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?

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