High Modernism in China

The Three Gorges Dam, which displaced more than a million people.

At the urging of several readers, I’m now reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which is a critique of what Scott calls “high modernism”: the kind of “clean slate” thinking that so enthused Western elites during the 20th century. I’ll probably have more to say about Scott’s book once I’m farther into it, but it reminded me of this excellent article about China by The Nation‘s Chris Hayes, published last December after he took a trip there:

The key, in the eyes of the government that runs Chongqing, is planning. “We have plans, timetables and goals in our minds whenever we do anything,” said Qian Lee, who works in the local government’s foreign economic outreach bureau.

“We as a government give guidance and sort of categorize those who want to come to the cities,” Wen said. “There are several tiers…. The first group of villagers will go to the downtown center. The second group will go to six regional centers we are building. And the third group will go to the urban places that are closest to their home villages, such as the country towns and townships…. We have thirty-one district centers and 103 towns.” For each of these three tiers–downtown Chongqing, the six satellites and the thirty-one district centers–the government has annual targeted population levels for the next three years.

Chongqing is so proud of this planned vision it has constructed a $50 million exhibition hall on the banks of the Yangtze that showcases its past, present and future. Its centerpiece is an 892-square-meter scale model of the city. The tour guide flips a switch, and a comic-book night descends on the model; the rivers glow indigo. She flips another switch and lights up several dozen clusters of buildings, future projections of structures that will be completed in the next five years, then the next ten. Finally she puts all the lights on to reveal the future of Chongqing in all its miniature glory.

The tour ends in a room with a 360-degree, full-screen projection of a computer-rendered flyover of the future metropolis. Unlike the real smogbound and dreary Chongqing, it is bathed in piercing sunlight, and because of software limitations or of an oversight by the creators, not one of the humans who populate this new world–its expensive waterside condos, outdoor stadium and grand office building lobbies–is Chinese.

The ethos that animates this exhibition hall, a High Modernist faith in progress brought about by “scientific” planning, is so distant from the demoralized America of 2009 that my time in the city felt like a visit to Chicago in 1890 on the eve of the World’s Fair. (Shanghai will be hosting the World Expo next year.) There’s no larger representation of this animating faith than the Three Gorges Dam, which we toured one afternoon. The project took fifteen years and cost $30 billion. It will eventually provide up to 4 percent of China’s electricity (the equivalent of about 500 coal-fired power plants). In order to build it, 1.25 million people were forced out of their homes on the banks of the Yangzte, and 1,500 archaeological sites, including ancient temples, were drowned.

To the Chinese elites we talked with, though, the future is everything. Although Chinese civilization (and administrative bureaucracy) is 5,000 years old, no one seemed interested in talking about anything that occurred before 1978. Such intense futurism is easy to lampoon, but it also seems the only worldview one could hold on to in the face of the challenges Chinese planners must overcome. Pick any major city in America and start adding 500,000 people a year. It wouldn’t be long before it broke under the strain. It is no small thing to design a sewer system for a city growing at that pace. Just ask the 10 million residents of Mumbai’s slums, whose lives are literally mired in shit because there is no access to a sewage system. So if the dark side of Chongqing is the triumph of Robert Moses’s vision over that of Jane Jacobs, the silver lining is that–at a technical level, at least–this vision is pursued and executed with what seemed like an impressive degree of mastery.

Skepticism is warranted about the apparent technical mastery of high modernist planners. The reason high modernism was so seductive to 20th century intellectuals was precisely that viewing grandiose plans from a distance makes their flaws hard to spot. If a visitor from Europe had toured one of America’s great urban highways or public housing projects the year the opened, he probably would have been impressed by the ambition and seeming technical mastery they exhibited. The same can be said for Soviet communism in its early years, which fooled a number of otherwise-intelligent journalists.

Viewing a high modernist project at a snapshot in time can give a very misleading impression. There’s no way a scale model or a tour can tell you what the human cost of the project might have been. Nor is there any way to know if the grandiose promises made for it will be realized.

China is going through roughly the same phase of technological development that the Western world passed through in the first half of the 20th century: the country has mastered the basics of industrialization and are reaping huge gains from economies of scale and a more educated workforce. The engineers and bureaucrats who are organizing ever-more-impressive feats of industrial production have, like their Western counterparts of a century ago, convinced themselves that a society can be planned in the same manner that a factory floor can be.

This is unlikely to be any more true in China than it was in the West; it turns out that people don’t like being treated like interchangeable cogs in a vast machine. But as in the West, it will take a while for ordinary people to figure out how to organize themselves to effectively resist these schemes.

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9 Responses to High Modernism in China

  1. That’s an interesting assertion about China being at a point where it pursues high modernism due to education and industrialization.

    China’s successful transition under Deng Xiaoping was not due to high modernism. His famous line – ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’ – is indicative of a gradualism that is far from high modernism. Concretely, this took the form of the ‘dual track system’ and Special Economic Zones that allowed for experimentation with market incentives in localized areas to avoid the shock of liberalizing the nation immediately.

    What you’re arguing is that China has reached a level of sophistication that allows for high modernism, but I’m not so sure. The Great Leap Forward, done when they were far less industrialized and educated, is much closer to Scott’s conception of high modernism than post-1979 China. That said, planning is still important there, so they seem to have shades of both.

  2. Hey Kevin,

    Communism in general is a high modernist project, so to some extent the Chinese state has always had high modernist aspirations. I think the problem in the early years was that the state lacked the capacity to achieve those objectives even on their own narrow terms: the state lacked the educated workforce, technology, and control needed to pull off large-scale public works projects. And so when the Chinese government attempted ambitious projects in the 20th century, they tended to fail even on narrow high-modernist grounds.

    Now the Chinese government has the technical capacity to pull off great public works projects that succeed in the narrow sense of producing functioning infrastructure. And I think this has emboldened the it to attempt more, and more ambitious, projects than it would have a generation ago.

  3. Brian Moore says:

    I blame too many round of Sim City.

  4. Tim,

    I agree that Communism is generally high modernist. However, I’m not sure the cause of successful public works projects in 21st century China is an educated workforce, technology and control. By that logic, 2010 China has sufficient inputs to realize 2010 high modernist programs, but 1960 China did not have sufficient inputs to realize 1960 high modernist programs (which though grand at the time, are significantly less sophisticated than their modern equivalents, and therefore required far less sophisticated workers, technology and control).

    “China is going through roughly the same phase of technological development that the Western world passed through in the first half of the 20th century: the country has mastered the basics of industrialization and are reaping huge gains from economies of scale and a more educated workforce. The engineers and bureaucrats who are organizing ever-more-impressive feats of industrial production have, like their Western counterparts of a century ago, convinced themselves that a society can be planned in the same manner that a factory floor can be.”

    I think that is likely mistaken. It is a mistake to see China as a unitary actor (Scott falls prey to this by not disaggregating the components of “a state”). There are pieces of China that are as modern as 2010 America, and, yes, there are areas that a decades behind. We can’t say that China is general is behind.

    As I alluded to in my first post, I think a more likely answer is that China since 1979 has pursued far more gradual approaches to modernization than they did under Mao. Most obviously this has been through the dual track system and SEZs that bridge the gap between statist planning and market mechanisms. More broadly, it can take the form of pegging the Yuan and maintaining control over banks while liberalizing various other sectors.

  5. Wonks Anonymous says:

    “convinced themselves that a society can be planned in the same manner that a factory floor can be”
    I think Kevin Carson would argue that even factory floors aren’t effectively planned in such a manner.

  6. Carl says:

    I would say China was doing what Meiji Japan did in the 1870s in the 1970s, and now it’s about at 1980 South Korea. China is not looking to be anything like the West, it is a East Asian developmental state with a strong state and weak society without the bugaboo of Communism that drove Taiwans’ Chiang and Korea’s Park in the 60′s and 70′s.

  7. Nils Gilman says:

    This is far more deeply true about China than you may realize. There’s more here: http://smallprecautions.blogspot.com/2010/08/modernization-theory-never-dies-chinese.html

    While it’s absolutely true that the Chinese authorities have bought into a version of high modernism, including state-led development and “planning,” that the US believed in a number of years ago, I think you’re wrong to think that the US has completely escaped this mode of thinking.

    The critical issue is not “planning” per se, but thinking that there is a single right way for all societies to be organized, and a single normative path of development. The actual content of that single normative path has varied over time — back in the post-New Deal 1950s/60s the U.S. believed in state direction and a mixed economy; from the 1980s until about 15 September 2008 we backed a neoliberal, corporations-know-best approach to development — but what doesn’t change is the fundamental belief in a single path. This is a deeply ingrained belief among Americans. Indeed, even your language betrays a bit of this bias, suggesting that China is “going through roughly the same phase of technological development” as “we” did in the past.

    Unfortunately, that idea is nonsense. The idea that “their present is our past” is a deeply misleading idea, no matter how deeply held.

    In fact, as you may have noticed, contemporary China is actually living in the exact same historical moment as we are — that is, in the present. Our two economies are utterly intertwined, and they share a single conjoined technological basis. Furthermore, the international and social basis of our early heavy industrial phase was completely different than the contemporary Chinese situation. On the one hand, the U.S. never went through a developmental phase where it was a provider of low-wage off-shore manufacturing of products that were being engineered and financed elsewhere. On the other hand, the U.S. never went through a process of trying to move a billion peasants off the land and into factories.

    So, your post is importantly right about the ideological commitments of the current Chinese leadership. But don’t let those commitments confuse you about the actual nature of what’s going on in China, which is very different from anything the US has ever experienced.

  8. H C Carey says:

    Nills Gilman said what I was going to say. And really, I’m not sure the analysis of high modernism in the US makes sense: “But as in the West, it will take a while for ordinary people to figure out how to organize themselves to effectively resist these schemes.” Really, last time I checked, it did not look like much resistance was going in. I’m not sure reflexive anti-taxing counts

  9. Wonks Anonymous says:

    H C Carey, perhaps the resistance being referred to is Jane Jacobs type stuff, often tarred with the “NIMBY” label. I hear lots of American commentators complaining about how much easier it is for the Chinese to Get Stuff Done, since they don’t have to take any guff.

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