Hong Kong’s war of attrition against street hawkers

I enjoyed Christopher DeWolf’s Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong, the latest installment I read in the Penguin Hong Kong series. It’s a nice piece of reportage that helps fill in the little-known (to me anyway) history of street life and informal urban structures in Hong Kong.

The book is particularly good at providing an alternative perspective on how Hong Kong’s government actually works. To anyone who has spent time in Hong Kong, the idea that it has the world’s freest economy (as the Heritage Foundation perennially tells us) is just patently, obviously untrue. But even so I was fairly shocked to discover that the government has for decades been actively trying to get rid of the small-scale retail entrepreneurs known as street hawkers:

For years, activity in the streets of Hong Kong was only loosely regulated, but by the 1970s, the government decided it was time to assert more control. The theory at the time was that, as cities transitioned from “third world” to “first world,” such informal uses of urban space would dwindle as the economy developed and people became wealthier. One day, the reasoning went, there would no longer be any need for hawkers, dai pai dong, squatter villages or anything of the sort.

In light of this argument, the Hong Kong government opted for a policy of elimination through attrition. Squatter villages were frozen in place, their residents prohibited from expanding their homes until they could be replaced with public housing estates. Street hawkers were licensed and regulated.  …

The catch was that, while hawkers were still allowed to ply their trade, their licenses were made exceptionally hard to transfer. Even today, when a licensed hawker dies, his or her license can only be transferred to a surviving spouse. The intent was to eventually eliminate all street hawker stalls, and this 1970s-era policy is now well on its way to achieving that goal. In 2015, there were just 6,133 licensed hawkers in Hong Kong; another 1,440 work illegally.

The biggest markets are thriving, including the always busy meat, seafood, fruit and vegetable stalls around Nelson Street and Canton Road, but many of the secondary markets are withering away – not for lack of business, but because the government is actively relocating stalls and buying back hawker licenses in order to clear the streets. Between 2013 and 2015, a total of 481 hawkers surrendered their licenses. …

It is hard not to notice that shrinking opportunities in this part of the economy have coincided, at least, with the general decline in entrepreneurship and social mobility:

The crackdown on informal life isn’t necessarily responsible for the persistent inequality and decline of social mobility in Hong Kong, but there’s a case to be made that it has exacerbated the situation by denying people access to affordable products and the ability to become entrepreneurs.



The great stagnation of Hong Kong

In Hong Kong recently I picked up a stack of the books in the new Penguin Specials series on Hong Kong–which despite being nicely featured in local bookstores are not yet readily available outside the city, or getting much promotion from the publisher. I don’t think they have to be read in any particular order, but I started with Simon Cartledge’s A System Apart (mainly because Simon is an old friend), which is an excellent short overview of Hong Kong’s recent political and economic situation.

The argument, simply put, is that Hong Kong is suffering from severe economic, social and political stagnation:

Hong Kong is stuck, with remarkably little change to show for the last two decades. Its economy is still dominated by a handful of companies, most of them run by ageing tycoons. No new business has risen up to challenge or replace them. No major new industry has been established. The city remains and finance and business center. But its intermediary role has declined in importance over the last twenty years. Across the border, China has created a host of inventive internet and technology giants; Hong Kong cannot point to a single success in these areas.

It is not a place that has failed, but it is one of lost opportunity, of diminished expectations and modest ambition. Despite living on the doorstep of the world’s most dynamic economy of the last two decades, and despite having played a crucial role in that economy’s initial opening and development, Hong Kong has gone sideways.

A further contention is that all these forms of stagnation are interrelated, and trace their origins to the arrangements put in place after Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. Hong Kong’s peculiar institutions were intended above all to maintain continuity, but in fact resulted in a significant change for the worse:

When China drafted the Basic Law, one of its key aims to put in place machinery to ensure the economy continued running in the same way as before. The obvious way to do this, it seemed, was to allow businesses a big say in policy – hence the decision to make Hong Kong’s first chief executive a businessperson, and to pack the committee which would choose future chief executives with business figures. …

Under colonial rule, the administration, while undeniably pro-business, had always been separate from business itself. The governor was sent from Britain, and the top posts were filled with career civil servants – also all from the UK, until shortly before the handover. While these officials were friendly to business, they were not of business. They may have favored business interests before those of other parts of society, and they also co-opted leading local business figures into government bodies. Nevertheless, to the end, Hong Kong’s colonial rulers maintained strict control over their political power. The Basic Law changed this balance, opening the way for cronyism and corruption and preventing the kind of changes needed that would allow the city to maintain its economy dynamism. …

In the decades after the Second World War, Hong Kong successfully reinvented itself twice. For the first time in the 1950s, after American and United Nations embargoes on trade with China led to it becoming one of the world’s largest makers of light industrial goods. For the second, in the 1980s and 1990s, when it took advantage of China’s opening up to the world, in order to end its reliance on manufacturing and become a services economy centered on trade and finance. Since 1997, despite receiving its worst economic battering in more than half a century, it has undergone remarkably little change.

This economic stagnation, and the accompanying phenomena of slow growth and widening inequality, are clearly related to the increased extremism and polarization in local politics. But as Simon notes, Hong Kong is not exactly the only place in the world to have experienced these kind of political changes:

Many people seem to feel that they are not in control of their lives, and that those running Hong Kong are out of touch with their needs and interests. The senitments are broadly the same as those that to Britain’s Brexit vote and many Americans choosing Donald Trump. In Hong Kong, they manifested themselves in the one-fifth share of the vote for localist and independence candidates in the 2016 Legislative Council elections.

Hong Kong in fact seems to fit well into a common global trend (in high-income societies at any rate) of collapsing support for established political institutions and a rise in the influence of what used to be more marginal movements. So you could question whether Hong Kong’s peculiar institutions are really the cause of its deepening political divide, when places with quite different institutions are suffering from similar problems. The counter argument would be that Hong Kong had much more potential to escape stagnation because it is part of fast-growing China, and yet that potential largely has not been realized.


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.

Why Siberia is not like the American frontier

After finishing Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, I felt like I needed to know more about Siberia. Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia turned out to be a wonderful guide. Ordinarily I don’t like long, discursive books with no real point, but all of these potential vices are turned into virtues by Frazier’s charming voice. He is particularly good on the surprisingly long and deep history of American involvement in Siberia; here’s one passage that encapsulates many of his themes:

When Wendell Willkie, the American politician, visited Yakutsk in 1942, he said it reminded him of Elwood, Indiana. Willkie grew up in Elwood and thus is another on the long list of Midwesterners who have traveled in Siberia. He came here because of the war. Although Willkie lost to Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential race, he was credited afterward with helping to unify America behind the war effort, and in that capacity he made a round-the-world tour in a U.S. bomber to represent his country and demonstrate the Allies’ mastery of the air. The part of Yakutsk that specifically evoked Elwood for him was the boardwalks on the bigger streets; his hometown had board sidewalks when he was a boy. Willkie also spoke more generally about the heartiness of Yakutsk’s citizens, the simplicity of their tastes, and the place’s “tremendous vitality.” He said, “The town itself seemed, in many ways, like a western town in my country a century ago.”

As possibly the only person on earth today who has actually seen both Yakutsk and Elwood, Indiana, I think I understand what he meant. The Yakutsk Willkie visited was a frontier city, as the Elwood of his youth was a frontier town. Both were lively settlements far from their country’s center (though the one, obviously, much farther than the other). Observers before and after Willkie noted the many similarities between the Siberian and the Western American frontiers—from the hogs running loose in the villages, to the smallpox epidemics that hit the natives, to the rumors of tribes descended from the ancient Hebrews somewhere out in the wilds, to the environmental problems of overplowing and dust storms that came with development, and so on. Willkie’s trip also took him to Cairo, Baghdad, Moscow, and Peking; he stopped in Yakutsk partly because he was going that general direction anyway, and of all the cities he saw, this raw metropolis in the dark of the forest no doubt did look more like someplace in America.

But today I don’t think anyone who saw Yakutsk would be reminded of Elwood, or of anyplace like it. Elwood is another small American town that has passed through stages of early settlement, enthusiastic development, industrial boom, and recent decline. In those terms, its frontier years ended ages ago. Yakutsk, on the other hand, is still a frontier place, still hanging on to the writhing wilderness by its fingernails.


In fact Chekhov himself, traveling in 1890, compared Siberia to the American frontier:

When I was sailing on the Amur, I had the feeling that I was not in Russia, but somewhere in Patagonia, or Texas; without even mentioning the distinctive, un-Russian scenery and natural conditions, it seemed to me the entire time that the tenor of our Russian life is entirely alien to the native of the Amur, that Pushkin and Gogol are not understood here, and therefore not necessary, that our history is boring, and that we who arrive from European Russia seem like foreigners.

Yet while Siberia has some “frontier-ness” in common with the American West, the differences are pretty obvious. So why didn’t Siberia end up as pleasant or prosperous as the American West? The geographic determinism argument would be that it is simply much colder and more remote. (A fun fact I learned is that Siberia is so cold not simply because it is far north, but because its east-west expanse means the distances from the climate-moderating coasts are so huge).

The other obvious difference is the one that Chekhov focused on: that Siberia was a penal colony not a zone of free migration. More informed reflections on this theme can be found in Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Centurywhich among its many wonders includes a direct comparison of Siberia and the American frontier (in the “Frontiers” chapter, one of my favorites):

In the nineteenth century, the thinking behind the Siberian system was that it would provide a “prison without a roof” for political opponents and marginal social groups, while at the same time providing a labor pool for the giant state projects of colonizing and “civilizing” the region. It was a colonial development program that had much greater affinities with the colonial corvée system than with the pioneering advance into the American West driven mainly by market forces and voluntary decision. At the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Western public opinion had long regarded deportation and forced labor as anachronistic and extremely hard to justify. In China, too, it had lost its usefulness to the state, having reached its peak in the eighteenth century. …

The [Russian] state tried to steer … every aspect of the opening of frontiers much more forcefully than in the United States or South Africa. The main contribution of the American state was to make cheap land available to settlers in an orderly manner. The pioneers were completely free individuals: no one could send them anywhere. In Tsarist Russia, by contrast, until the liberalization of agrarian policy under Prime Minister Stolypin, the state intervened to guide the process of settlement. This posed no problem in the case of “state peasants,” but even with other categories, whether dependent or “freed,” the state presumed to act in a guardian-like capacity. Although many settlers eventually shaped their own lives, the settlement frontier was not, as in the United States, theoretically formed by their free decisions.

A further difference with the United States was the small weight of urban settlements. The North American frontier was everywhere associated with the formation of small towns, some of which profited from a favorable transportation location to develop rapidly into major cities. At the western end of the continent, the frontier ended in a densely settled urban zone that did not actually owe its formation to the frontier. No Russian California would ever emerge; Vladivostok did not blossom as a second Los Angeles. But neither did frontier urbanization in the strict sense become a large-scale phenomenon.

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 →

Should hukou system reform focus on rural land rights?

There is an interesting working paper out from the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, “China’s mobility barriers and employment allocations“, that attempts to redirect the debate over China’s household registration (hukou) system.

China’s hukou system is intended to restrict and redirect urbanization, and this is exactly what it does: because people born with a rural hukou cannot claim government benefits in an urban area, fewer people migrate from rural to urban areas than would otherwise be the case. Most of the discussion over the hukou system (such as in these two excellent recent WSJ articles) emphasizes how it restricts migration through its links to various social services and social welfare policies. The authors of this paper (Rachel Ngai, Christopher Pissarides, Jin Wang) compare this aspect of hukou policy with a less-studied one: the potential for rural people to lose their land rights if they migrate to urban areas.

In our view, barriers to mobility from the hukou registration system arise mainly along two dimensions. First and foremost in the use of land, which is provided free by the state to rural families but is in principle withdrawn when the farmer gives up agricultural employment to move to a different job; and second in the provision of social services such as education and health, which are conditional on each person’s hukou registration and in particular the area that she lives. …

We show that the land policy embedded in the hukou system slows down migration from the land and calculate that this has led to overemployment in agriculture of 6.3 percentage points. The 6.3 points of overemployment in agriculture have come at the cost of 4.1 points underemployment in urban sectors and 2.2 points underemployment in rural non-agricultural sectors. The policy followed with respect to social transfers has further held back migration out of agriculture by another 0.4 percentage points. The biggest impact of the social transfer policy, however, is on urbanization (rather than industrialization). Because of it, rural businesses overexpanded at the expense of urban businesses, as agricultural workers prefer to stay in rural areas to benefit from their local hukou registration than move to the city and lose their local hukou. …

We find that land policy and the absence of property rights for farmers are the main channels through which the hukou system distorts both urbanization and industrialization. The social subsidies are too small by comparison, and although they have an impact on urbanization and the growth of rural enterprises, their impact on industrialization is much less. This is an important finding in light of the literature that highlights the role of hukou in restricting the access of migrants to the social services received by urban hukou holders. Such restrictions may have important social consequences but their distortionary effects on migration flows are not large.

This quantitative finding suggests that the economic benefits to China of liberalizing rural land rights would be much greater than the expansion of social welfare benefits. The theory is that if farmers had full property rights in their land, they would be able to transfer their land to others and could enjoy an income stream from the land even while working in the city. In that case more farmers would seek more productive non-agricultural employment, and national incomes would be higher as a result.

The quantitative estimate in the paper however assumes that no transfers of rural land are taking place in China today:

In the formal modelling that follows we deal with the complex issue of transfers by focusing on two extremes, one with no transfers and one with full property rights with transfers. We consider the former to be a much closer description of the present situation in China, whereas the latter corresponds to a policy reform that involves the privatization of land, something not yet contemplated by the People’s Republic. …

Although it is apparent that some unrecorded transfers of land are taking place, we ignore them in this derivation. They are small in number, the rental is unrecorded but believed to be below market rate and they do not make much difference to farmer’s attitudes. But given that some migrant workers do find ways to retain some income from their land, the impact that we calculate should be treated as an upper bound for the costs of the policy.

I’m not so sure that assumption is so easy to make. Transfers of land among farmers are allowed under current law, and have been officially encouraged (albeit with some limits) for several years now. Official statistics show that about one-third of the farmland managed under the household responsibility system has been transferred in one way or another, which is a lot more than zero.

I do think there are large economic effects from China’s rural property rights system, and the paper is right to focus on them. But the size of those effects is likely to be smaller than the estimates in the paper, as there has already been some gradual change in the direction it recommends.

Anton Chekhov, the investigative data journalist

I can no longer recall what pointed me toward Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Islandbut it is definitely one of my better literary discoveries in a while. In it we see a writer best known for short fiction undertaking a huge piece of nonfiction: a comprehensive account of the penal colony on Sakhalin in 1890, combining travel writing and character sketches with policy analysis and, perhaps most surprisingly, the presentation of vast quantities of data.

Here is some background on what prompted Chekhov’s investigation, which seemed just as out of character to his contemporaries as it does it to us; from the notes to this edition:

At the end of 1889, unexpectedly, and for no apparent reason, the twenty-nine year-old author announced his intention to leave European Russia, and to travel across Siberia to Sakhalin, the large island separating Siberia and the Pacific Ocean, following which he would write a full-scale examination of the penal colony maintained there by the Tsarist authorities. …

Sakhalin, since it was an island, and as far away from central Russia as one could go without leaving the country, was used at the time exclusively as a destination for long-term hard-labour convicts, who – apart from those on life terms – would serve out their sentences, then proceed to live in a local village to serve for several years with the status of a felon who was rehabilitating himself by learning to live a productive life in the community. Finally, when this period of “probation” was over, he or she would have their free-person’s rights restored to them and could leave for the mainland – but were still not allowed back to central Russia; they had to remain in Siberia for life. The authorities hoped by this policy to turn Sakhalin into a thriving colony on the lines of Australia, and numerous dishonest reports appeared in the European Russian press, planted by the government, claiming that this aim was being achieved.

There is a an argumentative core to the book, which is to show that the idea of using prison labor to develop a colony is a hopeless contradiction. The fundamental reason for this is that building up a successful economy and society in a colony requires individual initiative and responsibility, which is what a prison exists to destroy:

A prison is antagonistic to a colony, and their interests are in inverse ratio to each other. Life in the communal cells reduces a prisoner to the condition of a serf, and in the course of time, makes him degenerate; the habits of the life of the herd stifle within him the instincts of a permanently settled man and domesticated householder; his health declines, he grows old and weakens morally, and the later he leaves the prison the more reasons there are to fear that he will not turn out an active, useful member of the colony, but merely a burden to it.

A related theme is that in any competition between exile or convict labor and free labor, free labor always wins, because they do a better job. And therefore that the government idea behind the colony–that forced exile can be an effective economic development program–is fatally flawed. (Of course, this did not prevent the Soviet government from attempting the same thing on a much vaster scale with the Gulag system in the twentieth century.) In this passage Chekhov thinks through what the rational economic development of Sakhalin might look like, and concludes that the penal colony would inevitably wither away:

The major wealth of Sakhalin, and its – possibly enviable and happy – future, lies not, as people think, in fur-bearing animals but in the seasonal fish. … For fishing to take on the significance of a serious industry, the colony should be moved closer to the mouth of the Tym or the Poronai. But this is not the only prerequisite. It is also necessary that free individuals should not compete with the exile population, since there is no type of business in which, where there is a clash of interests, the free would not gain the upper hand over the exiles.

However, the exiles are in competition with the Japanese, who either conduct their fishing in a contraband fashion or else pay duty, and with the officials, who take possession of the best spots for the prison fisheries, and the time is already approaching when, with the construction of the Siberian railway and the development of shipping, rumours of the fabulous wealth of fish and fur-bearing animals will attract the free to the island; immigration will commence, genuine fisheries will be set up, in which the exile will take part not as a proprietor-businessman but merely as a hired hand, and then, judging from similar situations in the past, complaints will begin that the labour of the exiles is, in many respects, inferior to the labour of the free, even to that of the Manzes and Koreans; from the economic point of view, the exile population will come to be considered a burden for the island, and, with the expansion of immigration and the development of a settled and commercial way of life on the island, the state itself will find it more just and profitable to take the side of the free element and call a halt to the process of exile. And so, fish shall constitute the prosperity of Sakhalin, but not of the exile colony.

But there are actually very few of these moments where Chekhov speaks in his own voice to editorialize or tell us what to think: his method is “show, don’t tell,” and the patient accumulation of overwhelming and often heartbreaking detail. As part of his three-month investigation, Chekhov made his own census of the exile population, conducting brief interviews with every household he could find. This provided him with a wealth not only of impressions and anecdotes, but also data. Here is one of the more quantitative passages to give a taste of this aspect of the book:

In order to form a judgement as to the time of the year escapes are most often committed, I have utilized the few statistics which I did manage to find and note down. In 1877, 1878, 1885, 1887, 1888 and 1889, 1,501 convicts absconded. This figure breaks down into months thus:

  • January 117
  • February 64
  • March 20
  • April 20
  • May 147
  • June 290
  • July 283
  • August 231
  • September 150
  • October 44
  • November 35
  • December 100

If one were to draw a curve of the escapes on a graph, its highest points would relate to the summer months and to those winter months when the frosts are heaviest. Obviously, the most favourable moments for carrying out escapes are when the weather is warm, when work is being carried on outside the prison, during the seasonal fish run, when the berries are ripening in the taiga, and when the settled exiles’ potatoes are fully mature, and after these, the time when the sea is covered with ice, when Sakhalin ceases to be an island. Also conducive to the rises in the summer and winter months is the arrival of new parties on the spring and autumn voyages. Least of all abscond in March and April, because during these months the ice breaks up on the rivers, and it is impossible to obtain food either in the taiga or from settled exiles, who by the spring usually no longer have any food left themselves.

In 1889, 15.33 per cent of the average yearly complement escaped from the Alexandrovsk Prison; from the Dooay and Voyevodsk Prisons – where, besides overseers, sentries with rifles also keep guard over the prisoners – 6.4 per cent escaped in 1889, and from the prisons of the Tymovsk District, nine per cent. These figures relate only to the year under review, but if one were to take the entire available total of convicts over the whole duration of their stay on the island, the ratio of those who have run off at various times to the total complement amounts to no less than sixty per cent – that is, of every five individuals whom you see in the prison or in the streets, three, for a certainty, will have already attempted to decamp. From talks with the exiles I gained the impression they had all gone off at some stage. It is rare for anybody, during the course of his sentence, not to arrange a holiday for himself.

The comprehensiveness–geography, population, health, economy–of Chekhov’s account seems characteristically and delightfully nineteenth-century to me. It’s not a perfect book: a nonfiction writer today would use a much less schematic structure, and would try to link the chapters with more of a narrative thread than Chekhov does. But in the end it is a wonderfully vivid and detailed portrait of a particular place at a particular time, which is probably more valuable than a purely personal reflection or polemical argument.


One complaint is that although the translation reads very well, it was not well-served by the publisher: in the electronic edition the notes are not linked, making them basically unusable, and in the print edition the type is too small.