Xi Jinping’s War on Spontaneous Order

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published a letter I wrote to their editor in response to Kevin Rudd’s exposition on Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign:

Kevin Rudd argues that China’s “pivot to the state” is occurring because Chairman Xi Jinping is determined that his country shall “win a generational contest against cultural dependency on the West” (“What Explains Xi’s Pivot to the State?” op-ed, Sept. 20). Yet the majority of firms and media products targeted by Mr. Xi’s new campaign are not Western, but Chinese.

The drivers of this campaign are also domestic. In Chinese eyes, each of its targets is associated with a longstanding social ill. The sorts of social problems Brooklyn hipsters chalk up to “late capitalism” exist in China, too—and in most cases in far worse form. The new restrictions on video games, to choose one example, are less a reaction to the popularity of Western games (China’s blockbuster titles are for the most part homegrown) than the humiliating reality that the amount of time the average Chinese wastes on gaming is double that wasted by the average citizen of any Western nation.

One can forgive the gamers for their addiction: Urban Chinese life is atomized, tech-addled and status-anxious. A people whose national anthem begins with the words “Stand up! You who refuse to be slaves!” now finds themselves trapped in a billion-man rat race.

It was only a matter of time before Chairman Xi’s promise to deliver a brighter future collided with the commodified and cutthroat culture of China’s present. This collision, not hostility to foreign influence, best accounts for the Chinese Communist Party’s “pivot to the state.”1

1

Tanner Greer, “Xi Confronts China’s ‘Billion-Man Rat Race’,” Wall Street Journal (26 September 2021).

There is much more to say about this; sometime in the next two months I plan on writing a longer essay to explain my views with more primary sourcing. But here is a condensed version of my case:

The essential challenge facing any observer analyzing this campaign is this: what accounts for the target list? What do K-pop fan groups, after school tutoring companies, Meituan delivery men, online algorithms, plastic surgeons, overheated housing markets, celebrity ranking lists, and tech monopolies have in common? It is not sufficient to say that China “pivot[s] to the state” or proclaim that Xi Jinping “aims to rein in Chinese capitalism.”2 Xi Jinping is not reigning in capitalism writ large; Beijing is not scrapping market mechanisms altogether. Semiconductor foundries, agricultural conglomerates, and Christmas light factories (to choose three examples of hundreds) have been untouched by Xi’s ‘common prosperity’ agenda. It is a very select slice of Chinese capitalism that is being “reined in.”

2

Lingling Wei, “Xi Jinping Aims to Rein In Chinese Capitalism, Hew to Mao’s Socialist Vision,” Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2021; Kevin Rudd, “What Explains Xi’s Pivot to the State?,” Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2021.

So what decides what industries must be reined in by state intervention while others remain unaffected? The target list seems heterogeneous, impervious to any obvious classification. I’ve personally adopted what has (thusfar) been an effective rule of thumb for predicting which industries will get the axe: can one imagine a Brooklyn hipster describing said industries’ products or operations as an “artifact of late capitalism”? If the answer is “yes” then that industry is on the chopping block (Livestreamers, you are next).

But even if it is an effective heuristic, there is something vaguely unsatisfying and Justice Potter-esque in my little test. “What is the common thread that strings together Communist Party regulations?” becomes “what is the common thread that that strings together the anxieties of downwardly mobile New Yorker writers?” leaving us no closer to finding out what the actual common thread might be.

As I pondered this problem I chanced upon a passage that points to a more fruitful answer. Andrzej Walicki’s Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia is devoted to the conception of ‘freedom’ foundational to the political thought of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, as well as the European communist regimes that tried to realize Marxist principles in practice. Walicki writes:

The market was the opposite of all these values: it was the embodiment of the uncontrollable, of the blind natural forces thwarting human plans and creating a situation in which people are enslaved by their own products. The market symbolized the radical dehumanization of man through the suppression of his communal nature and the victory of egoistic individualism, which reduced people to isolated economic subjects… His [program sought] the restoration of universal human identity and the rational control of social forces in the name of common interests of the species; hence it was altogether opposed to particularistic pluralism, to the fragmentation of humanity into multiple autonomous groups, and to the freedom of spontaneous social forces. The spontaneous order, regulated by the “invisible hand” of the market, was for Marx the order of alienation, the victory of blind national forces that dominate people by means of a reified “objective dependence,” and as such was incompatible with the rationality and universality of human beings. From this perspective it is evident that the “leap to the kingdom of freedom” must consist in restoring man’s communal nature… and eliminating the distinction between public and private; it must ensure the victory of collective rationality by completely suppressing uncontrollable natural spontaneity and thus, as Engels put it, transforming active social forces from “master demons” into “willing servants.”3

3

Andrzej Walicki, Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995, 501-2; 506)

Orthodox Marxism describes the last few thousand years of history as a dialectical advance, each step in humankind’s social evolution an emancipation from natural forces paired with deepening servitude to artificial ones. The problem is not greedy capitalists, but capitalism, a structure of incentives that gives capitalists no option but to live rapacious. It was not the capitalists’ fault, really: for those inside the vortex there is no escape from the ceaseless whirl. We all live in thrall to the depersonalized incentives of the capitalist machine; we all are slaves to the blind force of the marketplace. The game cannot be changed by those stuck playing it: one must play or perish. The only solution possible is for an outside force to intervene and reshape the terms of the game. Socialist revolution will be that force. With no stake in the current order, the propertyless masses will wipe the slate clean. Human life in the world to come will be twiced blessed: technology and industry has freed mankind from the shackles of nature. Revolution will now break the artificial shackles that technology and industry themselves had forged. From that point forward great decisions will not be filtered through the partial interests of the individual, but decided rationally, with the entire whole in mind. Then mankind would be free! Free from the manipulations of the market! Free from egoism, from indecency, from all the terrible things the system forces us to do to each other! Moloch vanquished, human life would finally flourish as our inborn natures intended.4

4

My framing here closely follows Engel’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. That link is to the edition available on Marxists.org

So argued Marx; so preached Engels. Yet to use Dan Wang’s clever phrasing, the Communist Party of China is not staffed by “Marxist fundamentalists.” 5Even under Mao this Communist Party was not quite orthodox: in place of the Soviets’ tepid internationalism, the Chinese communists are, and always have been, unrepentant nationalists. The Trotskys and Bukharins of the Russian Revolution saw the ‘blind forces’ of capitalist exchange as the greatest threat to the liberty, dignity, and development of mankind; for Asian revolutionaries, imperialism was the greater threat, and that threat was far less ‘blind.’ I suspect it was this nationalist kernel at the core of Chinese communism that allowed Beijing to introduce reforms in the 1980s fatal to communist parties across the internationalist Warsaw bloc.

5

Dan Wang, “2020 Letter,” (1 January 2021)

I see no evidence that Xi Jinping wishes to return to the totalitarian order of the pre-reform past. The Chinese people, and their communists leaders, paid bitterly for their total war on spontaneous order. Market mechanisms are here to stay.

And yet… when you hold up the industries targeted by this latest campaign, Walicki’s words come to mind: here we see people “enslaved by their own products.” Here we find the “dehumanization of man,” “the victory of egoistic individualism,” and the reduction of human beings to “isolated economic subjects.” Isn’t this what the “late capitalism” moniker is really trying to get at: the felt sense that we are no longer men and women with dignity and agency, but instead the playthings of advertisements and algorithms, commodified by processes we cannot opt out of?6 One must play or perish: the Chinese have been playing at a rate that puts the rest of us to shame.

6

The most telling illustration of this is the common invocation of Tinder, Bumble, and the other online dating apps in discussions of “late capitalism.” Nary a dollar is exchanged, but the apps very much make dating feel like a market place and their users like commodities.

That is the thread that ties all of these crackdowns together. Each targets an industry that seems to strip people of their agency and rob them of their dignity. Each seems to hijack healthy behavior with a set of short term incentives whose end results are self destructive and degrading.

This is how Chinese have been describing these industries themselves. I was interested to see one crackdown explainer state that the after school tutoring industry was “guǒ xié-ing our people.”7 Guǒ xié (裹挟) means to coerce or compel a behavior or attitude; it carries with the imagery of being swept away by a natural force, like the wind or a riptide. It is an apt metaphor for an industry that urban Chinese hate to pay for yet feel like they cannot opt out of. One does not wish to waste a child’s youth away on 18 hours of evening cram school a week, but to do otherwise is to risk falling behind. It is a classic arms race problem: no player can stop the game from the inside, even though all players would benefit from a cap on the game. An outside force is needed to halt the madness. Xi Jinping has decided to be that force.

Very similar rhetoric has been used to describe the cultural crackdowns (as on video games or online fan clubs). In an interview posted on the Central Commission on Discipline Inspection’s website this summer, Jiang Yu blames both on the “irrational expansion of capital.” He argued that “‘Fan culture’ is capital using its power to create a consumption culture, and to manipulate youth spending habits and influence public culture.”8 Under this framework, the popularity of video games, celebrity rankings, K-pop forums and the like are an unnatural social contagion. The instant gratification provided by their consumption hijacks healthy development and produces disgusting excess. In this sense, computer games or fan forums are similar to narcotics–but worse, for narcotics are illegal, peddled in the shadows under threat of death. Today’s addictions, in contrast, have billion dollar conglomerates behind them. But the video game developers, executives, and admen are only doing what they are incentivized to do. Within the system there is nothing to stop these conglomerates from enmeshing their citizens even further in addiction. An outside force is needed to halt the madness. Xi Jinping has decided to be that force.

8

Jun Mai, “‘Irrational Expansion of Capital’ behind China’s Fan Culture and Tech Monopolies, South China Morning Post, August 31, 2021,

The extent to which Xi’s reading of classical Marxist texts has inspired this campaign is not clear (the campaign he launched to revitalize Marx’s image within the Party back in 2018 may be relevant here). I doubt that the Chairman is as anxious about the fate of the human “species essence” as Marx was; his goal is not the emancipation of mankind, but the glory and renewal of China. Yet the obstacles each faces are similar. Xi Jinping has weaved a “Chinese Dream.” He has promised Chinese a better life. Growing paychecks aside, the Chinese are not living it. Urban China is a society of miserable egoists who feel manipulated by forces beyond their own control. Their life does not feel like national rejuvenation. Xi’s attack on the spontaneous order of the market place is an attempt to bring propaganda and reality closer in line. He seeks to rein in the forces that threaten the Dream while there is still time to do so.

What is left to be seen is how far this campaign will go. Warring against spontaneous order is dangerous business. Society tends to adapt around state intervention; paradise is forever one campaign out of sight. As Walicki notes, failure to achieve state goals lead naturally to more aggressive attempts to achieve the same. War aims escalate. Dictators discover the easy way to emancipate a people from the market: enslave them to impersonal state bureaucracies. I do not think Xi Jinping desires for his campaign to go this far. But history is a funny thing; a statesman that starts a stone rolling often struggles to slow its course.

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34 Comments

good post
i think you are a little behind the times when it comes to livestreaming though
far from being the next victim of this campaign, livestreaming has already been under a crackdown since 2017

Great post. We sort of feel that Xi is making China more Marxist, and yet, not exactly Marxist… This piece explains the contradiction (maybe “tension” is a better word) very well. Not a Marxist blueprint for the economy but something else…

One minor comment: it should be “reined in” (as in, using a horse’s reins to pull it back) rather than “reigned in”. Or maybe it’s a clever pun?

Otherwise, great article! Having read your linked 2017 article “Everything is Worse in China” as well, I wonder if your observations from then still hold today – are all the different social maladies still worse in China, or have we (the USA) managed to overtake them? How is Xi’s approach to these problems working in comparison to our approach (or lack thereof)?

Not a clever pun, alas, but a typo I did not catch. I write essays with dictation software and it does not make these distinctions.

Great post. I had this summary on my blog a few days on similar lines – https://journalentry.substack.com/p/chinastuff

“Before concluding, I think China has one more goal in mind. We hear a lot about cultural exhaustion and decadence of the west. In my view, China is ALSO trying to pre-empt and prevent decadence that comes about from wealth, comfort, leisure, consumerism, tech & social-media etc and taking active steps to shape a citizenry that is more in sync with it’s collectivist and nationalistic goals rather than let it drift towards a more individualistic and decadent trajectory that it has observed in the west.”

The question is – what is the replacement?

Both in terms of time and in terms of function.

Will more parents (most likely mothers) stay home and tutor their own children? Will they form informal groups to do this? I doubt that Chinese parents can be easily convinced to give up on throwing time/money at increasing their child’s chances of success in the rat race.

What will kids do with time not spent gaming? Apparently studying is off the table. Most of them are in urban environments – will they roam the streets? Or take up sports and other hobbies?

It will be interesting to see what eventually happens and how the CCP responds.

They want them to do sports. China has a new stated annual goal to increase the percentage of Chinese that regularly exercise by about 1.2%

More Chinese should have the physique of gymnasts. Video games and catboys do not a civilization build. In my view, the Chinese government should strictly prohibit anime, as that is one of the drivers of Western degeneracy.

I suspect strict prohibitions on these new “vices” that don’t carry the cultural baggage of narcotics are – rightly – not forthcoming. Chinese philosophy was dialectical long before Marx, and Chinese governance tends toward the pragmatic – push too hard, and you create an unwelcome opposing reaction.

As for “Western degeneracy” – ignoring the loaded political connotations of the second term – anime is hardly a driver. It’s just one of the things people find to fill the void in a society that’s spent forty years aggressively shedding all values not preceded by “shareholder”.

Says who? I’d put the ‘degenerate’ anime productions of a Mamoru Oshii up against any ‘true art’ you care to name.

Just in honor of you, I’m going to go finish up the first season of Demon Slayer.

Great post as always. Like with the anti corruption campaign, there are also important (and selectively applied) political facets of this regulatory campaign that cannot be ignored. Xi and the CCP are using the legitimate grievances of the working and middle classes to dramatically weaken and re-subordinate the incipient private sector bosses who were beginning to mount political challenges. The RMB100 billion “donations” by Pony Ma and Jack Ma (each!) are critical markers of the campaign as much as the actual regulatory targets. Note that the Party-derivec aspects of the hard life for many in China, especially hukou and financial repression through eg low deposit rates, are still not being touched because they are still the firm basis of the party-designed surplus value extraction system. The tie between leftist economic policy and the consolidated rule of the red aristocracy at the top of a hegemonic CCP has a long history running back at least to Chen Yun. The nationalist proposition and the core of Xi’s political strategy is that party hegemony is necessary for national strength. So while certain parts of the economic grind may be extirpated, those that are not are cast as being in service of the nation, and are in reality in service of the red aristocracy.

“Note that the Party-derivec aspects of the hard life for many in China, especially hukou and financial repression through eg low deposit rates, are still not being touched because they are still the firm basis of the party-designed surplus value extraction system. ”

Well said.

Bill Bishop remarked on one of his newsletters that the industries being targeted were all new enough that Princeling wealth was not tied up with them. There is a lot of truth to this.

Exactly – the things being cracked down on are things that might challenge the Party. There shall be no alternative to political power other than through the CCP.

I also think there is something to be said about interests being a proxy for ideology; I know in the u.s.a game development are on average super liberal by which I mean none traditional. The same is true for google compared to Wall mart.

If the same is the case in China the recent crack down is of no surprise. Don’t know if it’s the same, but if people imitate high status and high status is gotten by wealth what better way to culturally engineer than by making tech and gaming lower profitable and lower status?

A gaming billionaire, I feel is much more likely to be a dissident than a Christmas light billionaire.

I also feel like if the u.s.a did a similar crackdown we’d call it by a much more neutral anti trust or solving for market failure or something.

All your references to “the market” should be interpreted in light of your sarcastic reference to Brooklyn hipsters, those who experience “anxieties of downwardly mobile New Yorker writers.” In western countries, “the market” means most importantly decentralized status competition. That competition produces some bizarre, utterly irrational results. Such results are now increasingly apparent and destructive.

I think this idea:

“Each seems to hijack healthy behavior with a set of short term incentives whose end results are self destructive and degrading.”

is what people are really lamenting when they talk about how modern life is “spiritually empty” or “atomized”. The material conditions of life have not changed that dramatically in the last few decades, so things like suburbanization or what have you are not really great explanations for what they mean by this. The reason even secular skeptics seem so willing to endorse the language of the spiritual is that spirituality is a set of techniques for regulating emotion and behavior toward wholesome (or at least socially-desired) ends. Different religions use different techniques to approach this, and the various free-floating forms of vague ‘spirituality’ in the US also try to solve this problem in their own way.

These techniques have not been as successful lately because the challenge posed by the new vices is greater than the challenge posed by the old vices. That’s why some have turned to more extreme spiritual interventions, what some call ‘cults’ but others call salvation from a system where vices were overwhelming.

You are getting close to the answer here. But the lack of “spirituality” is, at the end, a lack of Religion and Morality. Both Tanner, and you to a lesser extent, seem to avoid talking in terms of morality and religion. Which is typical of our modern Western education system. Will expand more in a separate comment.

Tanner one other thing for your thinking: I think this campaign should be seen in the context of the Xi admin (incl specifically it’s party-derived mandate from the Hu era to gird the Party for the challenges of growth and corruption as well as maximizing the period of strategic opportunity vis-à-vis the U.S.) as a kind of capitulation and a reversion to non-economic politics and soul-guiding following the flailing series of “big concept” economic policies from OBOR to entrepreneurship to concept towns and most recently the dubious dual circulation that were all intended to fix the “main contradictions” in Chinese political economy and which all didn’t work. At a bureaucratic level, it is a shift in focus from Liu He, PBOC, the research dept of the Chinese Development Bank, the NDRC, Li’s State Council, CSRC, to now foreground a Wang Huning type program but now IN THE ECONOMIC REALM. Thus I think it is one of several big and really bearish signals for Chinese economic and therefore state prospects right now: basically throwing in the economic towel after having tried everything else to fix the growth and economic imbalance problems. Thus it is also a major new front in attempting to shifting the de facto legitimacy of the party away from just economic growth to the kinds of more spiritual themes your essay addresses.

“Each seems to hijack healthy behavior with a set of short term incentives whose end results are self destructive and degrading.” I am not sure what the solutions are, but definitely not some abrupt crackdown like what the Chinese state does. In my view, Xi is rejuvenating what the Chinese Communist Party had been doing well since the 1950s–the “revolutionary” campaign style social management. And rather pathetically, we all know where that would lead China.

Tanner,
What seems to be missing from your analysis here, is an element of Morality and Religion prespective. Kade mentions an aspect of this in his Spirituality comment, but that is incomplete.

Yes, CCP is Communist and anti-religion. But the Old Lady enforcers, and Xi’s pronouncements, care very much about a Chinese-flavored Morality. The CCP’s animating spirit, what tied its grass-roots together for 100+ years, was morality. Its raison d’etre over the KMT was its moral superiority. Cultural Revolution, for the rank-and-file, was morality. When the CCP did not hold the moral high-ground (1985-2010), it was in serious trouble culturally.
[If “nationalism” is the sole answer, the KMT (still a legal party in China) is just as good a champion, especially in light of the Eight Hundred movie.]

Now, the Chinese have a syncretic perspective on religion. So their spiritual life / morality code is not as monolithic as the Christian West’s. But the surprising popularity of Falun Gung, and the rapid rise of Christianity in China, conclusively demonstrates a spiritual and religious hunger among the Chinese people in the modern economy.

So what Xi is doing over the past 10 years, partially, is to struggle in the moral and religious dimensions. [Yes, struggle as in commie usage.] Communism, at the practitioner level, functions as a substitute for religion, in its forms and rituals. CCP is supposed to be the national religion in China, and Xi is working to restore its place. It both hurts and helps that the Chinese ancestor worship is not an organized religion, but an amorphous blob of practices. CCP had been too successful at wiping out vestiges of the old worships, yet it itself, due to its Marxist “scientific” roots, is an imperfect substitute for Religion. This explains what Xi is trying to do, and where his ideological/religious blinders are.

Capitalism is a scam. Its theoretical foundation is basically economic engineering, describing how money works, which is valid. But the hustlers and cheats (to include the bankers and all “financial engineers”) have harnessed that theoretical foundation and advanced the popular creed “Greed Is Good”. Marxism bought into the conceptual/paradigm trap, which explains why it always fails. [To opt out of the Rat Race, to prioritize relationships over careers, is “anti-Capitalism” only in the sense that he is choosing not to feed the monetization monster.]

So, for now, Xi is still only addressing symptoms of our monetized fallen world. Maybe he understands the moral corruption problem stemming from the Marxist legacy and the global Financialized economy. But he is constrained by his toolset (CCP).
[Yes, I understand that he is also “struggle” against his political enemies. But his actions do purport against specific ideological problems.]

I would think it’s more simple:
Industries for collective war: good.
Industries for status competitions and anything that takes away from the collective war effort: bad

Is it just that they’re kind of modern and Xi is a cranky boomer? I mean, if you find change disturbing, living in China over the last 50 years would have been maximally trying.