The best books I read in 2017

As with previous lists, these are my favorites among the books I read for the first time in 2017, not of books only published in 2017. It’s not quite as diverse a list as in the past, as I did a lot of reading on Chinese and Russian history this year and less on other topics. Books are listed roughly in the order in which I read them:


  • Ian W. Toll, The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944. A marvelously clear and vivid history of the first American offensives in World War II, with many good nuggets of economic and social history mixed in. A worthy sequel to his Pacific Crucible.
  • Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. Published in 2014, this is so far my favorite book for understanding the political earthquakes of 2016. His arguments about the effect of technology on media and the loss of authority of elites have only gotten more relevant.
  • George Steiner, George Steiner at the New Yorker. There are so many gems in these essays, I will choose one rather than try to summarize: “There is in men and women a motivation stronger even than love or hatred or fear. It is that of being interested—in a body of knowledge, in a problem, in a hobby, in tomorrow’s newspaper.”
  • Ian Johnson, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. Wonderful reporting on the survival of traditional religion in contemporary China, filled with insights into all aspects of Chinese life.
  • Donald Hall, Essays After Eighty. Spare, lyrical and unsentimental reports from the unforgiving territory of old age. “The days have narrowed, as they must.”
  • Books about Siberia. My best reading experience of the year was not a single book but a collection of them, on a topic that sits at the intersection of a few of my obsessions: economic geography, socialism, extreme cold. Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia is the easiest to recommend, a warm-heated and capacious engagement with the history and reality of Siberia. Fiona Hill & Clifford Gaddy’s The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold is more for wonks, but is extremely interesting. Out of the huge literature of Russian primary sources about Siberian exile and the Gulag, I have only read Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Islandwhich while not a masterpiece is still fascinating.
  • Robert Loh & Humphrey Evans, Escape from Red China. A riveting first-person account of Mao’s ideological purges and the expropriation of private business during the 1950s.
  • János Kornai, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism. This 1991 masterpiece is of far more than historical interest, and still ranks as required reading for anyone trying to understand the Chinese economy. I should have read it years ago.


  • Eve Babitz, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. An impressionistic slice of life of Los Angeles in the early 1970s, in which Babitz works very hard to seem superficial but constantly amazes with her insight and turns of phrase.
  • Francis Spufford, Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York. A novel about social trust and identity that is richly detailed and vividly historical, yet quite contemporary in its concerns.
  • John Kessel, The Moon and the Other. My vote for science fiction book of the year, not genre escapism but a vigorous engagement with ideas and human nature. The story revolves around a matriarchal socialist utopia that must deal with internal dissent and a conflict with radical free-market Iranians.
  • Ge Fei, The Invisibility Cloak. There are many things to like about this short book, but to me it captures very well how contemporary Chinese are both globalized and local, simultaneously trapped in family relationships and adrift in a chaotic society.
  • Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life. Delivers fully on its title despite its compact length. This account of a simple man’s simple life plays down conflict and upheaval in favor of quiet reflection.
  • Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time. A sympathetic imagining of the inner life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich as he struggles with the demands of the Soviet state.
  • Min Jin Lee, Pachinko. An absolutely engrossing Korean family epic, as good as everyone says. Although I’m not done yet, it probably will be the best novel I read this year.

The best music I heard in 2017

As with previous lists, this is based just on my own listening, rather than what was released this year, and there’s not a huge number of new releases here. Recordings are listed roughly in the order in which I heard them, not of preference:


  • Mary Halvorson – Away With You. More fantastic work from guitar goddess Halvorson, with an ever-growing ensemble to showcase her knotty, exploratory compositions. Also excellent is Paimon, where she tackles John Zorn compositions in a dual-guitar quartet.
  • Steve Lacy – Morning Joy…Paris Live. An absolutely ripping live recording by one of the best working jazz groups of the 1980s.
  • Art Farmer & Benny Golson – Meet The Jazztet. One of the best 1960s hard bop recordings, from a group that is often overlooked.
  • Tony Scott – Gypsy. Scott could play the clarinet louder and more forcefully than anyone before or since, and the energy in this short set of standards is amazing.
  • Gil Evans – There Comes A Time. A large-ensemble masterpiece from the 1970s, in which Evans’ quest for new sounds brings him into the territory of electric Miles and Sun Ra.
  • King Tubby – Shalom Dub. Classic early work from the master of instrumental reggae.
  • Philip Cohran – On The Beach. Although mostly known for his association with Sun Ra, Cohran’s own music is wonderful. This 1968 recording is probably his best work, but also check out the gorgeous African Skies, as well as the record he made with his children, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
  • Nicole Mitchell – Awakening. Mitchell’s spectacular vocalized flute solos are backed by a tight small group of just guitar, bass, drums.
  • Craig Taborn – Daylight Ghosts. An unusual, atmospheric and complex recording, evoking minimalism as often as jazz.
  • Etta James – Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals SessionsAbsolutely essential soul, so good it’s embarrassing to admit I had not really appreciated Etta before.
  • Various Artists – Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From The Horn Of Africa. Fresh and fascinating African music, with a great backstory.
  • Minutemen – What Makes A Man Start Fires. Decades after their brief early 1980s run, the Minutemen’s punky, jazzy miniatures still sound like nothing else in popular music, and the Watt-Hurley partnership remains one of the greatest rock rhythm sections.
  • Genius/GZA – Liquid Swords. My idea of what hip-hop should sound like was formed in the early 1990s by the dense, funky sound collages of the Bomb Squad, so I did not immediately appreciate the minimalist style of the Wu-Tang Clan; this album helped change my mind.
  • Django Reinhardt – Django In Rome 1949-1950. The last recordings Django would make with his great partner Stephane Grappelli, with some of their best interplay on record.
  • Sun Ra – Universe in Blue. The heroic work of the Sun Ra Arkive is making many long-lost recordings readily available for the first time in decades. I like this 1972 live recording much more than a lot of his stuff from the period; the title track in particular is great, a moody small-group workout with a strong John Gilmore feature.

Tianjin’s 1955 campaign to expel rural migrants

The recent forced eviction of thousands of migrant workers from Beijing (see this ChinaFile discussion for an overview) has been a rather depressing confirmation of what I wrote about in my socialist urbanization series of posts earlier this year. China’s urbanization policy is, unfortunately, still captive to a vision of top-down management of population flows with its origins in socialist planning.

While there were campaigns to push migrants out of Beijing earlier this year, the latest one has been notably harsher, and has attracted much more public criticism. I can’t begin to sort through everything, but one interesting tidbit did turn up in the flood of online commentary. An article from 2016, describing a 1955 campaign to expel rural migrants from Tianjin, has been reposted across the Chinese internet–without additional commentary, since the parallels are pretty obvious to everyone.

It’s interesting enough that I have translated several excerpts from it below:

After Tianjin’s port opened in 1860, rural villagers gradually developed a tradition of seeking work there, because of Tianjin’s advantageous geographical location and transport links, along with the difficult conditions in surrounding rural villages. After the foundation of New China [in 1949], the spontaneous movement of peasants into Tianjin did not decline. In just seven days in March 1953, more than 1,450 people “blindly” moved into urban districts. In the year from January 1954 to February 1955, the rural population migrating to Tianjin reached 119,923 people.

From the perspective of the government, peasants “blindly” migrating to Tianjin was not beneficial to the city or the countryside. Therefore, in 1955 Tianjin carried out its first campaign-style program of “mobilizing the blind inflows of people into Tianjin to return to the villages and work.” This program used many kinds of mobilization strategies simultaneously, and in the end, many tens of thousands of rural migrants in Tianjin were successfully returned to their villages. In the following decade, the Tianjin government repeatedly organized campaigns to return peasants to their villages, but generally their methods were based on the 1955 campaign.

The government was fairly worried about all the peasants moving on their own into the city. At the time, the Tianjin Municipal Committee said: “After these people move in, the vast majority do not find work, and become part of the city’s consumer population, adding to the burden on the government.” But this statement is not entirely consistent with the actual situation at the time, and did not help people understand the true reasons why rural people were moving to the city. According to the statistics of one police station in Tianjin for February, April and October of 1954, “after these people came to the city, 21% found steady employment, and 23% found irregular employment.” That is to say, in the area covered by this police station, 44% of the rural migrant population had found work. …

One of the ways peasants would make a living in Tianjin was to use city friends or relatives, or the labor market in Wandezhuang, to find positions as temporary workers or apprentices in factories, mines, enterprises and shops. Another was for them to carry their own simple tools and walk down the streets and alleys asking for work. …In fact at the time, because grain rationing had not yet been implemented in the cities, and urban wages were fairly high, they could feed their families. From the perspective of the peasants, moving to the city is the natural result of a rational calculation.

But this was not the case from the government perspective. The development strategy of prioritizing heavy industry limited the ability of the city’s labor market to absorb new workers. According to statistics, every 100 million yuan of investment in light industry would require 16,000 workers, but the same investment in heavy industry would require only 5,000 workers. … After the start of the heavy industry construction under the First Five-Year Plan, investment in commerce and services gradually declined. One result was that people’s life in the city became less convenient, it became harder to find places to eat or make clothes; another result was that the number of job openings shrank, and Tianjin’s job market could not absorb all the people coming from the countryside.

The large-scale migration of peasants also reduced the farm labor force and threatened agricultural stability, and with it the national plan for economic development. The propaganda of the time said: “if agricultural development cannot keep up with the demands of industrial development, and industry cannot obtain sufficient supplies of grain and raw materials, socialist industrialization cannot be achieved.”

Overall, from the government perspective, the “blind” migration of peasants to the city damaged the order of the nation’s planned economy, worsened the pressure on urban employment, reduced the productivity of the countryside and affected agricultural output. It’s worth pointing out that in 1953 and 1954, Tianjin carried out two operations to discourage rural migration, but because only regular methods were employed, they were not very effective.

Because of the increasingly serious in-migration problem, in 1955 the Tianjin Municipal Committee decided to launch the first focused, citywide operation to mobilize the migrant population to return to the villages, led by the Party committee and the government and assisted by multiple departments. This operation required all work units to “take effective measures to ensure the migrant population in a planned and step-by-step manner returns to their villages to participate in production, and to prevent continued blind inflows of external population to the city in the future.” Designated as a project with “historical significance for the work of socialist transformation,” it was Tianjin’s first campaign-style peasant mobilization since 1949, and policymakers had high expectations for its success.

“Propaganda and education” was very important to the mobilization work. Compared with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party is better at techniques of “persuasion and education,” and these were used the most. … But in practice Tianjin also used administrative measures relating to labor, household registration and grain to consolidate and expand the initial results of the mobilization campaign.

From 1949 to 1954, the city government’s administration of hukou was fairly relaxed. During this period, due to the relevant provisions of the “Common Program” [the temporary constitution of 1949] on the right to freedom of movement, Tianjin basically did not restrict the transfer of hukou and migrants could apply for an urban hukou as long as they had migration permits. However with the 1955 campaign to mobilize peasants to return to their, such a relaxed policy was no longer appropriate, and in July the Tianjin Municipal Committee restricted the hukou registration of “people blindly entering Tianjin from the countryside or other places.” However, the ability of the household registration system to control migration would not have been great without its being linked to grain supply and employment.

In August 1955, the State Council and Tianjin Municipality announced the start of the grain rationing system in Tianjin. Each resident of Tianjin would be issued grain vouchers for a fixed amount of grain, depending on their work and age, and grain would be supplied according to the vouchers. Without a Tianjin urban hukou, it was not possible to complete the procedures to obtain grain vouchers, and thus impossible to buy grain. The supply of grain was also limited: in 1955, the first allocation plan called for distributing an average of 26.51 pounds per person, 2.81 pounds less than the original plan. Many people felt that this was not enough to entertain friends or family, or make festive dishes for the holidays. Because the grain quotas could only satisfy, or not even completely satisfy, their own needs,  urban residents found it difficult to assist their rural friends and relatives.

For those unemployed workers that fit the profile of those to be returned to their villages, the Tianjin municipal employment agencies stopped providing job placement services, and stopped or delayed their unemployment relief. In May 1955, the Tianjin Administration of Industry & Commerce also carried out a campaign to ban unlicensed street vendors, and to mobilize rural street vendors to return to their villages. In August 1955, the effort was expanded to licensed street vendors who met the requirements for being returned to their villages. To encourage the vendors to leave, state-owned companies stopped supplying them with goods, and local police stations limited the distribution of grain vouchers. By the second half of 1955, those peasants doing business on the streets of Tianjin could tell which way the wind was blowing. …

By mid-February 1956, when the mobilization campaign concluded, 126,324 peasants in Tianjin had been mobilized to return to their cities, and the flow of population into the city had been greatly reduced. …

Before the founding of New China, the Chinese Communist Party thought of peasants as the predecessors of workers, and that therefore in the future many millions of peasants would enter the cities and work in factories. But after the founding of New China, the government did not welcome the rural population spontaneously flowing into the cities. It thought that the building of the nation must be carried out in a planned and organized manner, and that peasants must not be blindly drawn into the cities.

The author is Wang Linran, a historian at Nankai University in Tianjin. The Chinese citation for the original article is 王凛然,《“进城”与“还乡”:1955年农民“盲目”进津与政府应对》, 《史林》,2016年,第4期,第157-168页.


A Tianjin coop in 1956

Chinese economic history as seen through eyeglasses

I recently got a new pair of glasses from an American optician, after almost two decades of buying my glasses in China. There was definitely some sticker shock on my part: it really drove home how the relative prices of customized labor-intensive goods can dramatically differ between a high-labor-cost economy and a lower-labor-cost economy. But it also made me think about all the various places in China I have bought glasses from over the years, and how they changed as the economy developed.

The first pair of glasses I bought in Beijing, probably somewhere around 1998-2000, was from a big state-owned store on the Wangfujing shopping street (it’s not there anymore of course, the redevelopment down there has left only a few landmarks untouched). It was classic SOE retail: massively overstaffed by lots of officious middle-aged employees in white jackets, who make you fill out paperwork in triplicate just to pay the bill. But it was well known and trusted–not perhaps to give you the absolute best deal, but to ensure some basic level of quality and not completely rip you off. While there’s not much state-owned retail around these days, consumer-facing SOEs still tend to trade on that higher level of trust.

In later years I was introduced to the wonders of the “glasses city” (眼镜城): massive buildings featuring floors and floors of nothing but opticians, who will measure your prescription and grind out your lenses in a few hours. On various occasions I went to two different ones, both in the Panjiayuan area. No licensing, no regulation, no safety standards (the haze of toxic fumes was worrying), but wow, overwhelming choice and unbelievable prices. The lack of barriers to entry was also apparent in the people running the stores too: rather than the local Beijingers who staffed the state outlets, they were often migrants from places like Fujian.

Here was a rare real-world example of almost-perfect competition. The tradeoff was almost exactly the opposite of the state store: low prices in exchange for low levels of trust. With hundreds of suppliers, doing any kind of systematic comparison shopping would take more time than it was worth–so it was normal to get a friend or relative to provide an introduction to a reliable shop.


But eventually the shopping adventure in the glasses city started to get tiring, and I wanted something less random and exhausting. My wife was also encouraging me to get higher-quality glasses. For my last couple of pairs, I headed to local-brand chain retailers. While in the U.S. it seems like the high end of the eyewear market is occupied by independent opticians and chain stores cater more to budget shoppers, it’s the reverse in China: the independent operators are in the low-end glasses city, and the larger operations go after the higher-end market.

Still, the experience was a bit more like developed-world retail. Prices are higher, but (perceived) quality is also higher. Of course there is competition, but much effort goes into mitigating its effects, and on upselling the consumer with endless options and upgrades, all presented as backed by the latest technology and medical research. You come out with a pretty good pair of glasses, but also the feeling that you did not quite understand what you just bought and are not exactly sure why you paid what you did. But overall the model is not as medicalized as in the U.S., where opticians act as healthcare providers and “prescribe” glasses–trying to take advantage of the fact that you are not supposed to bargain over healthcare costs.

These three types of shopping experience do, in hindsight, seem to match up rather nicely with the different stages of China’s economic life: from the socialist 1970s, to the explosion of hyper-competitive small businesses in the 1980s and 1990s, to the more recent phase of consolidation and oligopoly and the rising importance of branding and fashion.

I do feel a bit nostalgic for the free-for-all of the glasses city. While it’s still there, I think it’s past its prime, as rising urban incomes mean that more and more of the population is probably making the same calculation I did: pay more in order to spend less time and get higher quality. And the next stage is clearly coming, though I haven’t bought glasses online yet in either country.

What I’ve been listening to lately: clarinet choirs

There is nothing quite like the rich, woody sound of a mass of clarinets, especially when the lower-end members of the family join in. Yet few jazz ensembles have featured the combination of multiple clarinets. These are the ones that I know and like, a list that is not as long as it should be:


  • John Carter’s Clarinet Summit. If there ever was a trend for clarinet choirs, the recording that started it was probably this group’s 1981 Concert At The Public Theater. In a response to the then-current fashion for saxophone quartets, Carter brought together the New Orleans modernist Alvin Batiste and Ellington alum Jimmy Hamilton to join him on clarinet, along with David Murray on bass clarinet. It’s a great listen, moving from lovely Ellington arrangements to a solo feature for Murray to more adventurous Carter compositions. Unfortunately the album is not readily available these days; the follow-up studio recording Southern Bells is, but to me is a bit less compelling.
  • Hamiett Bluiett’s Clarinet Family. True to its name, this grouping featured every member of the clarinet family, from the massive contrabass all the way up to the tiny sopranino, backed with the great rhythm section of Fred Hopkins on bass and Ronnie Burrage on drums. Bluiett himself, better known as a baritone saxophonist, plays the seldom-heard alto clarinet. This 1984 concert recording is possibly one of my favorite jazz records of all time, not just for the great clarinet sound, but for its high-energy drive and exuberance, reminiscent of Mingus at his best.
  • Douglas Ewart’s Inventions Clarinet Choir. The multi-instrumentalist Ewart is responsible for one of the greatest recorded bass clarinet solos, his feature on George Lewis’ 1978 Homage to Charles Parker. But he also led his own clarinet ensemble starting in the 1980s. I have only heard a few of these recordings, but they are very high quality indeed; mostly they are available through his website.
  • Mark Whitecage’s Licorice Factory. I know less about this group, which produced only one 1985 album. It’s a clarinet trio with the great Perry Robinson on soprano, Whitecage on alto and Mike Morgenstren on bass, backed by a standard rhythm section. The recording is actually pretty traditional despite the avant-garde background of Robinson and Whitecage, featuring several lively swing tributes; there’s also a nice arrangement of Oliver Nelson’s classic “Stolen Moments.”
  • Wendell Harrison’s Mama’s Licking Stick Clarinet Ensemble. In a slightly different format, this group features two soloists – Harrison on standard soprano clarinet and James Carter on contrabass clarinet – backed with a clarinet section and rhythm. Their 1994 album Rush & Hustle is fresh and lively, and Carter’s low-end rumblings are excellent. 


Westworld in China anecdote of the day

This has to be one of the odder side effects of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the US and China in 1979:

In the middle of all this, to set the seal on new-found friendship, in early February 1979 China’s supreme leader went off on his famous trip to the United States. Screened without commentary to an astounded television audience back home, the diminutive Deng Xiaoping was paraded nightly schmoozing with his new friend Jimmy Carter and assorted U.S. moneybags. Here he was at Simonton, Texas, at a rodeo, buried under a ten-gallon Stetson. There he was, taking tea and sandwiches in the palatial ranch-house style villa of a ‘typical’ American worker.

And this was the week, too, that our local cinema, and no doubt every movie-house in the nation, chose to screen Yul Brunner in Westworld.

Westworld’s story line has leading world statesmen invited to a subterranean lair in a Nevada desert crawling with rattlesnakes. Once there, their brains and organs are dismantled, to be replaced by robotic parts. Heads and bodies are then sewn up to create an end result indistinguishable from the human original. The robot ‘leaders’ are then despatched to their respective countries where they must do the bidding of an evil West World clique bent on ruling the universe.

This daft performance over, as we trooped down the concrete spittle-covered stairs of the cinema, I was all ears for audience reaction. Almost echoing my thoughts, though more literally, an elderly farmer grabbed my coat sleeves and proclaimed loudly: ‘Probably that’s what they’ll be doing to old Deng.’

That is from Richard Kirkby, Intruder in Mao’s Realm: An Englishman’s Eyewitness Account of 1970s China; the author was teaching English in Shandong province at the time.



The spectacle of businesses begging to be beggared

Robert Loh’s 1962 memoir, Escape from Red China, recently became available again as a low-priced ebook, and it deserves to be more widely read–and perhaps particularly so at this moment in Chinese history. It is a rare portrait of the early years of the People’s Republic, describing in vivid detail the progress of the Communist Party’s escalating political campaigns (Loh’s book is frequently cited in Frank Dikotter’s history of the period, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957).

While there are many memoirs of the later Cultural Revolution period from people who experienced it as children or adults, first-person accounts of the previous decade are much rarer. Loh’s account is particularly valuable since he was a family friend of the famous Shanghai “red capitalist” Rong Yiren, and worked for him managing flour mills (Rong is thinly disguised under the pseudonym “J.P. Chan” in the book, but his identity is obvious). Loh thus had firsthand experience of how the Communist Party dealt with private business in this period.

A particularly interesting section of the book is his account of the build-up to the nationalization of private businesses after 1956. Rather than simply expropriate private firms at a stroke, the Party gradually put ever more pressure on them to place themselves in public hands:

The softening-up became apparent in late 1954 when the first pilot projects for Joint State-Private Enterprise were inaugurated. One or two firms from each branch of trade were chosen. The pilot projects were always the best equipped and most profitably operated firms. The State acquired part ownership of these firms by taking over the shares of such “counter-revolutionary elements” as the big investor T. V. Soong, by taking shares in lieu of the fines assessed under [the] Five-Anti [campaign], and even, in a very few cases, by actual investment.

These pilot Joint State-Private Enterprises were given every possible advantage. Their assets were evaluated fairly. The tax levies were just. Government low-interest loans were easily available. Adequate quantities of raw materials were supplied promptly. Labor problems were solved without bother or friction. Priority was given to these firms’ distribution and transportation facilities. In fact, the government saw to it that the pilot projects operated smoothly and showed a healthy profit.

In short, the capitalists who had the State for a joint partner did very well indeed. Each of them was made into a rosy picture of socialism’s glorious future.

On the other hand, the horrors of “free” private enterprise were depicted even more graphically. We “national capitalists” whose firms were not chosen for Joint State-Private Enterprise were “softened up” by being denied all of the advantages given to the pilot project owners.

My experiences at the flour mills were typical. The contempt and animosity I had been receiving from the mills’ Party Secretary became worse. The amount of wheat sent to us by the government had not been enough to keep our mills operating a quarter of the time; now we were sent less. Moreover, the fees paid for our work were reduced. Our losses therefore became even greater. We were still not permitted to go out of business, but bank loans became even harder to get. And, of course, the workers were made to demonstrate more frequently and violently against me.

Later, Loh describes how Mao decided to accelerate the rollout of this model of “joint” enterprises to all private companies. There was enormous pressure to make this appear to happen voluntarily, with local businesspeople handing in their “applications” for state partnership in public celebrations.

All the Chinese Communist propaganda at the time emphasized the “miracle” of businessmen happily surrendering their enterprises. The inference was that they clamored for socialism because its benefits had been proven to them by the patient, kindly, generous, always truthful, meticulously honest and infinitely wise Communists. People in the Communist bloc and the more naïve in the neutralist nations accepted this explanation without question. I have gathered that the Westerners, however, have been confused ever since by the picture of businessmen begging to be beggared.

It is true that the Chinese businessmen did exhibit wild enthusiasm, but they acted out of fear. Each had been made to understand that his future depended on his contribution during the “high tide of socialist transformation.” Once he had given up his enterprise, he knew that his sole means of livelihood would depend on the whim of the Communists. In short, he was struggling with almost hysterical intensity simply for survival.

Moreover, he knew he would not survive at all if he refused to apply for Joint State-Private status. Of the 165,000 firms in Shanghai, I knew of only one whose owner did not make the application. He was an elderly man whose enterprise was a medium-size paper mill. I spoke to him and attempted, for his own good, to make him change his mind. He was too panic-stricken, however, to face the future without the possession of the enterprise which, throughout his life, had been his sole means of security. He quickly lost his possession, of course; immediately after the campaign the government cut off his source of raw materials and refused to place further orders with him. The bank refused him loans. Within two months, he was bankrupt. He was sued by his employees’ Trade Union and by the Tax Bureau. He was arrested and sentenced to the work gangs of labor reform.


I wouldn’t want to overdo the historical parallels with the present moment. But it’s true that the Communist Party is still a master of getting private companies to do what it wants, mainly by demonstrating how difficult life for them can be if they don’t.

The most obvious recent example is the crackdown on a group of high-flying private conglomerates, led by Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Group, which were pressured into abandoning overseas investments and selling billions of dollars of assets. “Wanda will respond to the state’s call,” Wang told Caixin when asked for an explanation of the sudden change of business strategy.

Another very interesting recent story is the reported desire of the government for big internet companies to “offer the state a stake” so that it can have a more direct role in managing social media and online commerce. It is hard not to hear some echoes of that 1950s push for companies to make voluntary applications to the state to take them over.