Went Outside 6: China!

As well as being interesting, its a seriously underrated and pleasant holiday destination

Went Outside
Oct 5, 2018 · 16 min read

Of course, it’s much easier to sound interesting after finding litter in a pre-Colombian village and writing how that tells us something about Bolivia than it is to sound insightful writing about China. But I am still going to try. This is late now, sorry, sorry, I am a bad blogger. But who isn’t, these days?

In reality there’s not really much of a difference in generalised arrogance between spending four weeks in Bolivia or China and expecting to have something insightful to say, its just more obvious when one country has 100 times the population of the other. Anyway…I’ll pick up where I left off.

My fiancee needed some surgery for a chronic condition which became acute while we were in South America. With that out the way, and after four months “off” travelling but not really “back” to normality it was good to leave. And it was good to take over 7000 kilometres of train journeys.

They’re good trains, Jonn

China’s high-speed rail network has exploded in the last decade. Between 2008 and 2014 the network of rail lines suitable for traffic at speeds of 250 kilometres per hour or more was expanded from 1,000 kilometres to 11,000 kilometres. That means every second we were wasting on austerity in the west the Chinese high-speed rail network grew by four centimetres and created stations that look like airport terminals.

Chongqing West

The trains themselves were part of Beijing’s enormous post-2008 stimulus package. The communist party is terrified of a recession and responded with aplomb to the post-Lehman collapse of demand. Part of the beauty of Adam Tooze’s Crashed (which you should all read. That’s my review, its a hard book to review well so that’s all I’ll say, read it.) is that it spends time telling the crisis story outside the UK, the Eurozone and the US.

As well as being an effective stimulus the construction was also an effective bulldozer. Many older lines were replaced and upgraded as part of the high speed rail development. They were still fully booked while I used them but the clientele has changed, these high speed trains weren’t cheap. The development of China is still something which is dividing the haves from the have nots. However, I couldn’t call them expensive either, and for £50 you could take a thousand kilometre journey which before you would have flown or only covered on a sleeper train.

My first intercity China journey was by sleeper train.

We travelled first through Shanghai to Beijing, taking a sleeper train to our first destination proper. The chaos of China is hard to overstate and yet things seem to function. Getting out of the airport was fine but travelling through Shanghai north railway station was something else. This is an old station, more like the bus stations of South America than the plush high speed railway stations I was to encounter later.

We shared a cabin with a Chinese couple who didn’t speak a word of English but both confirmed and shattered my preconceptions. They were friendly and kind and welcoming, as is the norm in China as far as I can tell. Where I was prepared for a colder and more standoffish welcome I was completely wrong. The area where they confirmed my preconception was in the Chinese tolerance for ambient noise, and their strong desire to add to it. Whether it is a loud early hours phone conversation, explosive mobile gaming, or sporadic and (to me) indecipherable shouting, China is a land of noise.

Part of me wants to blame the rush of urbanisation of a peasant population and the boom of noise creating technology without the time to create norms to manage the externalities. But maybe people are different all around the world and cultures can develop that don’t find everything I find annoying annoying?

Speaking of a terrifying near superhuman tolerance for ambient noise, how about we talk about development and health and safety. Let’s ask a question: How developed is China?

In case you don’t remember, I have a metric to decide this. Now I don’t think a “health and safety culture” is merely a result of getting rich, or causes people to get rich, but I do think its correlated with things that cause richness in societies, like planning, conscientiousness, being rule bound…

According to this not very accurate metric, even urban China has yet to join the developed world.

As you know there has been a lot of capital spending in China in the last few years, and lots of that has been in the form of cars. Those newer cars come as standard with safety warning systems that beep! when your seatbelt is not plugged in. Knowing this you would assume China would leap straight to the wearing seatbelts stage of development.

But it has not.

My taxi drivers sat there.

Without seatbelts on.

While their car goes ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding because people would rather listen to beeping than put on a fucking seatbelt. This is mad. Fucking mad. Underdeveloped. I composed this passage in my head a thousand times while taking taxis in China. And I still couldn’t buckle my fucking seatbelt.

While I was away I have had cause to rethink the above metric. I came across, from somewhere, this interesting write up of an article titled “Why safety cultures don’t work” which discusses exactly what it says on the tin. Safety cultures don’t do much, rigorous enforcement of safety standards is what keeps people safe. Air Traffic Control has a strict safety culture but more importantly it investigates every near miss thoroughly and insists findings are adopted and acted upon. So perhaps my seatbelt metric is really a measure of state capacity and not a generalised cultural development. Either way, I can’t see a Taxi driver in Zurich refuse to wear a seatbelt out of sheer bloody mindedness.

I don’t want to review China too much as a tourism destination in this other than to say it is very good. Beijing is a phenomenal city, as are Shanghai, Chengdu, Xi’an, Guilin and Hong Kong. And I’m sure anywhere I could have spent time in China would have been interesting and entertaining. The historical sites which survived the orgy of destruction of the Red Guards are world class, and little sites like the Propaganda Art Museum are unmissable.

As I moved through cities like Chengdu and Xi’an I noticed a profusion of public toilets. That gives me a good chance to talk about something I wanted to talk about anyway, but shoehorned into ostensibly writing about something else, like a long-winded book reviews featured in a literary supplement.

Do you ever think about public toilets and neoliberalism? I do.

Everyone needs public toilets. So long as food and drink is consumed in public it will need to be deconsumed in public. The BBC helpfully map the declined of public toilets from 2010 to 2018 in the UK, but this is part of a much longer trend. Prior to this, in 2008, there was a parliamentary report on the decline of public toilets, the pre-crisis years really were a golden age. Just think what parliament could be discussing if it were not distracted by Brexit!

Of course we are not suffering from a glut of soiled streets because public toilets aren’t really in decline. It’s almost never been easier to spend a penny, the difference is that know you need to spend a pound to do so. Instead of councils directly providing public toilets anyone selling food or drink with a premises above a certain square footage has to provide a toilet.

China does not do that. China is a state capitalist success story and that is as true of its public toilet provision as its railways. Depending on how they are funded, providing public toilets falls into the category of subsidising capitalists. In the UK we force capitalists selling food to also provide the means to dispose of it. China is taking the state capitalist route of providing public toilets directly, Britain the neoliberal one of regulating business into providing public toilets. Who’s more communist?

That faecal diversion was a roundabout way to segue into discussing the Chinese economy more broadly. A key feature of the Chinese economy is suppressing domestic consumption and subsidising capitalists. And boy is it obvious if you look for it.

Before the high-speed rail megaproject there was the Three Gorges Dam megaproject. This is a gigantic project to regulate the flow of the Yangtze river to manage flooding, dispossess 1.3 million people and create the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Below you can see the ship canal locks, for moving ships from the lower section of the river to the upper, flooded half.

Capitalists have a lock on the Chinese state. A Lock. Lock. Geddit?

This is free to use for the container ships using it. There is, of course, a massive queue to use it, but even so it still represents a big subsidy to manufacturers upstream in Chongqing and Chengdu. The river is more navigable than it has ever been and it has ever been easier to reach the ports at Shanghai for central China’s manufacturers. This has been good for development, but it has also been extremely good for factory owners.

Our Yangtze river cruise — which I can highly recommend — was not permitted to use the locks to move from the lower to the upper sections of the river. So as well as being a comment on state capitalism, this is also a comment on China’s attempts to rebalance from industry to services. Or not rebalancing as the case may be.

I received mixed reviews of the flooding the Yangtze valley. People who want Chinese people to be slavishly pro-party, or fiercely independent or hyperpartisan are going to be disappointed.

My first guide on the Yangtze was very chauvinistic. He told us enthusiastically about the new towns built to rehome those flooded out of their homes. Farmers were put into towerblocks near newly allocated farmland, others were moved into cities and the brave new urban world of developed China. And everyone received far more in compensation in kind than their worthless farmland could have reached on the open market.

The next day my guide called Mao crazy, the communist party corrupt and the flooding an “obvious” disaster for displacing 1.3 million people. For perspective, that’s Birmingham! Imagine all brummies rendered homeless…. Surface area-wise imagine the Thames flooding for a kilometre either side along its whole length. He did not think the benevolent party knew best on account of all the flooding they caused.

My last conversation about the dam was with someone from Tujia people who was a tour guide for the now (also) flooded Yangtze tributary Shennong stream. The culture there of pulling pull boats along the shallow tributary had been destroyed by the water level rising 60 metres and making the river highly navigable. The destruction of this simple river transport-based culture was made inevitable by China’s rapid development and infrastructure investment. But it didn’t have to happen immediately as the final sluice closed on the Three Gorges Dam. The 70 year old trackers performing for tourist parties now will be the last generation to do it, but their grandkids will be the first to reliably go to school, have running water and electricity. Development is ugly and necessary and ameliorating the disbenefits is probably the only option. To what degree the disbenefits of dispossessing 1.3 million people has been ameliorated she wouldn’t be drawn on, but its not zero, not close.

“In 2010, NASA scientists calculated that shift of water mass stored by the dams would increase the length of the earth’s day by 0.06 microseconds and make the earth slightly more round in the middle and flat on the poles. [102]

Karl Polanyi in Beijing was my old Polanyian take on Chinese reforms.

I think it holds up well, and you can get a pdf of the essay at the link if you like, because framing the Chinese economy and society as becoming dis-moored helps explain lots of China’s oddities. For lots of the reasons linked above, I remain a long-term China bear because at some point China will snap and the effect will be catastrophic, as is tradition. But this trip has made me much more of a medium-term China bull. It is really going some and somehow keeps being made go more. [My definition of long-term is elastic but not in such a way that I can’t be proved wrong, if the CCP manage a soft landing to 3–4% GDP growth without China imploding then I’ll concede I was wrong, if China collapses then I’ll be the smug one in the rations queue explaining how Xi lost the mandate of heaven. For similar but opposite reasons, I’m a short-term India sceptic, but long-term the 21st century will be Indian, not Chinese.]

If the China model makes it something I will have been wrong about is its “new authoritarianism” which is evident wherever you go. Every tube station I used my bags were scanned. At major tourism sites I was scanned. I was registered with the local police wherever I stayed. China’s railways stations are the front line in the surveillance state. My face would have been scanned and checked numerous times. Locals have to deal with social credit and bots monitoring them on WeChat. Some of it feels like security theatre, but in an authoritarian state theatre matters. That said, we will see what this techno-dystopia new authoritarianism has to show versus a good old fashioned traditional Chinese revolt. I know who my money will be on.

One of many interesting ideas introduced to me by Chris Dillow is that of “guard labour.” And there sure is lots of guard labour in China. The idea is to characterise the wasted labour used in keeping people safe. It sounds facile that Brazil could spend less on security and more on stuff people actually want if they were as crime-inclined as people who live in Denmark, but it’s true. Unequal places need more guards.

In China, there’s a higher density of security guards than anywhere else I’ve been. Ticket checking and rechecking is common throughout the developing world but China has a lot of it, even the most developed parts of China has make work in security and checking and guarding and watching that would make other countries blush.

I’m not sure if this is a related concept already but there’s also a lot of guard capital. It’s not just scanners, it’s ticket barriers, it’s cameras, it’s data centres running proprietary software to monitor dissidents, it’s burning ID codes onto knives bought by ethnic Uighur, it’s weaponry and armour. It is patterns of logistics which are deformed to include additional checks and information processing, it is process design, corporate governance and municipal government with authoritarianism built in. That vintage of organisational capital (another concept I cribbed from Chris Dillow) is going to become outdated as China approaches the productivity frontier and hold back China. It will benefit those already rich, so will have a constituency it benefits, but it will hold China back. Unwinding this labour, people who will need retraining or retiring, and capital, which will need liquidating or repurposing, will be a big headache if China is ever going to look “normal.”

Traditionally crane counting is a hot hobby for slightly sad tourists looking to spot macroeconomic performance in real time. Of course China is transitioning from capital formation to domestic demand (or that’s the plan), so an alternative is needed. I suggest sign making shops as an alternative for crane counts. I accidentally stayed in the shop sign making district of Xi’An and business was booming. Consumer businesses use more signs that business to business businesses, so that’s my idea. Someone teach a robot to scan Baidu maps and trade on new sign shops. Guaranteed returns. Not investing advice.


Of course I was in China while the World Cup was on. I did not know that the English psychodrama about penalty shootouts was so well know. Bizarre seeing Gareth Southgate’s big young face on CCTV’s sports coverage with the Chinese characters for “you’ve fucked it lad” popping up. Paul Ince looking sad was photoshopped over Harry Kane’s penalty shot. Someone I shared a train compartment is on a night train to Yichang told me he was surprised England won their penalties…he could barely speak English! Anyway, that’s an example of soft power I suppose.

In December it will be 40 years since Xiaogang, Anhui secretly agreed to split the commune into 18 separate farms for 18 separate families. This is an iconic moment in the move from Maoist collectivisation to Dengist reform. Each family would each put in grain to meet the government targets and keep the surplus. This meant that their 1979 harvest was as large as the previous five years together. Maoism is very bad! Don’t do it. If you’re doing it, stop. The only really solid, guaranteed, gold standard, one great leap, awesome development policy that always works is “stopping Maoism,” but sadly this only works if you’re doing Maoism in the first place.

Eventually central government found out about the village’s plan but the mood had turned to Dengism and so nobody was executed, the village was instead held up as an inspiration. And it should have been. Five times more food, thank christ, they needed it. But more than food the village represented an idea. Of course, the system they created was similar to the 1950s land reform the CCP originally implemented before collectivisation. So in the spirit of Dengism, neoliberalism and marginal analysis — and although the Anhui experiment was symbolically important — at the margin, I don’t think it made any difference to China’s overall performance. Sorry guys, that’s capitalist analysis for you.

I discussed the situation in Xinjiang with two people. In case you don’t know — and you legitimately might have honestly missed it because reporting globally has been abysmal of this particular crime against humanity — around one million Chinese Muslims, the Uighur minority, are locked in reeducation camps. I spoke with a tourist who had visited and a Han Chinese native of Xinjiang who was emigrating internally to escape the situation.

The first was a girl studying Global Affairs who had been to Xinjiang as a tourist. Beijing is really encouraging tourism to the site of the world#s largest prison camp system. This is new! This is not normal. She said that everyone there, taxi drivers, cafe owners etc, all had a friend, relative or acquaintance in a camp.

I also spoke with a Christian Han woman from Urumqi. She spoke quite openly about the 800,000 imprisoned and the political repression and told me she was leaving because Xinjiang because it sucked and she didn’t want to raise a child there.

She thought the treatment of the Uighur was bad but also that the situation created by the Uighur themselves was also bad! Both sides! She told me that Uighur independence activists had been writing propaganda in school books and that nobody found out for AGES because nobody in government could read Uighur. Likewise terrorism was referenced. She said that the government didn’t know who was involved in terror attacks or the independence struggle so they had to lock up loads of people. She seemed to think it was quaint that that would be illegal in England.

Anyway, this is settler colonialism in action. It never went away, it just moved within established states so it is harder to identify.

In the old Flat World “no two counties with a McDonalds went to war.” That world ended in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine. Now we live in the Bad Timeline we have an alternative pithy motif: Now even countries with Starbucks do settler colonialism, whether in Burma, Israel, Argentina or China.

A thought occurred to me while in China about the price level. Obviously prices for the same good can vary a lot. Take a water from your minibar instead of your hotel tap for an obvious example. However, within China, I noticed really extreme differences available for similar goods and it got me wondering what effect this might have on life and policy. There’s no true price for any one good, but in the developed world the bands within which the prices for a good fluctuate are limited. In the developed world the price bands can be enormous. Does this matter? If you were hoping to a conclusion to this then you’re out of luck. Is there a way to measure average price variance? Would it affect macro-stabilisation policy? Does it make measured inequality overstated because savvy shoppers can get a bargain, or does it not really matter? Anyway, I frequently felt I paid too much for beer in China.

Insert waterpark

Towards the end of my trip I visited Yangshuo National Park. Outside cars are not permitted to enter, but I did see one guy building an inflatable waterpark inside! It was enormous and was being kept secure behind a chainlink fence. Predicted capacity: hundreds of screaming children.

So there’s a lot of hustling in China, like all developing countries, but there seems to be a lot more capital intensive hustling, which can only be a good thing.

Crossing China by train you see a lot of greenery. So let’s play a game. Guess the country with the largest agricultural workforce. Guess the world’s second largest agricultural producer by value. Do you think agriculture contributes more to China GDP or to Brazil’s? Answers: China. China. China.

Stories are powerful and the stories we like to tell about places and peoples and aggregates are probably the most powerful of all. But very often they are wrong. The way we see China, as an export giant, or a homogeneous culture, a successful authoritarianism, or a mirror in which to see the west are just that: stories. While in China I read David Edgerton’s great history of Britain’s 20th century (read my review!), which was helpful because it was all about pricking bubbles and disrupting settled narratives of what Britain’s past was really like. Stories are useful but they’re also dangerous, visiting somewhere doesn’t mean you escape the power of stories, but you at least get to add some of your own.

Next time…when I get round to writing it, my final instalment: Southeast Asia.

Went Outside

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A sorta travelogue once again