Sunday 26 August 2012


"Beautiful imperialists" - a literal translation of the Chinese for "American imperialists."

Since the late 1990s China's economic engagement with Africa has extended surprisingly quickly. It often feels as if reporters and journalists are chasing to keep up with the pace of development, and to provide some sort of explanatory framework.

I am simplifying, but the standard narrative you hear and read about China-Africa relations usually goes something like this: the Chinese used to care about spreading socialism and actively supported national liberation movements in Africa, but today they only care about getting at the continent's resources, and pragmatism has supplanted principles (hence China's backing for "pariah" states like Sudan and Zimbabwe). Then we are supposed to appreciate the irony that the former liberator has become the "new colonialist."

Below is an excerpt from a BBC Newsnight report on China's role in Zambia, which I think exemplifies the sort of ahistorical and simplistic reportage of this story which is all too common.

"Are the Chinese just new colonialists trying to exploit Zambia's raw materials?" the reporter asks. The rest of the report seems to answer in the affirmative - competition from local Chinese businesses receiving subsidies from China's state-owned banks is stopping Zambia from diversifying its economy away from dependence on exports of raw materials. Presumably China does this, among other reasons, in order to secure better terms of access to these resources.

The fundamental difficulty I have with this argument is that it overstates both the coherence and the state-centric agency of China's activity on the continent - it depicts as a kind of grand master plan what has been in many ways a disjointed and spontaneous response to changes in Africa's relations with the rest of the world.

I will explain in more detail what I mean by this towards the end of this post. First, I want to examine the "first wave" of China-Africa relations in the 1950s and 1960s. Contrary to the idea that China was ever regarded by post-independence African leaders as being in the vanguard of global solidarity, it will be seen that this was the exception rather than the rule - more often that not China's interventions were seen as cynical, opportunistic and vacillating.


The first wave of decolonisation in Africa in the 1950s did not bring communist ideologues to power. There were some socialists, like Kwame Nkrumah of the newly-independent Ghana, but they recognised a need for pragmatism given their economic underdevelopment and, in many cases, weak states.

The PRC won early plaudits on this basis by officially registering its opposition to apartheid at the UN in 1950. As Gerald Segal has noted, China's own history of colonial domination meant that the course taken by post-colonial Africa had a symbolic significance far beyond its own shores: "It was not so much that China was intrinsically concerned with the individual struggles in Africa as much as it saw the continent as undergoing a stage in the revolutionary process that China had already endured."

Premier Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Conference

Having seen the Cold War heat up in Korea, there was a strong inclination amongst Africa's first post-colonial leaders that they should unite in order to transcend the bipolar capitalist/communist conflict. This feeling was given symbolic significance in 1955, at the Afro-Asian Conference of twenty-nine nations in Bandung, Indonesia.

The final agreement issued at Bandung committed its participants to uphold principles of political self-determination, national sovereignty, non-aggression and non-interference in internal affairs. It was based on an agreement reached between China and India a year earlier - the so-called 'Five Principles for Peaceful Co-existence' - and it formed the core of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), created in 1961 in opposition to alignment with either the USA or the USSR.

By grounding its opposition to imperialism in a demand for racial equality, the Bandung Conference alarmed members of the U.S. government, who feared that, against the backdrop of the "Little Rock Nine", it would become an anti-American organisation. They were sensitive to any such criticisms, which became a commonplace in Soviet propaganda films such as this one (based on a poem by Mayakovsky):

The Sino-Soviet split at the decade's end provided the greatest stimulus for Chinese involvement in the continent's politics. The CPC saw Africa as a key battleground for influence in the rest of the world, because it saw it as a test for leadership of the world communist movement. Whilst Khruschev was moderating the USSR's domestic and international policies, China could win the allegiance of Africa.

Mao outlined the "Three Worlds Theory" that underpinned the strategy at a meeting with President Kaunda of Zambia. When the world was divided into capitalist and communist states, Mao said, Africa was part of an "intermediate zone." But since the Soviets had abandoned the revolutionary cause, the struggle between the two super-powers had become less ideological and more nationalistic, which re-oriented the pattern of incentives for international alliances - red or not, states that were disadvantaged by the international status quo were natural partners:

"[T]he greatest threat to world peace lies in the rivalry of the two super powers, the USSR and U.S., for world hegemony, whereas China and other Asian, African and Latin American countries constitute the "Third World." In order to oppose hegemonism in the interest of world peace, it is necessary for China to unite first and foremost the third world countries including African countries as well as the second world countries; and the more the better."

The list of contents actually gives a nice precis of the argument:

It was as if, at least momentarily, the struggle against imperialism had eclipsed the class struggle. Initially, this convenient doctrine - "the most revolutionary states are those that are friendly with China, and China is the revolutionary leader because it is friends with so many revolutionary states" - retained the pragmatic quality of China's Bandung-era diplomacy. The historian Stuart Schram writes:

"[T]he Soviet Union embarked definitively, in 1955-6, on a policy which made the 'national bourgeoisie' the bearer of progress in the underdeveloped countries... And during the Bandung era (pre-Great Leap), China displayed a tendency to make similar concessions."

Here is some footage of Mao meeting with African leaders of various persuasions (including the Congolese President at 04:50 and Heile Selassie at 12:13):

The Chinese habit of overlooking ideological disagreements with post-colonial African governments all but collapsed during the Cultural Revolution, when China's relations with the outside world were dragged along by the currents of domestic conflict.


The Cultural Revolution forcefully settled the question that had plagued the PRC in its early years - whether to lend support to more ideologically favourable insurgents in Africa, even if this involved alienating centrist governments with whom China had diplomatic relations (in CPC parlance, the choice between a united front "from above" or "from below"). In countries where there was no absolute balance of power amongst domestic forces, China decided to take sides.

In The Penguin History of Modern China, Jonathan Fenby describes the scale and purpose of China's African entanglements:

"In a twenty-year period starting in 1963, China provided African nations with loans amounting to $2bn on very favourable terms, and sent some 150,000 workers to help on development projects... With the Chairman's long-term associate Kang Sheng playing a major directing role, the PRC spent large sums on backing its favoured revolutionaries."

Each Chinese province was assigned an African state to which it would send "barefoot doctors." In addition to aid and arms, left-wing African guerrilla groups were trained at the Nanjing Military Academy. The PLA also ran a training camp inside Ghana for training insurgents in neighbouring states still under European occupation - below is a picture of Zhou Enlai during a visit to Ghana.

Most of the aid went to the poorest, most stridently socialist yet anti-Soviet regimes, such as in Guinea, Mali, and Somalia. According to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story:

"China was not only the poorest country in the world to provide aid, but its aid was the highest ever given as a percentage of the donor country's per-capita income... [T]hey were literally handouts, as Peking constantly said that loans should be treated as gifts, or that repayment should be deferred indefinitely. As for arms, the regime liked to say "We are not arms merchants"; but this did not mean it did not export arms, only that the arms did not have to be paid for."

This new assertiveness required a new theoretical rationale. The "Three Worlds Theory" was essentially defensive, insofar as it called on "third-" and "second-world" states to align in response to a future war caused by super-power competition. China's riskier policy of intervening and undermining potential allies was justified by Mao's heir-apparent, Marshal Lin Biao.

In 1965, to commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of WWII - what the Chinese refer to as "the War of Resistance Against Japan" - Lin wrote a pamphlet entitled Long Live the Victory of People's War.

In this collection of essays, Lin contends that what happened in China before 1949 is now taking place on a global scale: the "world cities" are being encircled by the "world countryside." In other words, now that China was being thoroughly revolutionised from within, the world was ripe for the oppressed to rise against their oppressors, whether they be super-power proxies or national bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, Moscow's brutal suppression of the 'Prague Spring' in 1968 provided a timely reminder of its own imperial baggage.

Once again, this was seen as a field in which China could beat the super-powers, not because of its wealth or power-projection capabilities, but because, as Deborah Brautigam has explained, China possessed authenticity, credibility and experience in guerrilla warfare tactics that had immediate applicability to African uprisings:

"In the South, Chinese theories of guerilla war had obvious relevance. And more significantly, there was the Chinese model of rural, low technology development and of self-reliance - a Third World image which neither the Russians nor the West could match."

But it came at a price. In the same year that Lin's pamphlet became the new required reading for Red Guards, the attempt to organise a second Afro-Asian summit in Algiers fell through.

The conference was due to convene in June, but a military coup only weeks beforehand deposed Algeria's independence leader Ahmed Ben Bella and left participating nations divided over whether it was still appropriate for them to attend. In a show of naked self-interest, Beijing lobbied hard for the conference to proceed as scheduled, because they were worried that any delay would give President Nasser of Egypt a chance to lobby for Russian attendance. China's diplomatic insensitivity divided the group of nations further - even President Nyere of Tanzania, ordinarily a staunch ally, denounced China's opportunism - and a follow-up to Bandung never materialised.

The post-independence struggles that China was most heavily involved in were also some of the most extensive and complex - the civil wars in Angola and in Mozambique, which were triggered by Portugal's hasty exit from southern Africa following the so-called "carnation revolution" of 1974, the bloodless coup that removed the Salazar regime from power in Lisbon.

One of the factors complicating the Angolan civil war was the attempt by South Africa's white rulers to install "friendly" governments in their neighbouring states, who would co-operate in stemming the flow of money and arms going to the independence movement inside Namibia.

Besides ethnolinguistic divisions, the three main movements for national liberation in Angola were differentiated by their Cold War backers: the MPLA were supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba (who provided ground troops), whilst the U.S. sponsored (with C.I.A. support) a tenuous alliance between the Pretoria-backed UNITA and the staunchly anti-communist FNLA.

Here is an episode from the CNN Cold War series which focuses on specific 'Third World' conflicts and provides a good overview of Cold War dynamics in Angola (starting at 20:10):

But China quickly acquired a reputation for cynical and opportunistic meddling in these countries' internal affairs, ironically because its interventions were too ideological in nature. China's professed commitment to support the most revolutionary groups in any conflict incentivised increasingly unrepresentative and extremist splinter groups to come to the fore; as these groups unravelled, China was forced to bit the bullet and switch its support to less likely allies - including the FNLA leader Holden Roberto, whom China had once dismissed as a "CIA tool" - which led to a fresh round of recriminations and accusations of "selling out."

As Alan Hutchison wrote at the time, the CPC set a trap for itself:

"The need to compromise with reality in independent Africa could be set against continuing support for revolutionary movements fighting for independence in the Portuguese territories and in southern Africa... But the facts are that Chinese support for these movements has been sparing, conditional and always given, not according to merit, but according to the dictates of the Sino-Soviet dispute... Her actions were seen as meddlesome and cynical."

Overall, then, the high-point of Chinese military support coincided with a divisive approach that alienated significant African revolutionary groups who instead aspired to pan-African solidarity. By the early 1970s most African states had won their independence and were prioritising economic growth over social revolution, which meant that those states still fighting for their independence needed heavy support from external allies - something China was unable to provide, given its own economic constraints.

Gerald Segal writes:

"States such as Zaire that were strongly anti-Soviet were lavished with praise from Beijing even though they were among the most openly pro-Western and unhelpful to revolutionary causes. China's attitude toward the conflict in the Horn of Africa in the 1970s shifted as the local participants exchanged superpower patrons... The ignominious retreat, and the subsequent inability to provide major aid in the struggles in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, did serious damage to China's position. When it came to the crunch of struggles in southern Africa, China was a peripheral actor."

Having backed their enemies, the PRC finally established diplomatic relations with the MPLA-led government of Angola in 1983.

Yet Chinese engagement with Africa during this period did yield other, more durable legacies, such as the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, or "Tazara."

At the time of its construction, the Tazara was the biggest foreign infrastructure project in Africa since the Soviets built the Aswan High Dam, using the labour of 15,000 technicians. Most of the construction technology and clearing vehicles were Chinese imports, but Chinese workers themselves made up less than a third of the workforce.

It ran for 1800km, across 2500 bridges and through 21 major tunnels, linking the landlocked Zambian copperbelt directly to the Tanzanian coast, facilitating the export of precious metals and minerals without the need to pass through white-ruled Rhodesia.

Here is a Chinese map of the seaward route:

Here is how the President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, described the project in a speech to inaugurate its construction on October 28th 1970:

"I have noticed one very odd thing about the international reactions to the railway project...Some (nations) suggest that by building this railway now, Tanzania and Zambia are coming under Chinese influence!...But this railway will be our railway...The PRC is giving an interest-free loan for the construction of the railway and provision of rolling stock... A gesture of international solidarity between the poor and the less poor of the world... When the Smith rebellion of 1965 was met by a policy of economic sanctions, the most immediate result was grave problems for newly-independent Zambia...A railway link to the port of Dar-es-Salaam is vital for the full implementation of Zambia's policy of linking herself to the free African states of the north."

Nevertheless, these high-profile projects were the exception rather than the rule, as China sharply curtailed its aid to Africa from the late '70s. More recently, this BBC documentary foreshadows the return of Chinese technicians to upgrade the railway, which has re-ignited the same kind of accusations that Nyerere rejected over forty years ago:


Whilst China seemed to abandon Africa in the late Mao, and early post-Mao, period in order to focus on its ailing domestic economy, the CPC leadership came to believe that petroleum was the country's only industry with the potential for immediate expansion.

Yu Qiuli inspecting equipment

In order to benefit from existing reserves, and to bring new ones on tap, China needed Western technology and know-how. And this, in turn, required a softening in China's foreign policy stance - most notably on the issue of Taiwan.

Therefore, the faction in the CPC leadership adocateing the pursuit of rapid economic growth also advocated greater openness to foreign expertise, and the pursuit of warmer diplomatic relations with economically necessary partners - they were called the "petroleum clique" and they were led by well-positioned industry bureaucrats like the State Planning Commissioner, Yu Qiuli.

In his book The Search for Modern China, Jonathan D. Spence describes the group's importance in the key debates that shaped China's "reform and opening":

"[A]s the oilfields they had developed proved to be one of the only growth sectors of the Chinese economy, and Mao began to turn against Lin Biao and some of the more insistently radical exponents of complete self-reliance, the "Petroleum Group" (as some called them) came back into favour. They knew that if China were to continue to expand oil production at the rate desired by the top leadership, it would require major initiatives in offshore exploration and drilling, and for this China had neither the resources nor the technology. Foreign skills would be essential, and in petroleum technology the U.S. was the proven world leader."

This short film by U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration illustrates some of the ways in which the U.S. was pushing the boundaries in ways that would have especially interested Chinese policymakers confronting decades of under-resourced and over-used oilfields - policymakers who were, according to Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael Oksenberg, searching for "equipment which permitted improved secondary and tertiary development of a field."

Besides American participants, Japanese oil industry experts also got involved in stepping-up China's industry. As Deborah Brautigam has noted (in the video further down), the model for Japanese involvement bears a striking resemblance to the basis of contemporary Chinese involvement in Africa's primary resources and infrastructure - loans for access to technology and expertise were extended in return for future exports of pre-existing oil reserves.

Bohai Gulf oil platform

This is the present arrangement China has with the Angolan government, as described in David Smith's The Dragon and the Elephant:

"Angola, which exports 25% of its oil output to China, has benefited from $2bn of loans from Beijing, which is being used to fund Chinese-built railways, roads, schools, hospitals and lay a fibre-optic network. China will also train Angolan telecommunications workers; all in return for a guarantee of future oil supplies."

 China learned from Japanese practices in more ways than one: Bill Emmott has observed in Rivals that, "China's overseas aid programme has begun to evolve in the same sort of way as Japanese aid during the 1960s and 1970s: it is being used as an adjunct to commercial investments, especially in resources development."

Gulf of Guinea oil platform, Angola
In spite of their having made possible extensive foreign involvement in a key industry, the influence of the "petroleum clique" rose and fell with the expectation of an upwards trend in world oil prices. In Burying Mao, Richard Baum writes:

"The 'petroleum group' had promoted accelerated deficit spending as a means of stimulating rapid growth in heavy industry, a strategy that had putatively caused serious sectoral imbalances, budget deficits, and fiscal disarray; in the latter half of 1979 they found themselves being squeezed progressively out of the decision-making loop."


I have tried to show in the preceding section how changing expectations of global demand and supply led to a rebalancing of power and influence among competing ministries in the Chinese state, and that once "the near monopoly of petroleum was broken", opportunities opened up for a more evenly balanced growth strategy. Here is how Liberthal and Oksenberg summarise this argument:

"The era in which the petroleum industry and those who led it set the pace for the energy sector and the entire economy seems to have ended... Credibility is helpful but not sufficient... [E]nergy policies are adopted when the top leaders believed the proposed policies promise an attractive solution to the problems they perceive at the moment, make use of existing opportunities, support their ideological preferences and power needs, and are congruent with the organisational missions of the pertinent ministries. From this perspective, the petroleum sector occupied a different and less priveleged position in the mid-1980s."

Chinese-built junction, Kenya
I also think there are lessons to draw from China's experiences on the other end of this relationship for China-Africa relations today. In particular, I think that a close examination of these bilateral relationships suggests an awareness on the part of the Chinese state that both partners are deeply interdependent - China needs African resources and fuel to sustain (or at least smooth) its growth rate, whilst Africa needs China's labour and savings surplus to reverse decades of de-industrialisation and degraded infrastructure.

As the LSE China specialist Chris Alden has noted:

"With African resources becoming ever more important to the health of the Chinese economy, Beijing's domestic policy of delivering greater prosperity at home, on the back of sometimes painful economic reforms, without relinquishing significant political control is arguably in danger of becoming hostage to the fortunes of its international forays in places like Africa."

This is the level at which expectations appear to be crucial, and at which I think we have to be cautious about inferring political influence from quantitative economic data (according to Emmott, "African exports to China grew from $5.5bn in 2000 to $28.8bn in 2006...In the same period, Africa's imports from China grew from $5.1bn to $26.7bn").

If China's trading partners in Africa were to sever their ties, this would likely reduce Chinese growth rates, and, as a knock-on effect, lower global growth, which in turn would be expected to reduce world prices for Africa's raw materials. It would also likely have some effect on the so-called "resource curse" in particular African states that are overly reliant on a few natural resources to power their economies.

Hence it seems to me that if the China-Africa economic relationship carries the risk of exacerbating certain anti-developmental processes already at work on the continent, we should also remember that it contains the prospect of overcoming these. For example, Alden notes that:

"[China's] investment outreach commenced at roughly the same time as the West began to reduce its exposure to Africa... [D]iversifying sources of foreign investment, an explicit policy pursued by oil producers like Angola and Nigeria, has contributed to opportunities to extract better terms from donors and lenders alike."

I cannot say which course these extraordinary and flourishing relationships will follow, whether it will really be, as the CPC presents it, "win-win cooperation" (in any case, it is ill-advised to generalise for the continent as a whole).

But I agree with Deborah Brautigam - author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa - that a crucial determinant seems to be the political will of individual African states to challenge Chinese investors where national interests are imperfectly aligned, to enforce decent working conditions and wages (such as the Ethiopian government has done), and to investigate reports of abuses by Chinese managers and workers without succumbing to dangerous populism. Moreover, it is notable that China stopped opposing the deployment of peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan under pressure from a galvanised African Union, rather than from other external actors.

Here is a talk she gave during an IQ-squared debate last year, opposing the motion "Beware of the dragon: Africa should not look to China":

According to Alden, China is seen as a consistent and reliable trading partner on the continent, in contrast with Western development agencies which are perceived as being too short-term oriented: "[W]hat is striking about China's discourse about development partnership is that it has proved to be notably resilient in being constant over time as opposed to the chameleon pattern of shifting Western development discourse." This needs to be borne in mind whenever we hear about Chinese-built "ghost cities" in places like Angola; substantial risks are being borne by both sides.

On balance, I am hopeful for the future of China-Africa relations. I hope that it can move beyond trite statements about the inherent shared interests of underdeveloped nations and become a creative, long-term partnership based on an honest recognition of shared, and divergent, interests. To steal a phrase from Zhou Enlai, it is still to early to tell.

Saturday 18 August 2012


I recently read and reviewed Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War (excerpt available here) by Stephen R. Platt, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who specialises in late imperial Chinese history. It details at length the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-nineteenth-century and the staggering scale of the ensuing civil war.

I was fascinated by Platt's speculation about the significance of its coinciding with the American Civil War, and the contradictory pressures this exerted on Britain's Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, to intervene (to prop up international trade) and not to intervene (which would have been more consistent with Britain's policy of non-interference in the American conflict). 

But the most interesting and, I think, relevant subject he broaches is the challenges and pitfalls of humanitarian intervention. Above all, he shows that discussions about external involvement in the Taiping civil war mirror almost exactly the kind of arguments still raging today about whether we ought to intervene in the Middle East.

Here is a video of Platt discussing why he decided to write the book:

The full review can be read here at OpenDemocracy. Here is an excerpt:

"The premise of Stephen Platt's new history is that, in spite of its scope and scale, it continues to be a neglected event in the western historical consciousness because it is commonly assumed to have been a purely internal affair. On the contrary, as he explains at length, "China was not a closed system, and globalism is hardly the recent phenomenon we sometimes imagine it to be. [...] By consequence, the war in China was tangled up in threads leading around the globe to Europe and America, and it was watched from outside with a sense of immediacy and horror." (xxiii) Abroad, the Taiping Rebellion was variously perceived as an echo of the wave of revolutions that erupted across Europe in 1848, a revolt by a downtrodden ethnic majority group against their ethnic minority overlords, and a signifier of divine approval of foreign missionaries.

Hong Xiuquan (1814-64),
 Taiping leader
 The Taiping Rebellion is for him, "a reminder of just how fine the line is that separates humanitarian intervention from imperialism - and how the trace and the curvature of that line are often decided simply by who it is from the one country who succeeds in claiming expertise on the other." (xxvi) As a detailed case study of the limits of good intentions in international relations, it succeeds admirably. The central message of the book is that foreign intervention in the struggle between the Qing Dynasty and the Taipings, though rationalised (often sincerely) on humanitarian grounds, had disastrous consequences during and after the war.

Without a full and proper understanding of the situation on the ground in China, and of the impact their intervention might have there, those in the west who favoured intervention were able to persuade themselves and others that the supply of men and weapons to the imperial forces was a “humanitarian intervention" that stood the best chance of ending over a decade of bloodshed. Western partisans saw their chosen party in a simplistic light, projecting their own hopes and fears onto their every action."

Wednesday 8 August 2012


Sometimes I get an idea for a post from the most unlikely of stories, such as this BBC News report that the video game Call of Duty will be made available to Chinese gamers - absolutely free.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the games maker Activision designed a free online version of the game specifically for the unique conditions of the Chinese market. Searching for these particular "conditions", I stumbled across a startling fact: in the PRC - which produces a large share of the world's games consoles and the rare earth metals that go into them - home video game consoles have been banned for over a decade:

"An article on Chinese news site points out, "In June 2000, the Ministry of Culture issued a notice, forbidding any company or individual to produce and sell electronic game equipment and accessories to China."

The ban was the CPC's response to complaints by parents that the next generation would spend all its time hooked on video games, which would stunt its development. As a result, Chinese gamers are only legally permitted to play popular games in alternative formats on their home computer, or at internet cafes, which are hugely popular with Chinese youths.

This explains Activision's buisness strategy in China: make a game free to access, but charge real money for purchasing virtual items and upgrades within the game. Since the structure of China's video games market accentuates the collective, communal aspects of gaming, there is a potentially lucrative market for conspicuous consumption in cyberspace - and the more people playing the game, the stronger the reinforcement effects at work. This demand has in turn helped to fuel the growth of a strange cottage industry to supply it - I will return to this point later.

There are deeper forces underlying the home consoles ban than parents' moral panic. Specifically, the pervasive influence of a Canadian sociologist in the upper echelons of the CPC in the '80s and '90s, and his own brand of technological determinism, which seemed well-suited to explaining China's development.


The origins of China's computer industry can be found in the 1956 Twelve-Year Plan for the Development of Sciences and Technology. Initial developments in this field - like China's first operational computer, pictured below in 1959 - relied heavily on Soviet funding and technical expertise.

After the Sino-Soviet split, the Soviets left and China's computing industry, along with various other hi-tech fields, had to find its way through "self-reliance."

DJS-2, one of China's earliest electronic digital computers
 In 1973 a team of U.S. computer scientists visited China as part of a programme of technical exchanges designed to demonstrate warmer relations between the two super-powers. In their travel report, the scientists tell us that computing science in China was isolated from the worst excesses of Cultural Revolution-era anti-intellectualism (similar to China's space program) but its development for the foreseeable future seemed to be threatened by the degradation and politicisation of the universities:

"[O]ur hosts declined to give us any substantive information about present activity in computer science and engineering education, saying that the matter was "being studied." Perhaps the curriculum is in some disarray. It is by now well known that the Cultural Revolution profoundly affected the universities. [...] Under the administration of a Revolutionary Committee...Tsinghua University's admissions policy emphasises maturity in political and social understanding, dedication to the aims of the revolution, and practical experience more than academic achievement."
And the downside of official protection from the government was the frequency with which national political priorities intruded into the development of computing; in particular, the U.S. scientists observed that their Chinese counterparts were developing only a narrow range of applications (mainly military purposes and artificial insemination).

They also noted a bias for ever-bigger computers that could solve ever more complex numerical calculations, at the cost of increasingly centralised and restricted flows of inputs and outputs (the smallest computer they reported seeing was "physically the size of a large desk").

By the end of the 1970s the Cultural Revolution was finished and, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China was preparing to undergo another social transformation in Chairman Mao's wake. Mass meetings were held in the universities to determine who ought to be there on academic merit. Here is a picture of one such "recruitment meeting" in 1977:

Reforms were enacted in every sector of the economy in order to dismantle (or at least, dilute) the emphasis on state micro-control of industry, the focus on heavy industry at the expense of other sectors, and the instability engendered by fear of periodic mass political campaigns and purges. All the while, Deng intended that the reforms would more safely secure, not diminish, the Party's monopoly on political power.

Lucian W. Pye
The challenge was stark: how could the same institutions which had, in the name of achieving a communist utopia, led the country into a decade of near-anarchy, reverse course so sharply and expect to be taken seriously, having sacrificed what remained of its credibility?

According to the renowned Sinologist Lucian W. Pye, the answer lies in certain continuities in Chinese political culture. In a fascinating article entitled 'On Chinese Pragmatism in the 1980s', Pye contests the commonplace that the Chinese are, politically, a uniquely pragmatic people who were forced to applaude utopianism under Mao but who, in the post-Mao era, have reverted to their default setting of "exceptional flexibility."

Instead, he argues that both periods of change - after 1949 and after 1978 - were facilitated by a particular kind of "Chinese pragmatism"; his premise is that there is no such thing as value-free, neutral pragmatism in politics, because pragmatic government entails taking the consensual features of a culture as given, including cultural assumptions about politics.

Given the "particularism" and "this-worldliness" of Chinese culture, it follows that what counts as "pragmatic" government to the Chinese will vary according to perceived shifts in the national and international environment: "Government officials can annnounce that new circumstances call for new departures without fear of being criticised for inconsistency."

The forward-looking nature of Chinese political culture makes it easier for Chinese leaders to credibly signal their commitment to long-term plans and to execute sudden changes in direction. But, ironically, this feature of Chinese pragmatism - its "up-beat optimism" - can produce eminently impractical behaviour:

"In Chinese political culture, the imperative to be optimistic about the future discourages reflections on the past, and thus ritualised enthusiasm inhibits pragmatic learning through experience. Few people live as much in the future as people do in China where most individuals are absorbed in the promises of tommorrow and where modest improvements of the day seem to herald unlimited prospects. [...] The power of that optimism can trivialise the abominations of the past and legitimise their replication... [This] can be justified because the future is supposedly so promising."

In sum, what matters is what works - but what works in the present and forseeable future; by itself, the fact that something did or did not work is no guide to current policy. Thus, Pye argues, if China made more successful economic decisions in the 1980s, it had less to do with learning the lessons of past failures than it did with more accurately perceiving the social and technological forces transforming the global economy.

Democracy Wall: pilgrimage site for sceptics
And this meant that the Chinese and their leaders were aware of the permanent possibility that the past would repeat itself:

"Chinese pragmatism will be constantly vulnerable to the intrusion of ideological constraints, not just from its political opponents but even more from its own need to ensure that legitimacy depends not solely upon practical accomplishments. The suppression of the "democracy movement"...should not be read as a sign of the persisting power of "leftist" Maoists. The most pragmatic of the pragmatists knows that authority in China continues to need the support of a substantial dose of ideological faith, and hence there have to be severe limits on scepticism."


In 1980, a sociologist named Alvin Toffler wrote a book called The Third Wave, in which he argued that societies at or near the cutting-edge of technology need not fear being haunted by their past failures, because the future was going to be qualitatively different - and it was just around the corner.

Here is a picture of Toffler at the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

Toffler had first garnered widespread attention with his 1970 bestseller, Future Shock. The thrust of its argument is that virtually all the institutions of modern society are unable to cope with the accelerating rate of technological progress: "The thesis of this book is that there are discoverable limits to the amount of change that the human organism can absorb... We may define "future shock" as the distress, both physical and psychological, that arises from an overload of the human organism's physical adaptive systems and its decision-making processes."

Future Shock was widely influential in part because it provided an explanation, from a standpoint of technological determinism, for the air of unease in developed Western societies following the plethora of protest movements of the late 1960s. It diagnosed that unease as an entirely rational feeling that the growth of technology was outpacing humanity's ability to arrive at rational decisions about it; this was not simply a backlash against the misuse of technology, but a sense that those in control of modern technology were - by definition - unaccountable, because they did not really know what they were doing.

This meant that Toffler rejected "technocracy" as a feasible solution to society's ills. As he explained in an interview, any attempt to organise an entire society using a giant centralised computer - as the Soviets had tried to - was doomed to fail, because the very presence of the computer would induce people to change their behaviour, and seek to "game" the system (in his words, it "complexified" reality):

"I'm not sure everybody got the basic argument of Future Shock. We were not only saying that accelerating change is hard to adapt to, but that acceleration itself has effects on the system. The ability to adapt isn't dependent entirely on whether you're going in what you would regard as a happy direction or an unhappy direction. It's the speed itself that compels a change in the rate of decision making, and all decision systems have limits as to how fast they can make complex decisions."

"That takes us to the computer. The early assumptions were that the giant brain was going to solve our problem for us, that it was going to get all this information together and that therefore life would be simplified. What it overlooked was the fact that computers also complexify reality. And of course this was a great disappointment to the Soviets because they were going to centrally plan their thing with a big computer."

Significantly, future-shock was a kind of affliction that Pye argued Chinese culture had built-in safeguards against: "To a significant degree Chinese culture is spared the tensions, which can be psychologically debilitating, that are common in cultures with more universalistic norms and in which behaviour in different situations has to be made to appear consistent with absolute principles."

I have found an utterly weird and wonderful documentary film from 1972 that attempts to reduce the message of Future Shock to its essentials, presented - why not? - by Orson Welles.

The Third Wave picks up where Future Shock left off. The title refers to Toffler's theory that three great "waves", powered by huge leaps forward in technological possibilities, shaped three unique civilisations - these were the transitions from hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural society, from agriculture to industry, and from "industrialism" to an emergent "information society."

Here is Toffler's introduction to a CBWT documentary on The Third Wave from 1983, the year its first Chinese translation appeared (starting at around 2:50):

The Third Wave was a bestseller in the PRC and its "social wave-front analysis" was widely studied and referenced in debates about the direction of post-Mao reform amongst intellectuals and Party elites. In High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng's China, Jing Wang examines its significance:

"Listed as one of the thirty-three books that changed post-Mao China, Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave...told intellectuals both within and outside the Party apparatus a story of "tremendous hope and prospect." It was Toffler's critique of the pessimism underlying The Limits to Growth that instilled in the Chinese intellectual leadership a renewed sense of "urgency and responsibility" - the urgency to start the new technological revolution depicted in The Third Wave and the responsibility to achieve "socialist modernisation"... [S]ome even credited Toffler for the Party's 'Great Awakening' to the importance of knowledge and intellectuals in the new era."  

Toffler's optimistic message is that computers will render mass assembly-line production and non-renewable energy sources obsolete, and decentralise control over the means of production. Working from home in "electronic cottages", we will be able to reduce the pollution caused by unnecessary mobility and the alienation of rootless communities: 

The Model 757, China's first large vector computer
"The giant centralized computer with its whirring tapes and complex cooling systems--where it still exists--will be supplemented by myriad chips of intelligence, embedded in one form or another in every home, hospital, and hotel, every vehicle, and appliance, virtually every building-brick. The electronic environment will literally converse with us."

Most importantly, The Third Wave spoke to the fears and the hopes of those mapping out China's future. The Party's paramount aim was - and still is - to have growth and modernisation without social instability. This meant managing the pace of change and restricting the flow of people from the countryside to the modern cities, not just to avoid the creation of large urban slums, but also because of the danger that millions of Chinese shifting from first- to second-wave conditions would succumb to future-shock on an unprecedented scale.

This is why Toffler's stadial theory of change caught on in China - since the 1980s it has been a land of extreme contrasts between persistently under-capitalised agriculture and futuristic high-end science (in Toffler's parlance, a country of polarised "wave-ratios"). And the CPC has been intent on avoiding the conventional route to modernisation - mass urbanisation - because it fears that, given China's population density, this would lead to mass dissatisfaction with the status quo and threaten its hold on power (Toffler saw the second-wave as an era of concentration, "the time of the great incarcerations").

Instead, we have seen the partial industrialisation of rural areas and, via Toffler, the promotion of the idea that China's rural population can go directly to the third wave. Bill Brugger has written that The Third Wave was so popular in China because:

"It offers a vision of transition from a "first wave" (rural) society to a "third wave" (information) society without the need of going through all the expensive traumas of "second wave" (industrial) society. [...] A decentralised economy based on the rural areas but integrated by a sophisticated information system. The way is open for a new great leap but this time the pitfalls of preceding ones may be avoided by cybernetics [...] Toffler seems to be demanding the radical restructuring of the relations of production to make way for only one advanced productive force while the other productive forces remain backward."

When Toffler visited China, this is what he counseled its leaders. During a visit in 2001 he defined China's challenge: "Can we use the tools we have in the second or third wave to help people in the first wave?" Foremost amongst the tools that would be used to try and bridge the gap was the computer, which would awaken all sectors of China's population to technological changes underway, and the need to adopt a new road to development:

"Because it can remember and interrelate large numbers of causal forces, the computer can help us cope... It can sift vast masses of data to find subtle patterns. It can help assemble "blips" into larger, more meaningful wholes. Given a set of assumption, it can trace out the consequences of alternative decisions, and do it more systematically and completely than any individual normally could. It can suggest imaginative solutions to problems by identifying novel or hitherto unnoticed relationships."

The proliferation of computers and, subsequently, internet access was not just about levelling skills or personal empowerment - it was itself a means of securing the necessary public support to do this. Following Pye's reasoning, the Party's arch-modernisers wanted to demonstrate to their fellow nationals in a bold way that the world was undergoing this quantum leap - and so the practice of Communism must change also, without any logical inconsistency.


The insightfulness of Pye's analysis of "Chinese pragmatism" - his injunction that pragmatic politics and ideological coherence should be thought of as existing in tension but not necessarily opposition - becomes abundantly clear when we examine the fierce struggles within the PRC over ideological reform in the 1980s.

One of the central figures in the modernising "liberal" wing of the CPC frequently used Toffler's books as points of reference in Party debates. He was the Premier, Zhao Ziyang.

Zhao became the patron of reformist elites in China and established think-tanks to give intellectual heft to proposals for modernisation. Writing in 1986, Denis F. Simon saw the overriding priority of Zhao and his acolytes as being to rapidly catch-up to the West:

"Following the line of thinking put forth by Toffler, the Chinese see a qualitative change occurring in the basis of industrial strength and competitiveness. Several leaders have argued that unless China is able to make significant advances in four key areas [biotechnology, micro-electronics, IT, and new materials], the technological gap between China and the West will grow even wider... While China's stated policy is to attain by the year 2000 Western technological levels of the 1970s and 1980s, many in China believe that this goal is too modest."

One of the main propaganda tools of these think-tanks was a Shanghai-based journal called The World Economic Herald. In their detailed article on China's technocratic movement, Li Cheng and Lynn T. White describe the pivotal role played by writers for the Herald:

"[Contributors] emphasised the determining role of technical development in the rise or fall of nations, including China. [...] These discussions...implied an historical necessity for technocratic leaders. [...] Society has now become so complex that only experts can estimate the implications of decisions."

The televised arrest warrant for Fang Lizhi, 1989
It is important to note that, as with Toffler, many of the modernisers in the CPC who spent the 1980s trying to turn China into a virtual technocracy did not see themselves as technocrats per se, but rather as the engineers of a transitional phase that would lead to broader-based self-government (however that was defined). (For example, Christopher Buckley has argued that the famous dissident physicist Fang Lizhi cannot be definitively labelled as either a 'democrat' or a 'technocrat'.)

All the while, China's computing capability was progressing under the aegis of "socialist modernisation." In 1986, three years after China built its first working "supercomputer", the Galaxy I (which could carry out 100 million calculations per second), the government set up the '863 Project', to develop advanced technologies. A year later, Chinese scholars sent the country's first-ever e-mail (pictured below) to a German university - "Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world").

Apple II computer in
 Shanghai, 1985

By the middle of the decade, China's economy was exhibiting symptoms of serious overheating. Those who had argued in favour of opening up the economy to freer flows of trade, within and across borders, in order to close the technological gap, now stood accused by Party conservatives of repeating the errors of the past - of trying to make China's economy run before it could walk.

As inflation spiralled and student protests flared up in major cities, the reformist General Secretary Hu Yaobang was deposed, and in his place Deng anointed Zhao as his chosen successor. In response to this conservative backlash, Zhao tried to find an ideological compromise between them and the liberals - the resulting set of ideas was dubbed the "new authoritarianism" (xin quanweizhuyi), as described here by Michael J. Sullivan.

In an attempt to reconcile the technocrats and the conservatives, the new authoritarianism asserted that China needed a period of "strong man" rule to drive through pro-market reforms against opposition from numerous vested interests, but that, once China was moderately wealthy, it would be safe to begin a top-down change to a more participatory form of government (they disagreed on the specifics, though Zhao preferred a gradual transition to multi-party democracy). As Kalpana Misra has noted, the paradox of arguing for less democracy in order to safeguard the process of democratisation was not lost on Chinese democrats at the time:

"Although many of the economic and technological determinists maintained more than a residual commitment to Marxism, socialist goals and values as commonly understood had ceased to be meaningful guides to social and political action. For the liberal democrats to raise the issue of means and ends and ask the neo-authoritarians how despotism would lead to democracy was ironic indeed, for they themselves had chosen to pass over the question of how widening socio-economic inequality and the re-institution of private property would lead to socialism."

Wang Ruoshui

Another intellectual faction, known as the humanist Marxists, believed that the source of China's protest activity was the Party's "alienation" of its own supporters by its seemingly unprincipled u-turns, and its unconvincing attempt to blame a few individuals for its own catastrophic failings. At a CPC work conference in 1979, Wang Ruoshui, a spokesman for this tendency, argued that, "the fact that the masses dare not criticise the party is very harmful to the party and very dangerous."

Bill Brugger has drawn attention to "similarities between the diagnosis of radicals in China in the mid 1960s and humanist Marxists in the 1980s." Specifically, he argues that the two groups believed that the chief obstacle to achieving their respective visions of an ideal society (an offline and an online version of the Paris Commune) was resistance from an entrenched bureaucratic "New Class":

Hu Yaobang dedication at the
Monument to the People's Heroes
"Is the telos offered by people such as Toffler merely a crude substitute for the lost communist telos of more radical days? One suspects that China's advocates of the computer revolution are as utopian as many of the radicals of the mid 1960s... A decentralised system of mass democracy did not develop out of the movements of the 1960s. The old mixture of first-wave patriarchal bureaucracy plus a bit of second-wave industrialism triumphed... One suspects that the growth of information systems in China will serve the needs of central coercion rather than basic level spontaneity and central coordination. Computerised systems are probably more likely to increase alienation than the opposite. The freedom of information needed to make such a system work is still too subversive."

Whilst the ideological war waged on, the social pressures that had brought about Hu Yaobang's downfall had not gone away, and in 1989 they returned to haunt his successor. The student protest in Tiananmen Square had begun when a memorial service to Hu (who had died in 1987) turned into a collective demand that the Party exonerate him posthumously of all charges of being a "counter-revolutionary."

For weeks, a precarious stalemate ensued in what passed for dialogue between the government and the protesters. The demonstration became a crucial test of will for the rival Party factions - Zhao wrote in his memoirs that "The World Economic Herald honestly and correctly reported the events in Beijing, and was sympathetic to the fate of Yaobang" and, consequently, "On April 26, Shanghai CPC Secretary Jiang Zemin sacked its Chief Editor Qin Benli."

Finally, when it was clear to him that the conservatives would persuade Deng to send in the tanks, Zhao went to address the students in person (accompanied by future Premier Wen Jiabo), to apologise for having failed them and to urge them to leave before it was too late. Sounding a cautionary note from the generation before them, he told them: "We too protested, and we too laid on the tracks without considering the consequences." He was deposed shortly afterwards.


After Tiananmen, Deng's reform program slowed down, and then resumed its pace. The fundamentals of "new authoritarianism" have remained, but it was re-branded as "neo-conservatism", and the Chinese neo-conservatives accused Zhao - now in exile - of having been a closet liberal, just like the "shock therapists" who were accused of producing chaos in the former Soviet Union.
In recent years, China has emerged as a world-leader in supercomputers, which are used in stockbroking, mine prospecting and weather forecasting, among other applications. In 2010 the Chinese National University of Defence Technology briefly stole the accolade of the world's fastest supercomputer from the U.S. with the Tianhe-1A, capable of clocking 2.5trn floating point calculations per second.

One of the more disconcerting consequences of the CPC heeding Toffler's advice to pursue development in distinct stages has been the phenomenon of large-scale urban youth unemployment in China today. Toffler had himself foreseen this as a negative side-effect of the transition to third-wave civilisation. His proposed solution was to use computer technology to blur the divide between home and workplace, and so inculcate the work ethic in young people as early as possible:

The first internet connection in China, 1994
"Integrating young people into work in the electronic cottage may offer the only real solution to the problems of high youth unemployment. This problem will grow increasingly explosive in many countries in the years ahead, with all the attendant evils of juvenile crime, violence, and psychological immiseration, and cannot be solved within the framework of a Second Wave economy."

He envisaged the rise of stricter parenting techniques, more responsibility demanded of children from an early age, and a less child-centred society overall.

The spread of computers into homes across China (see the graph for internet access below) has helped in some small way to diminish the probem of youth unemployment - but not as Toffler had predicted.

Gold farmers
 As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the ban on home games consoles - demanded, and supplied, from the same concerns that Toffler had expressed about the "fitness" of Chinese youths to compete in a fast-changing world - has helped to structure the Chinese gaming community in an especially collective, social form. Combined with the ubiquity of internet cafes on the mainland, it has helped to fuel the growth in China of a fascinating new industry - "gold farming."

"Gold farmers" are workers, predominantly young men, who are usually contracted to work in a micro-enterprise - a "gaming workshop" (youxi gongzuoshi). The work involves playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, in 12-hour shifts for 6-7 days a week and collecting virtual "currency", avatars and other upgrades, which are sold for real money to cash-rich and time-poor gamers, mostly in developed countries.

80% of gold farmers work in China, where they are estimated to number 100,000 (full-time). In 2009 the Chinese government banned the purchase of real items using virtual currency, but it does not apply to trades in the opposite direction.

According to a report in the New York Times, those engaged in gold farming do so at considerable risk:

"The big gaming companies say the factories are violating the terms of use of the games, which forbid players to sell their virtual goods for real money. They have vowed to crack down on those suspected of being small businesses rather than individual gamers... The global gaming companies regularly shut accounts they suspect are engaged in farming. And the government here is cracking down on Internet addiction now, monitoring more closely how much time each player spends online."

Yet they accept the risks because it is a comparatively well-remunerated and comfortable job for semi-skilled youths:

"The operators are mostly young men like Luo Gang, a 28-year-old college graduate who borrowed $25,000 from his father to start an Internet cafe that morphed into a gold farm on the outskirts of Chongqing in central China. Mr. Luo has 23 workers, who each earn about $75 a month. "If they didn't work here they'd probably be working as waiters in hot pot restaurants," he said, "or go back to help their parents farm the land - or more likely, hang out on the streets with no job at all.""

Here is a talk by the documentary-maker Ge Jin on what he learned about gold farming whilst filming a documentary about it (some previews of which are available on YouTube).

The most important point Ge Jin makes is that, contrary to many of the bold predictions of technological determinists and futurologists, rather than leading to a revolutionary decentralisation of power in society, the new computer technologies seem to have merely replicated the hierarchy of power and control that exists in the real world, and transposed it onto a virtual space.

Richard Heeks, Professor of Development Informatics at the University of Manchester, makes a similar point in his study of gold farming:

"Perception outranks reality in the discourse on gold farming, and - at least in the West - those perceptions have been largely negative, serving to homogenise, alienise, criminalise and moralise about gold farmers. That this has happened despite counter-evidence supports the idea that racial stereotypes and views about immigrant labour are remapped into cyberspace. It also supports the structuralist argument that institutional forces in the real world are reproduced in new, virtual fields like gold farming... [T]his falls short of an argument that technology has transformed social structures and behaviours."

It may yet have the potential to improve society insofar as it holds up a mirror and people can object to what they see. For example, he observes acutely that the torrent of criticism of Chinese gold farmers by other gamers on the grounds that they are contaminating an otherwise idealised "level playing-field" has the potential to become a critique of the very society that will not permit such an idealised space to exist. But just as there are no guarantees that the leap will be made, neither is there any reason to suppose "electronic cottages" make it any more likely.

What if, contrary to the moral outcry that accompanied the home consoles ban in 2000, video games are in fact highly effective tools for preparing young people to make their way in the real world but, contrary to the internet utopians, reality is sustained rather than transformed as a result?