Land of rice, without fish

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:23 pm


There has been a some talk about China and fish of late, and while I generally don’t like me too posts, I think China’s relationship with fish is interesting. Basically, as China modernizes and gets richer there are fewer fish. The Yangzi river ecosystem has lost thousands of species as runoff, pollution overfishing and poor management have taken their toll. To some extent the Chinese have dealt with this by sending fishing fleets to West Africa to vacuum up every bit of piscine goodness they can get. While it is interesting to think of a new Zheng He returning from Africa with treasure in the form of fish, this is a pretty modern problem. With modern technology it gets easier and cheaper to overfish. You can deal with this in part by re-naming the junk Patagonian Toothfish the Chilean Sea Bass and serving it up, by cheating on your fishing quotas, etc. but there are limits to how much of that you can do.

I suspect that China (and the world) may be headed for a real disaster here, a disaster with Chinese characteristics. One thing that leads to overfishing is the tragedy of the commons. Especially in a hyper-capitalist system resources that are not owned by anyone will be exploited to the point of destruction. Another way to get an ecological disaster is to have huge Stalinist style state projects like the Three Gorges Dam, which was built without much attention being paid to what it would do to fish populations and spawning patterns. How many countries have both the yen (desire) and yuan (cash) for big Stalinist projects and a hyper-capitalist economy? Only China.

P.S. I’m not real up on the literature on China’s environment, but the various works of Vaclav Smil are a good place to start.

P.P.S. for our non-Chinese readers, Land of rice and fish (鱼米之乡) is the equivalent of the Land of milk and honey,  a place of great wealth and prosperity.


A fun toy

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:52 am

The Economist has a fun toy where you can compare Chinese provinces to various foreign countries.  Some of the comparisons don’t help much, given that some of these places don’t mean a lot to me. Yunnan has the GDP per person of Vanuatu and Guangxi of Swaziland? O.K. On the other hand, Sichuan having the population of Germany is a helpful comparison.

The only thing I would have liked to see them add would be a comparison of income distributions. It’s nice to know how much wealth the people of Beijing would have if the money was all shared out equally, but of course it is not. Not sure if they have the data for that, though.


China, the Hobgoblin of Small Minds

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:34 pm

I had a student ask me in class, recently, about whether China, among other countries, was planning to take advantage of our coming collapse to move into a position of world domination, that they had operational plans and expected the collapse to come momentarily. I responded by pointing out that most advanced nations develop contingency plans for a wide variety of possible future scenarios, so that the existence of a plan is no guarantee of it’s probability.

Then, today, I read about this 2006 Delaware Senate debate:

Republican Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell of Delaware said in a 2006 debate that China was plotting to take over America and claimed to have classified information about the country that she couldn’t divulge.

O’Donnell’s comments came as she and two other Republican candidates debated U.S. policy on China during Delaware’s 2006 Senate primary, which O’Donnell ultimately lost.

She said China had a “carefully thought out and strategic plan to take over America” and accused one opponent of appeasement for suggesting that the two countries were economically dependent and should find a way to be allies.

“There’s much I want to say,” she said at the time. “I wish I wasn’t privy to some of the classified information that I am privy to.”

This is four years old, now: have we seen considerable progress in the takeover of the US by China? Seems to me that we’ve been holding steady, mostly. My immediate thought is that a US economic/political collapse would leave China in a strong short-term position, but an extremely weak long-term one, given the interdependence of our economies and technology sectors. But I’m not privy to classified information.


Knitting with steel

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:10 am

NYT reports (via CDT) that China is offering to help California build a high-speed rail network. The Times’ take is that the worm has certainly turned if China is giving California high technology (and capital.) More interesting to me is the historical background of the current Chinese high-speed rail system. The Times gives us this map.

I would guess that some of these lines are being built for political reasons, to tie the country together. I assume there should be plenty of people in a hurry to get from Beijing to Tianjin, but maybe not so many in a hurry to get to Golmud. There is actually a long history of countries in general and China in particular using railways to bind the nation together. Sun Yat-sen had plans for railway expansion that might charitably be called highly ambitious, and were certainly more driven by the goal of protecting national territory than by economics. Mary Burdman explicitly connects China’s current rail expansion plans to Sun’s vision and included maps of other aspects of China’s planned rail system, like the planned regional intercity systems to be built around Shanghai and Beijing. Maybe soon it will be as easy to get from Nanjing to Shanghai as it is to get from Amsterdam to The Hague. Burdman (who is a LaRouchite) also belives that this is the first step in a grand global alliance between China, Russian, India and the U.S. to defeat the British, thus proving that even crazy people can make good historical analogies and provide good maps.

Just for fun, here is my video of the maglev from the airport to Shanghai. It’s the fastest train the the world! And it’s in China!


Why can’t an economist be more like a(n) historian?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:36 am

Yuyu Chen, Ginger Zhe Jin and Yang Yue are all economists and they are doing interesting work on rural-urban migration in China. Given that China has better registration of its rural population than places like Mexico it is a good place to look at migration patterns. They find that people from the same village tend to go to the same places, and even congregate in the same jobs. They attribute this to social networks, which make it easier and easier for people to go someplace once more and more of their compatriots are there.

This is of course not surprising to anyone familiar with Chinese migration in the past. Honig and Goodman, among many others, have written about how native-place ties structured migration and sojourning.  Chen et. al., don’t compare this migration to earlier ones, which for a historian would seem to point to lots of interesting questions. I was also very surprised that they keep calling their area of study “China.” Their stats come from 8 counties. Are they all in the same region (or macro-region)? From different regions and they are assuming you can draw conclusions about “China” from them? Its an interesting paper, but in addition to proving some important stuff it also shows that economists are not like you and me.1

Via Brad DeLong


Goodman, Bryna. Native Place, City, and Nation: Regional Networks and Identities in Shanghai, 1853-1937. University of California Press, 1995.

Honig, Emily. Creating Chinese Ethnicity: Subei People in Shanghai, 1850-1980. Yale University Press, 1992.

  1. Yes, I know, they have more money. []


Nine Nations

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:11 pm

With Obama in China lots of websites want to say something about China and What It All Means. For example, The Atlantic has a post by Patrick Chovanic that describes the Nine Nations of China, dividing China into nine separate regions, rather than viewing it as a monolithic whole. As Jeremiah Jenne points out this is such a good idea that William Skinner published a similar map back in 1977. Skinner’s macro-regions have become one of the old standbys of China studies (since before I was in school.)

I think Jeremiah is being a bit too kind here in praising Chovanic for popularizing Skinner’s work, and Chovanic is a bit off-base in claiming that Skinner’s work “reached similar conclusions” to his. If you read Chovanic’s descriptions of the regions he is trying, I think, to present the idea that each of these different areas has its own “animating force or character that defines each region.” This sound very fuzzy, and it is not fair to Skinner to compare his methodical work on economic and cultural patterns with data from  “personal experience traveling, living, and doing business in those places.” More importantly, Skinner did not see his regions as necessarily having different characters.1 As Esherick and Little pointed out in the Journal of Asian Studies in 1986 this is exactly what Skinner’s model does not do. 2 Skinner was interested in, among other things, in relations between core and peripheral counties inside the individual regions. Beijing -should- seem a lot like Shanghai in some respects because they are both top-level urban areas in their region. Chovanic seems to be suggesting that the only important distinctions are between individual regions. I’m not really sure this is helful at all. Skinner’s work had flaws, but it was remarkably robust, yeilding insights into what happened in China from well back into imperial times and forward to the present. Chovanic’s descriptions don’t even go back past 1980. Was the Northeast a “a Rust Belt of decaying industries with no future.” in the Qing or the Republic? Although the maps look similar, there is really not much in common between the two projects.

  1. Skinner argues that the economic geography of traditional China is best understood as a set of relatively distinct regions: nine “macroregions” defined by physiography and marketing hierarchies. Each macroregion is a functionally integrated rural-urban system with a relatively densely populated lowland core and a peripheral hinterland. The functional organization of each macroregion is constituted by the marketing hierarchies that link villages, market towns, and cities. Macroregions are distinct from one another; they are separated by relatively sharp boundaries defined by the orientation of local marketing systems. The factors that influence the shape and identity of each macroregion are economic-largely the constraints of transport cost. Thus Skinner provides a framework in terms of which to analyze the distribution of cities, transportation networks, trade networks, and so forth. This framework constitutes Skinner’s central thesis about the economic geography of China. He offers this thesis, however, in the context of a larger research hypothesis: that noneconomic phenomena (such as the spread of heterodox movements and rebellions, the structure of the imperial bureaucracy  and the cultural horizon of the peasant) are better understood when placed within the spatial framework of macroregions. This research hypothesis is of necessity less specific than the central thesis, for Skinner is fully aware of the many diverse factors that influence these noneconomic phenomena. Nonetheless the extended research hypothesis has stimulated much fruitful work on a wide range of phenomena. [summary from Esherick and Little] []
  2. Daniel Little and Joseph W. Esherick “Testing the Testers: A Reply to Barbara Sands and Ramon Myers’s Critique of G. William Skinner’s Regional Systems Approach to China” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Feb., 1989), pp. 90-99 []


Modern Archaeology

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:53 pm

Gansu backyard furnacesGreat Leap Forward era backyard iron furnaces have been unearthed [via] and there is discussion about whether to preserve them as historical evidence, even a cultural heritage. The site is described thus

The backyard furnaces are located on the south slope of a hillside within the borders of Heiyaodong Village in Baiyin Mongolian Township, Sunan Yugur Autonomous County. They are situated in an east-west line and number 159 furnaces in total, most of which have crumbled. About fifty are still largely intact. The largest is 8 meters high and 14 meters in circumference; the smallest is 2.5 meters high and 2.7 meters around. Most are pagoda-shaped, with one or more chimneys. Their insides are lined with clay bricks. Some of the larger furnaces are dug into the hillside and have one or more arched entrances for feeding raw material, lighting the fire, or cleaning out slag, and multiple air vents are set into the floor. Some are made up of ten individual furnaces joined together. The whole group extends for a more than two kilometers, making for an impressive sight. The furnaces were built in 1958 during the Great Leap Forward and ceased operating in 1960. Some of them were never put to use.

That last line captures what is, for me anyway, the essence of the GLF: an immense waste of effort, resources, lives. Wu Zuolai of the journal Theory and Criticism of Art and Literature writes:

People who experienced that time recall that whole forests were cut down to make charcoal to burn, bringing immense disaster to the environment. And because some areas were unable to produce acceptable steel, the people had to break apart their cooking pots and melt them down in the furnaces, and as a result, unusable lumps of iron were all that was produced. One unforeseen consequence was that real cultural heritage was plundered during the steel production campaign. The two-storey tower at the famous Hangu Pass* was torn down, and inscriptions accumulated over the course of two thousand years were destroyed. Wuwei County,* Gansu, was an important northwestern garrison in the Tang Dynasty, and its city wall, built of large bricks, towered for a thousand years. But those thousand-year-old bricks became part of the furnaces.

The past has become a memory and a historical lesson. But has the mentality of the Great Leap Forward been entirely eradicated? Faced with this massive cluster of iron smelters, we have much to reflect upon. Public, scientific, and democratic decision making must not be merely empty words but must be put into practice in every project.

Wu goes on to suggest a “small museum” on the site, and an oral history and records collecting project. Given that this is one of the landmark events of modern Chinese history, I would hope for that much, or more. But given that this is one of the landmark events in the failure of Maoist policy and rapid modernization, I have my doubts.


Beer in China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:22 pm

Robert Bickers has a nice post up at China Beat on the early history of Qingdao beer. Its a good post and sheds a lot of light on the early history of what is now probobably one of the best known Chinese brands. Before WWI Qingdao was a classic example of the nature of Anglo-German capitalism in China. What I find most interesting about Qingdao however is its post 1949 history. There were lots of capitalist corporations in China before 1949, but not many of them made it through the Maoist period. Yang Zhiguo has studied the history of Qingdao brewery after 1949.1 During the Maoist years Qingdao was China’s capitalist face, sort of the first Special Economic Zone, since China needed foreign exchange and one of the few ways to get it was by selling Qingdao beer in  Southeast Asia and above all in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was of course a free market city and Qingdao had to take on already established foreign brands. This led to importing foreign machinery, a focus on quality that was unheard of in Maoist production, and killing domestially popular lines like Qingdao Porter (no really) in favor of the standard export version. As China began to open up after 1976 Qingdao was one of the first Chinese branded products to be exported in part because everyone likes beer but also because it was one of the only Chinese products with any hope of competing on world markets. My students are always amazed to hear that in the early 1980s some Americans (like me) would point it out to their friends if they found a product on a store shelf that said “Made in P.R.China”.2  Qingdao was the face of Chinese capitalism in the West for a number of years. Even now it is the face of Chinese beer, given that the other options would be something like the dreadful Reeb.

  1. “This Beer Tastes Really Good”: Nationalism, Consumer Culture and Development of the Beer Industry in Qingdao, 1903-1993 The Chinese Historical Review 14.1 Spring 2007 []
  2. This is less rare now []


Why Asians are different from (Latin) Americans

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 8:10 am

In a recent speech Zhou Xiaochuan gave a nice clear summary of the reasons for Asian economic exceptionalism and the cultural (and therefore apparently mostly unchangeable) roots of China’s current high savings rate. He is doing this for contemporary political reasons of course, trying to claim that the Chinese government cannot change the savings rate. I’m not as interested in that debate, but this is a nice resource for anyone teaching East Asia and looking for a good, recent, official summary of a fairly cultural determinist vision of China’s rise.

Tradition, cultural, family structure, and demographic structure and stage of economic development are the major reasons for high savings ratio in the East Asia. First, the East Asia countries are influenced by Confucianism, which value thrift, self-discipline, zhong yong or Middle Ground (low-key), and anti-extravagancy. Second, we may be able to trace the cultural differences from a large number of textbooks and literature of different countries. For instance, the Latin American countries have similar levels of national wealth as the East Asian countries but lower savings ratios. This can be attributed to the cultural differences in the region, where people have a higher propensity of consumption and tend to quickly use up all their salaries. Third, family tie is strong in the East Asian countries, and families shoulder social responsibilities such as providing for the elderly and bringing up children. Fourth, according to the Life Cycle Hypothesis by Franco Modigliani, more money is saved to meet future pension and healthcare needs as the share of working age population increases. When we study the phases of economic growth, in times of exceptionally high economic growth, most of the incremental income will be saved, resulting in an unusually high savings ratio. China fits in the above-mentioned two conditions for a high savings ratio. Japan and the U.S. can also demonstrate the contribution of these factors in determining savings ratio. Similar to the U.S., Japan is a developed country with high per capita income. The social security systems in the two countries have their respective weaknesses. However, Japan’s savings ratio is much higher than that in the U.S. This can be largely ascribed to cultural, family value and demographic feature in Japan, which are fairly similar to those in other East Asian countries.

via TNR


Ming Dynasty tax revolt

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:29 pm

Historians write a lot about taxes, in part because we are often interested in states and what they do, and taxes are something that states do a lot of. Taxation also generates a lot of sources, since before you can tax things you need to figure out where they are and who owns them. From the Domesday Book to various cadastral surveys states have tried to generate paper about their subjects, subjects have resisted, and historians have been interested in both the resistance and the paper.

In Nanjing in 1609 there were major tax protests, only in this case protesters were asking the government to impose a new tax.1 Not only did they want to be taxed, they were offering to compile the tax rolls for the state.

we volunteer to compile a book on the exact share for each household, rich or poor, in the year of 1608. Every pu (the neighborhood unit for the huojia system) will meet together to collect and compile this information into a list named Wucheng puce (the neighborhood almanac for the Nanjing Five Districts) and together we will send it to the government to be used as an official reference.

This makes a nice opening for an article, because it is pretty weird behavior. Not surprisingly the citizens of Nanjing wanted to be taxed for a good reason, namely that the new cash tax was to replace an old labor tax that they found more onerous and less flexible. Fei is interested in the case primarily because it shows a lot about public opinion in the Ming and how the state used and reacted to it.

I bring this up partly because it is an interesting article but mostly because issue 28.2 of Late Imperial China is now available to anyone with a web browser. So you should go read it and then subscribe.

  1. Fei, Siyen. ” We Must be Taxed: A Case of Populist Urban Fiscal Reform in Ming Nanjing, 1368–1644″
    Late Imperial ChinaVolume 28, Number 2, December 2007

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