicitly a counsel of despair for everywhere but the most developed urban centers. It is however another example of how economically-liberal thinkers in China are increasingly hostile to the government’s regional development policies, which they see as a huge waste of resources recalling the failures of the planned economy.

But I think Ren is right to call attention to how the grand plans for “integration” call for lots of more-or-less forcible relocations of people and industries, but do nothing to break down the hukou system’s institutionalized discrimination based on geographic origin. On the whole I think China could do with less focus on building new development zones and more focus on liberalizing migration.

Fu Chengyu’s frank talk on SOE reform

China’s annual legislative session, which closed last week, was not a particularly newsworthy event despite being the subject of many news stories. It featured many unedifying public displays of loyalty to General Secretary Xi Jinping, and even less dissent and debate than than usual.

In the current Chinese climate where frank discussion of economic problems and constructive criticism of economic policy is very rare, the intervention during the session by former SOE executive Fu Chengyu was I thought fairly noteworthy. Fu previously ran two of China’s biggest SOEs, CNOOC and Sinopec, and was widely considered an effective, forward-looking and market-oriented executive.

It’s not surprising that Fu is critical of the current program of state-owned enterprise reform; just about everyone who has looked at it has come away pretty depressed. What’s interesting is that he is both willing and able to speak his mind. The following is my translation of his statement on March 9, as reported by Xinhua (the Chinese original is here); it’s a bit dense with Chinese policy jargon, but the main thrust is still pretty clear I think.

1. We cannot confuse reforming the supervision of state assets and enterprises with the reform of state enterprises themselves, and we cannot use reform of the supervision of state assets and enterprises to replace state-enterprise reform.

Today there are some prominent and widespread phenomena in the national implementation of state-enterprise reform. The first is a focus on reforming the supervision of state assets and enterprises, and a weakening of the reform of state enterprises’ own management and operational systems. In some places this supervisory reform has replaced enterprise reform. The second is that the Third Plenum’s call for a transition from “managing state assets” to “managing state capital” has been weakened. The third is that “mixed ownership reform” is seen as a restricted area, and so reform is excessively timid and cautious. The fourth is that internal reforms for the vast majority of state enterprises, particularly reforms to allow the market to play a decisive role in the allocation of resources, have basically not gotten off the ground. Lots of people are watching from the sidelines and not many people are doing anything; most enterprises are waiting and few enterprises are actually trying something.

2. It is not clear who should be the main actor in state-enterprise reform, and an impetus for reform is lacking among enterprises. First, in terms of reform implementation, different levels of government have in reality already become the main driver of reform, while enterprises are just implementing the reforms. When enterprises are not fully participating in the design and planning of reforms, it is difficult to be optimistic about the results. Second, reform in fact means innovation, and innovation cannot be ordered from the top down, but must be explored from the bottom up. Regulatory agencies cannot control every aspect of reform, and cannot just issue a lot of documents to direct state-enterprise reform. Third, because the agency for reform has been moved up to the government, this has created a discordant situation: what the government wants to change is very difficult to change, while what enterprises want to change they dare not change.

3. We lack an environment that protects enterprise leaders who undertake reform, so state-enterprise executives have many concerns about reform. In surveys a very common reaction is heard: “if I do a good job I get no recognition, if I do a bad job I get a bad assessment; if there is a conflict I have no protection, if there’s a problem it’s my responsibility; if I do a lot there are a lot of problems, so not doing anything is the best option.” …

Fu Chengyu

Therefore I suggest the following:

First, clarify the main actors in reform and highlight the main goals of reform. The principle of the separation of ownership rights and operation rights should be followed to allocate responsibility for state-enterprise reform. The regulatory agencies at different levels of government are the owner’s representative for state-owned assets and have regulatory responsibility for state-owned assets and state-owned enterprises, so they should be the main driver for reforming supervision of state assets and state enterprises. State-owned enterprises are the responsible authority for operating state-owned assets, so they should be the main driver for reforming operation and management, and should take responsibility for state-enterprise reform. I suggest that the regulatory agencies at different levels of government delegate authority for reforms internal to state enterprises to the enterprises themselves. Government agencies can handle the overall direction and principles, and be in charge of supervision. Enterprises should be allowed to draft their own reform plans, in accordance with national laws and regulations and relevant policies on state-enterprise reform, so that responsibility for reform passes to enterprises and their executives.

Second, create an environment that creates incentives for reform and protects those who take the initiative. The glorious achievements of state enterprises over more than 30 years of reform, and the important contribution of enterprise leaders to state enterprises’ development, should be fully affirmed. Policies to encourage and protect enterprise leaders who undertake daring reforms should be drafted, to create a specific, feasible, and fault-tolerant system. I also suggest that auditing, disciplinary and personnel agencies develop related policies to incentivize reform and protect initiative in their respective areas.

Third, focus on making breakthroughs in mixed-ownership reform. The Central Economic Work Conference proposed mixed-ownership reform as an important opening for a breakthrough in state-enterprise reform, and this is very significant. I suggest that the scope of enterprises in trials of mixed-ownership reform be expanded, and that the current trials of mixed-ownership reform at third-tier subsidiaries be expanded to second-tier subsidiaries and even to the group level. This will increase the dynamism of state enterprises’ own reforms, and also show China’s efforts at deepening reform; it will also attract large amounts of private capital back to the real economy, thereby lowering financial risk.

None of Fu’s proposed changes are particularly revolutionary, but they still prompted rather hyperbolic praise from Li Jin, a prominent commentator on SOE reform, which I interpret as relief that rational criticism and policy discussion still seem to be possible:

If our delegates all spoke as directly as Fu Chengyu, pulling together public opinion so that the soul of the people can develop, then there would be great hope for China’s state-enterprise reform, and the dream of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will eventually be fulfilled. I hope China will have more heroes of reform like Fu Chengyu.

How stoves and lamps led to a turning point in China’s reforms

Here is a nice little piece of oral history covering some important episodes in the early history of China’s economic reforms. The translation below is an excerpt from a longer interview with Yang Qixian, a scholar who participated in the reform process in the 1980s (Chinese original here). I like it because it includes both some vivid practical experiences and some theoretical insights.

Yang Qixian

Yang Qixian

First, the practical:

In the summer of 1982, Yang Qixian, as a member of the working group formed by the State Commission for Restructuring Economic Systems, went to Changzhou, Jiangsu province to push forward the pilot project for comprehensive reform. At that meeting, there were two things that drew his attention and left a strong impression: the glass chimneys for kerosene lamps, and the “tiger stoves.”

As Yang recalled, because at that time the electricity supply was inadequate, many families used kerosene lamps. The glass chimneys for the kerosene lamps were a commodity whose supply was planned, with the price fixed at RMB0.06. Because they couldn’t make money [at that price], enterprises did not want to produce the lamp chimneys. One residential community could get a quota allocation of one or two every few months, which would then be distributed. The lamp chimneys would first go to the hands of the community leader or production team leader, who could give them to whoever they wanted. Because there was a shortage of lamp chimneys, when people wanted to buy one they would have to treat the team leader to some food and booze; only by having a good relationship could they get the quota. The members of the working group on the comprehensive reform pilot discussed this phenomenon, and decided to liberalize the prices of some small commodities that were not of critical importance, and allow enterprises to organize production according to market demand.

The Changzhou comprehensive reform pilot used the kerosene lamp chimneys as an experiment, and the effect was of course very obvious: the supply shortage was solved very quickly. Yang Qixian recalled that after the price of kerosene lamp chimneys was liberalized, it rose to RMB0.2, a big increase from RMB0.06. “We asked people if they were upset about the price increase, and they said no. The reason they weren’t upset is that before they could sell three eggs for RMB0.06 and buy one glass chimney, now they can sell three eggs for RMB0.2, which can still cover the cost of one chimney,” Yang said. Afterward, the working group wrote a short report about the experiment, and Hu Yaobang [at the time, General Secretary of the Communist Party] immediately approved it; he felt this was a very good example, and that the prices of small commodities should be gradually liberalized.

The situation of the “tiger stoves” was similar to the kerosene lamp chimneys. At that time, for people to boil water they had to fire up the coal stove. Because coal was in short supply, in order to conserve coal they would organize “tiger stoves” [in the area around Shanghai, a traditional name for a local store providing hot water, tea and even baths]. The water jugs were lined up on the stove, and once the water boiled you only had to spend RMB0.01 to fill a jug and take it home.

But tiger stoves could only be run by a collective, and so there were only a few in each city. When people wanted hot water, they would have to walk a long way–it was really not convenient. In the Changzhou reform trial, the working group decided to allow individuals to run tiger stoves, and also allow them to buy coal. Because of this loosening, the number of tiger stoves multiplied, and the price did not rise. People did not have to go so far to get hot water. The working group also wrote up this example in a report, and Hu Yaobang approved it, saying that small businesses should not be excessively restricted, and must be liberalized.

It is quite amazing that a discussion about hot water supply in one city of one province went all the way to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy.

Next, a more theoretical insight:

Another event that made a deep impression on Yang was the International Symposium on Macroeconomic Management held in September 1985, which was a landmark in the history of China’s reform and ideological emancipation. Because it was held on a boat called the “Bashan,” running from Chongqing to Wuhan, the media and scholars have called it the Bashan boat conference. …Foreign experts attending the meeting included Alec Cairncross from the UK, James Tobin from the US, Otmar Etminger from West Germany, Michel Albert from France, Janos Kornai from Hungary, Kobayashi from Japan, as well as Edwin Lim and Adrian Wood from the World Bank. Representatives from China included Xue Muqiao, An Zhiwen, Ma Hong, Liu Guoguang, Gao Shangquan and other scholars and workers, for a total of more than 30 people. As one of the organizers, Yang Qixian drafted the conference synthesis report.

Yang recalled that, although it was only a seminar, and the meeting was not long, it still had a far-reaching impact. The reason is that in the earlier stages of reform and opening up there was a lot of controversy about what the goal of reform should be. In 1984, the Third Plenary Session of the 12th Central Committee clearly put forward the concept of a “planned commodity economy.” But how exactly should a commodity economy be run? What should be the target and the model? What reforms are needed to establish a commodity economy? At that time their views affected us greatly.

For instance, Kornai of Hungary suggested that there were only two kinds of macroeconomic management in the world: one regulates mainly through administrative methods, the other regulates mainly through market methods. The first category can be divided into direct administrative regulation, such as the Soviet model, and indirect administrative regulation, such as the Yugoslav model. The second category can be divided into completely uncontrolled market regulation and market regulation under macroeconomic management. Kornai said that China should follow the model of market regulation under macroeconomic management. “These ideas were a great inspiration to us at the time, and later the target model of our reforms basically followed this line of thought,” Yang said.

These stories are great, and very appealing in their straightforward simplicity, though hindsight probably makes the decisions seem easier than they actually were at the time (the Bashan boat conference and Kornai’s influence have come up before on this blog, in this post).

Zhao Lingmin on the roots of Chinese elite support for Trump

A definitive overview of this question is over at Ma Tianjie’s Chublic Opinion, but one of the sources in that piece I thought was worth digging into a bit more. It’s a column by Zhao Lingmin, originally published on the FT Chinese site back in October, that focuses on what the enthusiasm for Trump says about Chinese society. My translation follows:

Compared to his American supporters, Trump’s Chinese supporters have two notable differences. One, they have “true love” for Trump. Even though some Americans do not like Trump personally, or even despise him, they have still decided to vote for Trump because of their anger at the status quo. Trump’s supporters in China are not deciding who to vote for, and there are no real interests at stake; many of them simply like Trump himself. Second, it is widely recognized that some of Trump’s supporters in the US are not of high social status and belong to the lower middle class, so Hillary Clinton could say that half of them are “deplorables,” or “people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down.”

But among Trump supporters in China, there are some successful people and members of the elite: they are well-educated, rational, with high social status. On this point, you only have to look at WeChat or Zhihu; in those places public criticism of Trump’s remarks is rare, and there are a lot of people who excuse them or give them a positive spin.

Why is the Chinese elite not like the American elite in opposing Trump? There are different national conditions, there are differences of opinion, but in my opinion the most important difference between the two countries’ elites is the different environments they have grown up in. This has led some Chinese elites to endorse Trump’s views on political correctness, terrorism, Islam, and other issues.

Trump has been most criticized for his undisguised degradation and humiliation of immigrants, Muslims, and women, which for many American elites, whose awareness of equal rights comes from their baptism in the civil rights movement, is completely unacceptable. The recent revelation of the recording in which Trump insults women touched the bottom line of American society, and made some of the rest of the elite draw the line. By contrast, some of China’s elite, having risen up in an atmosphere of social Darwinism, do not find Trump’s statements so offensive as to cause anger and condemnation—although they do not quite endorse them either.

The past 30 years of China’s economic growth and social development began after a period of chaos [i.e., the Cultural Revolution], and there was no Enlightenment-like intellectual movement. Government officials, in order to mobilize reform, exaggerated the evils of the old benefit system as “everyone eating from one big pot,” which, with the assistance of some scholars, led to an almost complete social consensus that a market economy means completely free competition. With no restraint from ethics or rules, the “law of the jungle” that the weak are prey to the strong became nearly universal in society. Amid all the worship of the strong and disdain for the weak, an atmosphere of care and equal treatment of disadvantaged groups has not formed. Therefore “political correctness,” which is for the protection of vulnerable groups, basically does not exist in Chinese society, and the language of discrimination, objectification of women, and mockery of disabled people is everywhere.

This way of thinking is further reinforced among some Chinese elites: they succeed because they are better able to adapt to and dominate this kind of environment. In this process, they are hurt by others, they hurt others, and gradually they develop a heart of stone and a feeling of superiority—that their success is due to their own efforts and natural abilities, and the losers in competition must be those who don’t work hard because they are lazy or have some other problems. Therefore, they believe in free competition and personal striving even more than ordinary people, and also feel more strongly that poor people deserve their low position, are more wary of the abuse of welfare by lazy people, and are more supportive of Trump’s attacks on political correctness.

Many Chinese elites feel that the Democratic Party and the left represented by Hillary Clinton has turned a blind eye to the many problems of the black community, such as single mothers and the high crime rate, and put the blame on society rather than black people’s own issues. In order to protect the rights of transgender people, they have gone so far as to ignore public safety and allow them to freely choose whether to use male or female toilers. In the face of this obsession with political correctness, Trump has the courage to face reality and is willing to risk offending people in order to tell the truth—this is honest and admirable.

As for Trump’s insulting remarks about women, the Chinese elite also thinks that this is not such a big deal. You could say that many male members of the Chinese elite are the biggest beneficiaries of the current imbalance between men and women in China. The deformed marriage market has made them insufferably arrogant, and in terms of objectifying and demeaning women they are much worse than ordinary people. In the case of a male journalist who raped a female intern, most of the male colleagues supported him, and maintained that the woman was taking revenge on him for refusing her. In the case of a male professor who was suspended for molesting female students, many colleagues and students argued that the punishment was excessive, and some even doubted the female students’ mental state. In fact, a not inconsiderable number of men do not think there was anything fundamentally wrong with the actions of the journalist and the professor. People who have grown up in this kind of social atmosphere naturally cannot understand why Trump has been universally condemned for some dirty talk.

In addition, the vigilance against Islamic extremism displayed in Trump’s speeches is quite similar to the worldview of many of China’s elite. Since 9/11, “Islamophobia” has become a worldwide phenomenon, and China is no exception. Chinese Islamophobia has domestic causes, but it also cannot be separated from the impact of international events, particularly the refugee crisis and frequent terrorist attacks in Europe over the last couple of years. This has made many people shake their head at the European left, and think that Muslims are just using their high birth rate to occupy Europe and destroy the foundations of European civilization. European intellectuals and elites are so burdened by multicultural policies and political correctness that they cannot reject any plea from the refugees, do not dare to point out any of the issues with refugees, and even downplay crimes committed by refugees. Such naivety and wishful thinking in the end is nothing but nourishing a snake in one’s own bosom. Because of these views, Trump’s talk about banning Muslims and attacking terrorists is more welcomed by Chinese people than Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric about inclusiveness and cooperation.

Looking at the personal style of the two candidates, American elites do not like the fact that Trump’s speech is often illogical, vulgar and extreme. But in China’s imperfect market system, many elites come from rough backgrounds. Furthermore, decades of revolutionary ideology have made the whole society valorize coarseness, slovenliness, and lack of hygiene. This makes many people see Trump’s vulgarity and inconsistency as amusing, straightforward and honest. Hillary Clinton’s image as an orthodox politician, by contrast, leaves many people cold.