Today’s China Is Communist and Modern, Not High Modernist

This rebuttal to my recent post on China is a cross-post from Jeremy Wallace’s blog, Science of Politics, with his permission. You can see the original here. Thanks to a shout-out from Marginal Revolution, my post got a lot of views, and I hope Jeremy’s response will get the same. He’s the expert on China, so his argument has me reconsidering my views.

The Chinese government released its long-awaited urbanization plan (国家新型城镇化规划) on 16 March. Ian Johnson, who has written extensively about China’s urbanization for the New York Times, begins his piece on the announcement of the plan in grand terms:

China has announced a sweeping plan to manage the flow of rural residents into cities, promising to promote urbanization but also to solve some of the drastic side effects of this great uprooting.

These descriptions of nondemocratic regime’s releasing “sweeping” plans to reshape their economic geography made Jay Ulfelder think of High Modernism, largely from Jim Scott’sSeeing Like a State. Scott describes significant disasters that have emerged out of failed social engineering projects. Ulfelder quotes from a review of Scott’s excellent book by Cass Sunstein:

Scott does not deny that some designs are well-motivated, and he acknowledges that plans can sometimes do a lot of good. He is concerned to show that when a government, with its “thin simplifications” of complicated systems, fails to understand how human beings organize (and disorganize) themselves, its plans are doomed from the start. Scott calls some governments practitioners of “high modernism,” a recipe for many natural and social disasters, including tyranny… Left to itself, this ideology is overconfident but benign. [High modernism] becomes authoritarian when it is conjoined to “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.” This is especially dangerous when it is linked to “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.” Thus the greatest calamities in Scott’s book involve a weak society that cannot adapt to a government’s plans.

In some ways, then, the summary of the plan in the NYT looks like a classical example of High Modernism. As Ulfelder writes,

China’s sweeping plans for controlled urbanization strike me as high modernism par excellence. This scheme is arguably the twenty-first century version of agricultural collectivization—the kind of “revolution from above” that Stalin promised, only now the goal is to put people into cities instead of farms, and to harness market forces instead of refuting them. ”We are here on the path to modernity,” the thinking seems to go, “and we want to be there. We are a smart and powerful state, so we will meticulously plan this transformation, and then use our might to induce it.”

Such a characterization leads Ulfelder to two predictions.

If Scott is right about these “certain schemes,” though, then two things are liable to happen. First, China’s new plan for managed urbanization will probably fail on its own terms. It will fail because human planners don’t really understand how these processes work, and even if those planners did understand, they still couldn’t control them. This prediction doesn’t imply that China won’t continue to urbanize, or even that city-dwellers’ quality of life won’t continue to improve on average. It just means that those trends will continue in spite of these grand plans instead of because of them. If the American experience in Afghanistan—or, heck, in its own urban centers—is any guide, we should expect many of the housing developments, schools, and transportation infrastructure born of this plan to go underused and eventually to decay. Or, as an economist might put it, the return on investment will probably be poor.

The second prediction of sorts I take from Scott’s book is that the Chinese Communist Party’s plans for socially engineered urbanization will probably produce a lot of conflict and suffering on their way to failure.

I disagree with the assessment of the plan as high modernism and with the causal mechanisms underlying the predictions that arise from it. It isn’t high modernist because China doesn’t “plan” like it used to and the described policies incrementally adjust the status quo. The predictions themselves are not wrong so much as they are already correct.

First, the nature of planning in China has gradually moved away from the intense micro-managing of the eponymous Planned Economy to something much more akin to policies that shape the incentive structure of local governments and individuals by allocating marginal resources more to one locale rather than another. That is, China governs like a modern state, not a high modern one. Even the words used in plans have changed, as pointed out by Philipp C.C. Huang:

If one looks to the evolution in the Chinese terms for planning, we can see that the words have changed first from jihua 计划 and zhilingxing jihua 指令性计划 or “commandist planning” to zhidaoxing jihua 指导性计划 or “guidance planning,” and, more recently, to abandoning the old term jihua completely in favor of guihua 规划, now the commonly used term for what the new National Development and Reform Commission (国家发展和改革委员会), which replaced the old National Planning Commission (国家计划委员会), undertakes.

This semantic change reflects a real reduction in the Party’s control of the day-to-day operations of the economy. This can be seen in the fact that this document is often described as “long-awaited.” It is long-awaited because it was supposed to be announced last year. As Jamil Anderlini of the FT put it,

The urbanisation plan was originally expected to be published more than a year ago, but deep divisions between government departments and dissatisfaction from Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, who has been a strong champion of the scheme, delayed the plan’s publication until now.

I would argue that this slowly rolled out plans like this one are less likely to be sweeping than those that emerge out of nowhere. Additionally, this dissatisfaction implies that, unlike in China under Mao, local implementation of the plan is unlikely to be anything but grudging. There is a growing literature on local resistance to implementing central dictates in China (e.g., Margaret Pearson and Mei Ciqi have a nice forthcoming paper in China Journal entitled “Killing the Chicken to Scare the Monkey: Sanctions, Shared Beliefs and Local Defiance in China” that I can’t find online).

Second, the document is not a radical departure from prior policy. Johnson’s statement “the plan [is] the country’s first attempt at broadly coordinating one of the greatest migrations in history” fits awkwardly with a history of policies regulating and restricting migration that have existed since 1950s (I might have just finished writing a book about China’s management of urbanization).

The household registration (hukou) system was established when Soviet-style industrialization was initiated to control that true high modernist policy’s unintended consequences, namely blind flows of farmers into cities looking for work and escaping rural taxation. This system of effective migration restrictions has been tinkered with at the national and subnational level countless times during China’s post-Mao Reform Era (1978–). Over the past ten years, such reforms have been constantly trumpeted but implemented reality rarely measures up to the hype of policy announcement. Yet reforms have certainly taken place; Tom Miller’s great China’s Urban Billion summarizes many recent changes well.

The newly released document describes policies that are broadly similar to what we have seen time after time in recent years: continued “strict control” of population growth in the largest cities and encouragement of development of small and medium-sized cities, particularly in the country’s central and western regions. What is different here is a central commitment to assist local government’s fund the infrastructure of their cities and efforts to contain “land urbanization,” where local governments claim rural land from village collectives, pay farmers a pittance, and sell it at a huge profit to developers. The urbanization of land causes the “forced urbanization” of individuals that Ian Johnson’s reporting decries, so attempts to reduce its prevalence going forward should be welcomed.

Why does this plan sound high modernist then? Because it emanates from a Communist Party-led regime that still tends to use language more appropriate to the grand pronouncements of Marxism. It is a Communist state. The regime retains the power to manage the economy and guides it towards in desired directions but in general refrains from stating desired ends.

As for the predictions coming from classifying China as high modernist, the country already is dealing with serious problems of ghost cities where any return on investment is questionable. It is certainly possible that aiding the development of small and medium cities will turn out being wasteful economically, even if it might be savvy politically. In terms of urban instability and violence, I’m sanguine. I see this plan as continuing in a long line of policies that the regime has put forward to try to avoid urban unrest–incorporating slums, expanding access to urban social services, and slowing down land confiscations–are all reasonable levers for the center to use to tamp down the possibilities of protest in cities.

In the end, the Chinese regime speaks with archaic language–that is indeed, occasionally frightening–but acts like a modern state. Today’s CCP leadership certainly prefers to depoliticize and to quantify, to argue that it is pursuing “development,” “progress,” and “modernization” without giving the Chinese people much of a voice to prevent them from doing so. But so do other modern states. China today is far from the catastrophes of its high modern era, namely the Great Leap Forward. Let us all be thankful that this is so.

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  1. I agree with Jeremy that China isn’t a high modernist state. It is a lot more fragmented and fractured than it is seen from outside. The national government can announce grand plans in grandiose term, but tweaking, non-conforming, and distortion by local officials are very common. The national government can do little about it.

    However, I am not as sanguine on the effects of urbanization on social stability and violence. While the INTENTION of urbanization maybe to reduce urban slums, instability, the way that urbanization–specifically, land expropriation and relocation of landless peasants–has been carried out produces the opposite effects. I draw this conclusion based on my own work and reports by popular press.

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