A novelist’s view of China’s rise, from 1983

Walter Tevis’ 1983 science-fiction novel The Steps of the Sun is mostly not a very good book; unlike some of his other books (the excellent chess novel The Queen’s Gambit, or The Color of Money) it has not aged well. The one thing about the book that does seem ahead of its time is the worldbuilding: it is set in a future world in which China has unquestionably risen. Here is one background passage:

Half the people on the street were Chinese. By midsummer New York always seems to be a Chinese city, a kind of cultural suburb of Peking. The Russians are ahead of everybody else at heavy industry; the art comes from Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro; the political life in Aberdeen and Hangchow is far more lively than New York’s; and if you want to make a really big business arrangement you go to Peking, the world’s richest city.

But New York is still New York, even with its elevators not working and a total of one hundred fifty taxis permitted to operate (Peking has thousands, they are electric powered and have leather upholstery). But Peking is still a stodgy businessman’s city, with all the old China erased from its neoclassical architecture. The Chinese come to New York for the civilized life.

New York is the major city of a second-rank power, of a country whose time is slipping away; but it still has a bounce you don’t find anywhere else. There are restaurants with white tablecloths, with waiters in tuxedos that look like they came from the last century, and, however they beer-feed and hand-rub their fat old steers in Japan, the Kansas City steak served in a New York restaurant, with the dim lights and the polished wooden bar and the tuxedoed waiters, is still one of the delights of the world. And New York theater is the only theater to hold anybody’s interest for long; American music is the most sophisticated in the world.

The Chinese are still, behind those stuffy facades, the greatest gamblers on earth and the trickiest businessmen; they’ve accommodated their ideology and their asceticism of the last century to their present wealth with the ease of the Renaissance Popes; they are Communists the way Cesare Borgia was a Christian. And they love New York.

Some of these details are remarkably prescient: the Chinese tourists crowding the streets of New York, and the way the city serves as a kind of living museum of a certain type and period of culture. The bit about China being ahead of the US in electric vehicles also has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. In another passage, a billionaire shows off his ability to speak Chinese (remind you of anyone?).

This is pretty unusual stuff for 1983, when Americans were obsessed with the rise of Japan and had barely begun to notice China. William Gibson’s much more famous Neuromancer, from 1984, chose Japan as the natural setting for its hyper-technological fantasies. So I am curious what might have inspired this aspect of the book; there is little in Tevis’ biography to suggest a particular interest in or knowledge of Asia.



Are giant factories a symptom of labor repression?

That is the suggestion made in Deborah Cohen’s interesting review of Joshua B. Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World.

Giant factories were a feature of both the US and Soviet economies in the 1930s, which led some observers at the time to speculate that capitalism and socialism were converging toward a single economic form. But this convergence turned out to be quite temporary, as giant factories lasted much longer in the USSR:

By the late 1940s, the era of the showcase factory was over in the United States. The strength of unionization, particularly demonstrated by the formidable strike wave of 1945–1946, made clear to industrialists the danger of concentrating workers in a few plants.

More than simply a means of controlling costs or rationalizing distribution, the drive to open smaller and decentralized plants, especially in the low-wage, nonunionized South, was also a strategy to ensure that a company’s entire operation couldn’t be hamstrung by a strike.

At the same time, by contrast, industrial gigantism continued apace across the Eastern Bloc. The East Germans built the steel town of Stalinstadt (now Eisenhüttenstadt); in Poland, there rose Nowa Huta, with a workforce of nearly 30,000 by 1967. Crippling labor unrest wasn’t a problem that particularly worried leaders in the Eastern Bloc, who could count on a network of spies as well as a cadre of factory workers who were fervent believers in socialism.

The current world champion of industrial gigantism is, of course, China. The “Foxconn City” facility in Shenzhen is generally thought to be the world’s largest manufacturing facility, employing something over 200,000 workers. Strikes in China are not uncommon but tend to be short-term events related to specific disputes, rather than an organized strategy as part of collective bargaining. This of course is because China does not have independent unions; the state-controlled union tends to side with management. So the risk to a company’s operations from an individual strike is still low–though it is worth noting that Foxconn does not depend on one single large facility but instead has lots of large facilities, in China and many other countries.


The Volgograd Tractor Factory in the 1930s


The Newcastle shipyards in world history

I recently paid my first visit to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northern England, which is a worthwhile stop for anyone interested in the history of the Industrial Revolution. If you follow the promenade along the river to the west, outside the city center you come to a low-rise brick office park. There is no particular reason for a tourist to hang out there, but I was intrigued by the fact that several of the buildings had what appeared to be Japanese names. Looking around, sure enough there was an explanatory placard: the office park sits on the site of the old Newcastle shipyards, and one of their major customers in the late 19th century was the Japanese navy. The buildings were named after the ships.

I had not known until then that the UK had supplied much of the hardware that enabled Japan’s famous military victory over Russia in their war of 1904-5. British shipyards had built all six of the Japanese navy’s battleships, four of its eight cruisers (other European powers supplied the rest), and 16 of its 24 destroyers (the other eight were domestic).

Japan of course was busy building up its own shipbuilding industry, but being able to purchase leading-edge military technology on the open market was essential. Admiral Togo Heihachiro, who commanded the navy in the battle in which Russia’s Baltic fleet was destroyed, had studied in England as a young man, and in 1911 visited Newcastle to express his thanks for its role in arming the navy.


Japan’s military victory over Russia was the first time an Asian power had defeated a European one in modern times. It was shocking to European and American observers at the time, as it overturned what had been assumed to be an established order. The Russo-Japanese War was a clear turning point in what was to become the century-long rise of Asia and the quest of non-European countries to achieve parity with the European imperial powers. But what does it mean that Japan’s victory was in fact aided and encouraged by some of those same European imperial powers?

Perhaps one point is that rivalry among existing great powers is one of the forces that helps produce new powers: an existing power can seek advantage over its adversaries by encouraging the rise of new powers. The US decision to engage with Communist China in the 1970s cannot, of course, be understood in isolation from its rivalry with the Soviet Union: the US wanted to make sure that China was, if not exactly on its side, at least not on the USSR’s side.

Another possible interpretation is that commercial interests (or, if you prefer, capitalism) can be disruptive to hierarchies in international relations. Would Japan’s aggressive drive to bring its navy up to European standards have been as successful if it did not also boost the sales and profits of Armstrong Whitwork & Co in Newcastle? Similarly, it is hard to imagine that the US would have been so accommodating of China’s “peaceful rise” over the past few decades if it had not also presented big opportunities for American companies.

What I’ve been listening to lately


  • Benny Goodman – The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings. Small-group swing is one of the best sounds in jazz in my book, much more listenable today than most big-band music from the same era. The sound that Goodman’s quartet with Teddy Wilson on piano and Lionel Hamptom on vibes generates is just lovely.
  • Kitsos Harisiadis – Lament in a Deep Style 1929-1931I discovered this recording thanks to Andrew Katzenstein’s fascinating article in the New York Review of Books on the music produced in Epirus in the 1920s and 1930s. Harisiadis is a clarinetist and near-contemporary of Goodman but his sound ventures into territory jazz would not explore until the 1960s.
  • John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once. This will probably outsell any jazz recording by a living musician, so I don’t need to give it more publicity. But who could pass up more recordings from the Coltrane quarter’s classic period? While it did not surprise me, I certainly enjoyed this, especially the untitled original compositions.
  • Herbie Hancock – Sextant. Another one of those records I just didn’t hear right the first time: the goofy cover and synthesizer bleeps were apparently not serious enough for this young jazz fan. But with this passage of time, I find I do really like it: an excellent extension of the moody, complex Bitches Brew sound.
  • Ergo – If Not Inertia. The prepared piano pieces of John Cage are some of my favorite music outside the jazz idiom, mostly because of the lovely spooky sound. So I really enjoyed the incorporation of the prepared piano, along with electronics and other noises, into a more jazz-like context on this recording.

What surprised Pieter Bottelier about Chinese economic history

Pieter Bottelier has observed a lot of recent Chinese economic history, starting with his tenure as head of the World Bank’s office in China from 1993-97. But his new book, Economic Policy Making in China (1949-2016): The Role of Economists, goes farther back, and opens with an interesting collection of “puzzles and surprises” he encountered doing research on these earlier periods.

I quite enjoyed these observations; here is a selection of a few of them:

  • Surprise: The Chinese communists, who were relatively inexperienced in economic matters when the CPC was gaining strength in the 1930s and ’40s, were more effective in suppressing inflation in areas they controlled than Chiang Kai-shek’s more experienced Nationalist government.

If Chiang Kai-shek had been able to control hyperinflation during the civil war, it would have been much harder for the communists to prevail in that conflict. I was surprised to see how much importance the communists attached to financial stability and how effective they were in fighting inflation before the establishment of the PRC in 1949. …While most historians typically focused on the political and military achievements of the CPC, I found that the financial history, including a surprising degree of fiscal conservatism and appreciation of the importance of financial stability, deserves more attention.

  • Surprise: The extent to which initial economic reforms in the late ’70s were influenced by the need to create jobs for the millions of people (especially youth) returning to the cities from the countryside after the Cultural Revolution had ended.

To reduce the risk of social instability, there was a compelling need for job creation in urban areas after the Cultural Revolution. One of the first and most important reform measures in the late 1970s was to legitimize and facilitate street vending and other labor-intensive retail trading. Most of the millions of people returning to the cities after the Cultural Revolution had been forced by the Party to undergo “re-education” through labor in rural areas. If it hadn’t been for the special efforts to create job opportunities in urban areas for these people, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms might not have been as successful as they were.

  • Surprise: The importance of coining the term “socialist market economy” in 1992 to describe the kind of economic system China wanted to establish.

I was surprised to learn how important this had been in the evolution of China’s reforms. In the West, we normally don’t attach a lot of importance to names; we ask rhetorically: “what’s in a name?” By contrast, in China the name of a person, thing or concept is typically very important; a name has real meaning. One of the more important contributions Jiang Zemin made to China’s reform efforts when he was the Party’s General Secretary (1989-2002) was to give a name to the goal of these efforts.

  • Surprise: I was surprised to find that leading Chinese reform economists consider Gu Zhun, a philosopher/economist and historian (who was trained as an accountant and who died in 1974), the “father” of China’s market reforms.

Gu Zhun is now recognized as one of the most important thinkers of the Mao era. He was a brilliant and courageous intellectual; an original thinker with a fiercely independent, some say stubborn, mind. Like Sun Yefang, he opposed some of Mao’s economic policies in the 1950s. He died (of lung cancer) at the age of 59. Had his health kept up for another decade, he might have emerged as one of the most important Chinese reform economists under Deng Xiaoping. Given the breadth and depth of his interests and academic pursuits, he would be called a “Renaissance Man” in the West.

There are several more surprises discussed in the introduction, and I could have read even more of them – it’s a nice format. But the book then shifts gears, and becomes mainly a series of biographical sketches of a number of people who were influential on Chinese economic policymaking (despite the title, not necessarily trained economists). Both parts were reminders of just how much there still is to learn about even fairly recent history in China, so much of which is still obscured by a combination of official propaganda and reformist mythmaking.


Lessons from watching *Dying to Survive*

On the recommendation of several friends, my wife and I went to see China’s hit summer movie in Beijing last month. Called “Dying to Survive” in English — the Chinese title 《我不是药神》 translates as “I Am Not the Medicine God” — it’s an unusual blockbuster in that it’s not escapist action fare but a realistic social drama. It tells the story, loosely based on real events, of a Shanghai man who smuggled Indian generic cancer drugs for patients who could not afford the real thing.

It’s a pretty good movie and worth seeing (the print we saw in Beijing had English subtitles, so it’s accessible to non-Chinese viewers): it’s well shot, well acted, well edited, and if the tearjerker parts of the storyline are not too surprising, they are still moving and effective. The first half of the film is my favorite, thanks to its sympathetic and realistic depiction of the lives of people living at the margins of Shanghai’s glitzy society. The protagonist starts out as an obviously dodgy seller of supposed aphrodisiacs, and his partners in crime include a dancer in a club, a rural migrant working in a slaughterhouse and, most surprisingly, a Christian pastor.

But what’s really interesting about the film is how you can see the struggle between the demands of making popular art and satisfying official propaganda playing out in the open. How many dramatizations of social problems end by displaying on screen a detailed timeline of the government policy measures that decisively solved said social problem? (The Economist wrote a bafflingly wrong-headed article about the film, calling it “a radical departure from China’s film policy, which is to encourage the production of uplifting fare that presents the government in a good light.” They must not have stayed for the credits.)

At times “Dying to Survive” feels like two movies stapled together. When the main characters are on the screen, the tone is of low-key realism. But when the police and court system appear, everything changes: the actors are stiff and predictable, straight from central casting for one of China’s cookie-cutter state television dramas. The cops are upright, businesslike and effective, the judges wise and firm. They ensure that the drug smuggler is eventually brought to justice, and serves a prison sentence for his crimes. The message is: yes, high drug prices are a social problem, but that does not excuse breaking the law; the government will take care of things.

What’s more interesting is how the movie departs from the real-life story of Lu Yong, who did smuggle into China the Indian generic version of Novartis’ cancer drug Glivec (the drug did not have patent protection in India). Lu was himself a patient who needed the drug, while the movie’s protagonist Cheng Yong gets into smuggling because he needs the money, and then develops sympathy for the struggling patients over time. (Lu has publicly stated he was unhappy with being portrayed in this way, and said he had not been consulted or compensated by the producers of the movie.) This alteration is rather understandable, as it creates a more interesting story arc: Cheng Yong starts off as an unsympathetic character (he hits his ex-wife in an early scene) and gradually matures into a sympathetic one.

The real punchline is that Lu Yong never served a prison term for his smuggling. When he was brought before a court, the public outcry led the judges to release him. The true story, in other words, was even more like a movie than the movie: in the end, the morally upright hero is recognized for doing good deeds and praised rather than condemned. (In Lu Yong’s blog post about the movie, he says that the movie’s producers told him that a political leader had ordered that the movie play up the role of the government and play down individual heroics.) That courtroom scene would have been a triumphant climax for any other drama. But suggesting that popular morality can override the demands of the law was apparently a bit too dangerous.

I do think “Dying to Survive” is a successful piece of popular art, but it is one that shows very clearly the constraints under which it was made. For further reading, I recommend this piece by Richard Yu, in which he argues that it serves as a potential template for how Chinese movies can discuss social problems–as long as they celebrate the accomplishments of the government.


Making sure our expectations for the future are sufficiently weird

As someone who is professionally required to at least occasionally issue prognostications about the future, I enjoyed this passage from Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, in which a character warns against the perils of straight-line extrapolations:

End-timers used to project our consumption levels forward, multiplying our population by our needed resources, and get to this point where we’d run out of planet in a generation and there’d be famine and war.

That kind of linear projection is the kind of thinking that gets people into trouble when they think about the future. It’s like thinking, ‘well, my kid is learning ten exciting new things every week, so by the time she’s sixty, she’ll be smarter than any human in history.’

There are lots of curves that start looking like they go up and to the right forever, but turn into bell curves, or inverted Us, or S-curves, or the fabled hockey-stick that gets steeper and steeper until it goes straight vertical.

Any assumption that we’re going to end up like now, but moreso, is so insufficiently weird it’s the only thing you can be sure won’t happen in the future.

That’s a fairly self-referential statement for a character in a science-fiction novel to make, but thankfully most of the characters in this piece of utopian fiction do not go around making speeches; Doctorow is very good at writing real, vivid people, not types or abstractions.

Perhaps the line is meant to highlight that the world Doctorow imagines in Walkaway is indeed very much like now, but moreso: it’s a straight-line extrapolation of rising inequality, increasing automation and declining labor participation. What he’s trying to imagine is the moment when that curve starts to turn into something else.