Fire safety in urban China

A rapidly rising percentage of the Chinese population is living in high-rise apartment buildings in hundreds of cities around the country. There is concern, however, about the quality and effectiveness of fire-safety regulation and enforcement for these buildings (as well as factories, warehouses, ports, and other structures). This means that high-rise fires represent a growing risk in urban China. Here is a news commentary from CGTN (link) in 2010 describing a particularly tragic high-rise fire that engulfed a 28-story building in Shanghai, killing 58 people. This piece serves to identify the parameters of the problem of fire safety more generally.

It is of course true that high-rise fires have occurred in many cities around the world, including the notorious Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017. And many of those fires also reflect underlying problems of safety regulation in the jurisdictions in which they occurred. But the problems underlying infrastructure safety seem to converge with particular seriousness in urban China. And, crucially, major fire disasters in other countries are carefully scrutinized in public reports, providing accurate and detailed information about the causes of the disaster. This scrutiny creates the political incentive to improve building codes, inspection regimes, and enforcement mechanisms of safety regulations. This open and public scrutiny is not permitted in China today, leaving the public largely ignorant of the background causes of fires, railway crashes, and other large accidents.

It is axiomatic that modern buildings require effective and professionally grounded building codes and construction requirements, adequate fire safety system requirements, and rigorous inspection and enforcement regimes that ensure a high level of compliance with fire safety regulations. Regrettably, it appears that no part of this prescription for fire safety is well developed in China.

The CGTN article mentioned above refers to the “effective” high-level fire safety legislation that the central government adopted in 1998, the Fire Control Law of the People’s Republic of China (link), and this legislation warrants close study. However, close examination suggests that this guiding legislation lacks crucial elements that are needed in order to ensure compliance with safety regulations — especially when compliance is highly costly for the owners/managers of buildings and other facilities. Previous disasters in China suggest a pattern: poor inspection and enforcement prior to an accident or fire, followed by prosecution and punishment of individuals involved in the occurrence of the disaster in the aftermath. But this is not an effective mechanism for ensuring safety. Owners, managers, and officials are more than ready to run the small risk of future prosecution for the sake of gains in the costs of present operations of various facilities.

The systemic factors that act against fire safety in China include at least these pervasive social and political conditions: ineffective and corrupt inspection offices, powerful property managers who are able to ignore safety violations, pressure from the central government to avoid interfering with rapid economic growth, government secrecy about disasters when they occur, and lack of independent journalism capable of freely gathering and publishing information about disasters.

In particular, the fact that the news media (and now social media as well) are tightly controlled in China is a very serious obstacle to improving safety when it comes to accidents, explosions, train wrecks, and fires. The Chinese news media do not publish detailed accounts of disasters as they occur, and they usually are unable to carry out the investigative journalism needed to uncover background conditions that have created the circumstances in which these catastrophes arise (ineffective or corrupt inspection regimes; enforcement agencies that are hampered in their work by the political requirements of the state; corrupt practices by private owners/managers of high-rise properties, factories, and ports; and so on). It is only when the public can become aware of the deficiencies in government and business that have led to a disaster, that reforms can be designed and implemented that make those disasters less likely in the future. But the lack of independent journalism means leaving the public in the dark about these important details of their contemporary lives.

The story quoted above is from CGTN, a Chinese news agency, and this story is unusual for its honesty in addressing some of the deficiencies of safety management and regulation in Shanghai. CGTN is an English-language Chinese news service, owned and operated by Chinese state-owned media organization China Central Television (CCTV). As such it is under full editorial control by offices of the Chinese central government. And the government is rarely willing to have open and honest reporting of major disasters, and the organizational, governmental, and private dysfunctions that led to them. It is noteworthy, therefore, that the story is somewhat explicit about the dysfunctions and corruption that led to the Shanghai disaster. The article quotes an article in China Daily (owned by the publicity department of the CCP) that refers to poor enforcement and corruption:

However, a 2015 article by China Daily called for the Fire Control Law to be more strictly enforced, saying that the Chinese public now “gradually takes it for granted that when a big fire happens there must be a heavy loss of life.”

While saying “China has a good fire protection law,” the newspaper warned that it was frequently violated, with fire engine access blocked by private cars, escape routes often blocked and flammable materials still being “widely used in high buildings.”

The article also pointed at corruption within fire departments, saying inspections have “become a cash cow,” with businesses and construction companies paying bribes in return for lax safety standards being ignored.

So — weak inspections, poor compliance with regulations, and corruption. Both the CCTV report and the China Daily story it quotes are reasonably explicit about unpalatable truths. But note — the CGTN story was prepared for an English-speaking audience, and is not available to ordinary Chinese readers in China. And this appears to be the case for the China Daily article that was quoted as well. And most importantly — the political climate surrounding the journalistic practices of China Daily has tightened very significantly since 2015.

Another major institutional obstacle to safety in China is the lack of genuinely independent regulatory safety agencies. The 1998 Fire Control Law of the People’s Republic of China is indicative. The legislation refers to the responsibility of local authorities (provincial, municipal) to establish fire safety organizations; but it is silent about the nature, resources, and independence of inspection authorities. Here is the language of the first several articles of the Fire Control Law:

Article 2 Fire control work shall follow the policy of devoting major efforts into prevention and combining fire prevention with fire fighting, and shall adhere to the principle of combining the efforts of both specialized organizations and the masses and carry out responsibility system on fire prevention and safety.

Note that this article immediately creates a confusion of responsibility concerning the detailed tasks of establishing fire safety: “specialized organizations” and “the masses” carry out responsibility.

Article 3 The State Council shall lead and the people’s governments at all levels be responsible for fire control work. The people’s government at all levels shall bring fire control work in line with the national economy and social development plan, and ensure that fire control work fit in with the economic construction and social development.

Here too is a harmful diffusion of responsibility: “the people’s governments at all levels [shall] be responsible …”. In addition a new priority is introduced: consistency with the “national economy and social development plan”. This implies that fire safety regulations and agencies at the provincial and municipal level must balance economic needs with the needs of ensuring safety — a potentially fatal division of priorities. If substituting a non-flammable cladding to an 80-story residential building will add one billion yuan to the total cost of the building — does this requirement impede the “national economy and development plan”? Can the owner/managers resist the new regulation on the grounds that it is too costly?

Article 4 The public security department of the State Council shall monitor and administer the nationwide fire control work; the public security organs of local people’s governments above county level shall monitor and administer the fire control work within their administrative region and the fire control institutions of public security organs of the people’s government at the same level shall be responsible for the implementation. Fire control work for military facilities, underground parts of mines and nuclear power plant shall be monitored and administered by their competent units. For fire control work on forest and grassland, in case there are separate regulations, the separate regulations shall be followed.

Here we find specific institutional details about oversight of “nationwide fire control work”: it is the public security organs that are tasked to “monitor and administer” fire control institutions. Plainly, the public security organs have no independence from the political authorities at provincial and national levels; so their conduct is suspect when it comes to the task of “independent, rigorous enforcement of safety regulations”.

Article 5 Any unit and individual shall have the obligation of keeping fire control safety, protecting fire control facilities, preventing fire disaster and reporting fire alarm. Any unit and adult shall have the obligation to take part in organized fire fighting work.

Here we are back to the theme of diffusion of responsibility. “Any unit and individual shall have the obligation of keeping fire control safety” — this statement implies that there should not be free-standing, independent, and well-resourced agencies dedicated to ensuring compliance with fire codes, conducting inspections, and enforcing compliance by reluctant owners.

It seems, then, that the 1998 Fire Control Law is largely lacking in what should have been its primary purpose: specification of the priority of fire safety, establishment of independent safety agencies at various levels of government with independent power of enforcement, and with adequate resources to carry out their fire safety missions, and a clear statement that there should be no interference with the proper inspection and enforcement activities of these agencies — whether by other organs of government or by large owner/operators.

The 1998 Fire Control Law was extended in 2009, and a chapter was added entitled “Supervision and Inspection”. Clauses in this chapter offer somewhat greater specificity about inspections and enforcement of fire-safety regulation. Departments of local and regional government are charged to “conduct targeted fire safety inspections” and “promptly urge the rectification of hidden fire hazards” (Article 52). (Notice that the verb “urge” is used rather than “require”.) Article 53 specifies that the police station (public security) is responsible for “supervising and inspecting the compliance of fire protection laws and regulations”. Article 54 addresses the issue of possible discovery of “hidden fire hazards” during fire inspection; this requires notification of the responsible unit of the necessity of eliminating the hazard. Article 55 specifies that if a fire safety agency discovers that fire protection facilities do not meet safety requirements, it must report to the emergency management department of higher-level government in writing. Article 56 provides specifications aimed at preventing corrupt collaboration between fire departments and units: “Fire rescue agencies … shall not charge fees, shall not use their positions to seek benefits”. And, finally, Article 57 specifies that “all units and individuals have the right to report and sue the illegal activities of the authorities” if necessary. Notice, however, that, first, all of this inspection and enforcement activity occurs within a network of offices and departments dependent ultimately on central government; and second, the legislation remains very unspecific about how this set of expectations about regulation, inspection, and enforcement is to be implemented at the local and provincial levels. There is nothing in this chapter that gives the observer confidence that effective regulations will be written; effective inspection processes will be carried out; and failed inspections will lead to prompt remediation of hazardous conditions.

The Tianjin port explosion in 2015 is a case in point (linklink). Poor regulations, inadequate and ineffective inspections, corruption, and bad behavior by large private and governmental actors culminated in a gigantic pair of explosions of 800 tons of ammonium nitrate. This was one of the worst industrial and environmental disasters in China’s recent history, and resulted in the loss of 173 lives, including 104 poorly equipped fire fighters. Prosecutions ensued after the disaster, including the conviction and suspended death sentence of Ruihai International Logistics Chairman Yu Xuewei for bribery, and the conviction of 48 other individuals for a variety of crimes (link). But punishment after the fact is no substitute for effective, prompt inspection and enforcement of safety requirements.

It is not difficult to identify the organizational dysfunctions in China that make fire safety, railway safety, food safety, and perhaps nuclear safety difficult to attain. What is genuinely difficult is to see how these dysfunctions can be corrected in a single-party state. Censorship, subordination of all agencies to central control, the omnipresence of temptations to corrupt cooperation — all of these factors seem to be systemic within a one-party state. The party state wants to control public opinion; therefore censorship. The party state wants to control all political units; therefore a lack of independence for safety agencies. And positions of decision-making that create lucrative “rent-seeking” opportunities for office holders — therefore corruption, from small payments to local inspectors to massive gifts of wealth to senior officials. A pluralistic, liberal society embodying multiple centers of power and freedom of press and association is almost surely a safer society. Ironically, this was essentially Amartya Sen’s argument in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, his classic analysis of famine and malnutrition: a society embodying a free press and reasonably free political institutions is much more likely to respond quickly to conditions of famine. His comparison was between India in the Bengal famine (1943) and China in the Great Leap Forward famine (1959-61).

Here is a Google translation of Chapter V of the 2009 revision of the Fire Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China mentioned above.

Chapter V Supervision and Inspection

Article 52 Local people’s governments at all levels shall implement a fire protection responsibility system and supervise and inspect the performance of fire safety duties by relevant departments of the people’s government at the same level.

The relevant departments of the local people’s government at or above the county level shall, based on the characteristics of the system, conduct targeted fire safety inspections, and promptly urge the rectification of hidden fire hazards.

Article 53 Fire and rescue agencies shall supervise and inspect the compliance of fire protection laws and regulations by agencies, organizations, enterprises, institutions and other entities in accordance with the law. The police station may be responsible for daily fire control supervision and inspection, and conduct fire protection publicity and education. The specific measures shall be formulated by the public security department of the State Council.

The staff of fire rescue agencies and public security police stations shall present their certificates when conducting fire supervision and inspection.

Article 54: Fire rescue agencies that discover hidden fire hazards during fire supervision and inspection shall notify relevant units or individuals to take immediate measures to eliminate the hidden hazards; if the hidden hazards are not eliminated in time and may seriously threaten public safety, the fire rescue agency shall deal with the dangerous parts in accordance with regulations. Or the place adopts temporary sealing measures.

Article 55: If the fire rescue agency discovers that the urban and rural fire safety layout and public fire protection facilities do not meet the fire safety requirements during the fire supervision and inspection, or finds that there is a major fire hazard affecting public safety in the area, it shall report to the emergency management department in writing. Level People’s Government.

The people’s government that receives the report shall verify the situation in a timely manner, organize or instruct relevant departments and units to take measures to make corrections.

Article 56 The competent department of housing and urban-rural construction, fire rescue agencies and their staff shall conduct fire protection design review, fire protection acceptance, random inspections and fire safety inspections in accordance with statutory powers and procedures, so as to be fair, strict, civilized and efficient.

Housing and urban-rural construction authorities, fire rescue agencies and their staff shall conduct fire protection design review, fire inspection and acceptance, record and spot checks and fire safety inspections, etc., shall not charge fees, shall not use their positions to seek benefits; they shall not use their positions to designate or appoint users, construction units, or Disguisedly designate the brand, sales unit or fire-fighting technical service organization or construction unit of fire-fighting equipment for fire-fighting products.

Article 57 The competent housing and urban-rural construction departments, fire and rescue agencies and their staff perform their duties, should consciously accept the supervision of society and citizens.

All units and individuals have the right to report and sue the illegal activities of the housing and urban-rural construction authorities, fire and rescue agencies and their staff in law enforcement. The agency that receives the report or accusation shall investigate and deal with it in a timely manner in accordance with its duties.

*    *    *    *    *

(Here is a detailed technical fire code for China from 2014 (link).)

Eurasian Population Project

In the historical demography hall of fame there is but a single bust — that of Thomas Malthus. (I’m joking — there is no historical demography hall of fame.) Malthus is the theorist with the most enduring theories and hypotheses about population behavior across the world. Most central among his theories is a causal hypothesis about population change: different cultures embody significantly different mechanisms for adjusting population size to available resources. Malthus believed that Europe and Asia differed in exactly this way: the family norms of Western Europe controlled fertility according to the level of available resources, whereas the family norms of Asia controlled population size through excess mortality when resources were short. These were the preventive and positive checks that Malthus described in An Essay on the Principle of Population.

The most basic importance of the Eurasian Population Project is precisely its refutation of Malthus’s core theory. (The Coursera offering described earlier in a post on “A New History for a New China” provides a good introduction to the EPP; link.) EPP scholars have demonstrated that there is no fundamental difference in the population dynamics of Europe and Asia, at least along the lines postulated by Malthus. The first set of findings of this group are presented in Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 [2004]. 
[Our study] is an international comparison of short-term mortality responses at the microlevel in past times…, designed to improve our understanding of the individual and family demographic responses to social and economic pressure. Its hallmarks are geographic breadth, temporal depth, and detailed longitudinal data. It examines not just one people, but a variety of micro-populations in West Europe and East Asia; not just one period, but a period of 80 to 150 years, largely from the nineteenth century; not just one community but one hundred communities with 2.5 million longitudinally linked individual-level records; and not just mortality, the subject of this book, but in later volumes of this series, the entire range of demographic behavior, including reproduction, nuptially, and migration. (4)
In particular, there is evidence from sites across Asia that demonstrate a mortality responsiveness to changing economic circumstances that is highly similar to that found in Western European sites. And specifically on Malthus’ view of Asian demographic behavior:
Contrary to the Malthusian claim that the positive check was more important in the East than in the West, we demonstrate that mortality responses at least to short-term economic pressure were just as great, indeed often greater, in the West as in the East. Contrary to the neo-Malthusian characterization of mortality as a function of ecology and human biology, we demonstrate the importance of human agency not just in the East, but in the West as well. (5)
There is a crucial methodological assumption that distinguishes the EPP approach from traditional historical demography. This has to do with its focus on communities rather than national populations. 
Our focus on comparison of communities, not countries, represents a new approach to social science history. While we generalize about certain aspects of human behavior, we do so within the cultural, economic, and historical contexts of specific communities, not at the national level. In contrast with the dominant thrust in academic research, we ignore contemporary nation-state boundaries and standard historical chronologies. Thus while our results illuminate the behavior of specific Belgian, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, and Swedish populations identified in map 1.1 from the early eighteenth to the early twentieth century, we draw from them implications for the demography not of specific countries, but of social and economic systems. This strategy of comparing individual contexts rather than countries avoids the problem of representativeness normally inherent in community studies. (7)
The research programme that holds together the numerous local projects encompassed by the Eurasian Population Project is innovative and important. It frames a significantly new way of designing research into large-scale social processes extended over a long period of time.
At the same time, it seems fair to ask whether the data currently available through the EPP is broad enough to achieve the group’s ambitious goals. The studies of each site are very data-rich; but there is of necessity only a very limited number of sites that will receive this kind of intensive data collection and analysis. Let’s assume that the effort results eventually in two dozen careful local inquiries from Sweden to Japan. This is only a minuscule selection of sites from the universe of possibilities. So what makes us think that the patterns and processes that are identified in these studies are actually more general features of the totality of demographic behavior? 
The answer we give to this question seems to depend quite a bit on our background assumptions about social variation. How much variability is there across Scandinavia, North China, or Japan when it comes to social and political arrangements, marriage institutions, and economic institutions? If we think that most of the institutional arrangements show a lot of variation, then it is hard to justify the idea that one or two careful local studies will be good indicators of the more regional patterns. If, on the other hand, we think that the relevant institutional arrangements are substantially more widespread and stable, then the local studies are more likely to be reliable as indicators of larger regional patterns.

James Lee, Cameron Campbell, and Wang Feng conclude their essay on comparative mortality patterns with this nuanced statement that highlights both variation and universality:

In spite of the popularity of convergence theory, human society remains divergent, a product of specific historical processes. This divergence transcends national boundaries between the northeast Asian and northwest European communities, respectively, but persists between continental boundaries. The irony, of course, is that while the Eurasian Project is an initial step to produce a non-national history based on individual data, not aggregate data, written at the community level, not the country level, our preliminary efforts to produce a social scientific history for the twenty-first century have to some extent also reconfirmed the meta-geography of the nineteenth century. (130)
I believe this approach to historical demography is one of the genuinely important innovations in the historical social sciences in quite a long time. It represents a very different way of trying to gain access to the kinds of processes and mechanisms that have led to important social outcomes in the past two centuries. And it provides a different kind of “microscope” through which to interrogate the past, one that depends on substantially larger and more collaborative research efforts by scholars throughout the world while working with a substantially more localistic conception of where the action is to be found.

A new history of China

James Lee and Byong-Ho Lee have created a remarkable new course on Coursera titled “A New History for a New China, 1700-2000: New Data and New Methods, Part 1”. This production is a genuinely important contribution to Chinese history. The course is not designed as an up-to-date summary of the history of early modern China, along the lines of Fairbank’s China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition. It is not a survey of Chinese history as traditionally treated.  Instead, it is a clear and logical presentation of a very different way of thinking about China’s history: not as a chronology of events, dynasties, revolutions, rebellions, and notable individuals, but rather as an analytical study of the forces underlying pervasive social realities in China over this three-hundred year period. The key topics are privilege, wealth, power, and health, and the methodology is solidly quantitative. The analysis depends on a number of large data sets of sub-populations that James Lee and colleagues have assembled in the past thirty years. And Lee and Lee use advanced statistical and quantitative methods to probe the associations that exist within these datasets that would cast light on topics like political power, social mobility, and the workings of institutions. Most importantly, Lee and Lee are determined to probe the large sociological questions on the basis of demographic and social data about historical individuals.

The Lee-Campbell research group has created eight data sets with millions of unique individuals from specific places and periods in China over the past three centuries. These sets include population registers for over 500,000 distinct individuals. These datasets constitute the empirical core of the course.

The course is organized in three large segments:

  • Part I. Who Gets What? social structure, mobility, distribution
  • Part II. Who Survives? mortality, fertility, marriage
  • Part III. Who Cares? religion, gender, ethnicity, nationalism

Part I is underway now, and later parts will be produced in the near future.

Lee’s organizing questions are sociological and demographic. In Part I the key questions are these:

  • Why do some people rise to the top while others do not?
  • Why is wealth more unequally distributed in some societies than in others?

The approach taken here, and pervasively throughout the research of the Lee-Campbell research group, is quantitative.

We present the results from a new scholarship of discovery based largely on the creation and analysis of big social science data from historical and contemporary China…. [This allows us] to construct a new sort of history from below that contributes to a more global understanding of human history and human behavior.

So what are the statistical foundations of their analysis? Here are the datasets that are used in the course:

  1. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Liaoning (1.2M records for 260K individuals)
  2. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Shuangcheng (1.5M records for 125K individuals and 19K land plots, 1870-1906)
  3. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Imperial Lineage (250K individual life histories 1640-1935)
  4. dataset of 350K+ individuals with university academic records or civil service examination results
  5. dataset of 75K successful Imperial Examination Juren and Jinshi, 1371-1904
  6. dataset of 120K Chinese university graduates, 1902-1951
  7. dataset of 175K Peking and Suzhou university students, 1952-2004
  8. dataset from Chinese collectivization, 1947-48, Shuangcheng County

It is plain that there are a large number of individuals included in these datasets. These bodies of data permit a very precise and rigorous level of analysis by the researchers in probing various kinds of causal associations. But it is also plain that they offer very focused and specialized points of observation of the social processes taking place across China and across time. So there is a background premise that seems credible but also seems to require more explicit discussion:

  • there are identifiable and pervasive social processes at work in China, and detailed study of Liaoning or Shuangcheng can identify some of these processes. 

The discoveries about the causal factors involved in Chinese social mobility that can be drawn from dataset #3, for example, are most interesting if we can infer that the contours of causation that we discover here are roughly similar to social mobility processes in other parts of China in the Qing period. On the other hand, it might turn out that mobility in the Lower Yangzi region is based on factors having to do with commerce and wealth to a greater extent than was true in North China’s Liaoning.

It is also interesting that Lee and his collaborators take a somewhat structural approach to social causation:

The driving factors of history are not just the ideas or actions of Great Men (or Women), but also from society as a whole, and that socio-economic forces including social stratification and wealth distribution together with politics are important factors that “push and pull” on actors and actions to create historical change.

This description singles out socio-economic forces as objects of study.

Another thing that strikes me is that the work presented here is “comparative historical sociology” rather than traditional historical research. (Lee sometimes refers to his discipline as “historical social science”, and he emphasizes that the course is “explicitly comparative”.) The approach seeks to evaluate hypotheses about how these large variables are influenced (wealth, power, longevity, health status, education). The opening comments James Lee makes in the introductory lecture about intuitive and anecdotal historical interpretation, and the comments about analytical rather than chronological organization, underline the point: this is not traditional history.

Our class eschews the standard chronological narrative arc for an analytic approach that focuses on specific discoveries and on how these new facts complicate our understanding of comparative societies, human behavior, and the construction of individual and group identities.

Unlike traditional history which focuses largely on the biographies and actions of specific historic figures, A New History for a New China seeks to write a history based on the experiences of all people, elites and non-elites.

This might imply that Lee and his colleagues mean to replace traditional historiography of China with the “big data” approach. But James Lee and others in this research group make it clear (outside this course) that these researchers are in fact pluralistic about historical research; they don’t mean to say that historians who are more interested in the specific circumstances leading to change in a largely chronological structure are doing shabby history. There is a great deal of very exciting new historical research on China that has come forward in the past twenty years, and much of that research takes the form of organized narratives. (Peter Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia is a very good example.) These are good pieces of rigorous historical knowledge creation as well, though not based on large quantitative data sets. So this sociological, “big data” approach is one important new contribution, but not a replacement for all other historiographical approaches.

This course is well worth following. It does an excellent job of tying together the diverse and rigorous work that the Lee-Campbell research group has been doing for thirty years, and it provides a coherent framework and scheme of presentation for that work. In this sense I think it illustrates a virtue of the MOOC format that hasn’t yet been discussed very much: as a platform for the presentation and dissemination of specialized ongoing research programs for a broader specialist public. The lectures are downloadable, and when completed they will represent a highly valuable “new media” presentation of some very interesting and challenging results in the historical sociology of China.

(James Lee and his colleagues have published quite a number of books relevant to this course. Particularly significant are One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000, Fate and Fortune in Rural China: Social Organization and Population Behavior in Liaoning 1774-1873, Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 (Eurasian Population and Family History), each with co-authors.)

China’s rural transition

Roughly half of China’s population is still rural, living in villages and towns and dependent primarily on farming. In 1985 that percentage was about 76%, so there has already been a massive transformation of China’s economy and society towards greater urbanization. (Albert Nyberg and Scott Rozelle treated this process in an important World Bank publication, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation.)

There are two basic processes through which urbanization can occur. Rural people can migrate to cities, or cities can grow up around rural people. Both processes have been underway for thirty years in China. Estimates vary, but approximately 210 million migrants work in Chinese manufacturing and construction industries, and the vast majority of these men and women are from rural origins. The percentage of migrant workers in urban industries is staggering; W. K. Chan reports in Wuhan, for example, that 43% of manufacturing workers and 56% of construction workers are non-Hukou migrants (link).  But almost all of China’s cities have also sprawled out into their peripheries, into what was previously farm land and villages. This is true in Shanghai and Suzhou, Wuhan, and hundreds of other major cities. 

The “urban development” part of the story has forced displacement of farming villages from their land, as farm land is absorbed into factories, power plants, development zones, and other urban uses. This is one of the most potent sources of protest in China today. Some portion of that population finds employment in the industries that follow this development — in the vast assembly plants of Foxconn, for example in at least nine cities in China. (Foxconn was actively recruiting thousands of workers in Chengdu during a recent visit there.)  Another portion is subsidized for some period of time by the government in compensation for the loss of their farm land and occupations.

In the medium term, Chinese agriculture is shedding workers, and the rest of the economy needs to grow enough to employ this part of the population. This is part of the urgency that policy makers feel for sustaining very high rates of economic growth.

One portion of the population that is least likely to make a smooth landing in the new economic conditions is the elderly. China faces a major social issue in a growing population of aging farmers, and the circumstances of this group are predictable: in need of health care, short on pensions, and often separated from their children who have migrated to better conditions in cities. (Here is a World Bank report on this subject; link.)

So my question here is a simple one: what is the theory of rural-to-urban transition under which the Chinese leadership is operating? There are a range of possible theories:

  • Help employment in industrial and construction activities grow as fast as workers and farmers are expelled from the rural economy, so their standard of living rises overall.
  • Grow rural industry and high-value specialized agriculture so rural people can remain in place.
  • Plan for an extended time during which a much more extensive social safety net will be provided in the form of income supplements, subsidized healthcare, and retirement income until “surplus rural population” can be absorbed by the urban economy.
  • Hope for the best and trust to market-based adjustments.

There is a rural development strategy that would actually make the problem more acute: 

  • Stimulate rapid improvement in the productivity of agriculture. As a unit of rice is produced more productively, it requires fewer units of labor. So the net result of productivity improvements in agriculture is a drop in rural farm-based employment even as it increases income to the individual farmer.

Here is one answer to the question of theory of rural transition that is based on Chinese government policy thinking in the late 1990s. The following analysis is contained in the Nyberg-Rozelle 1999 World Bank report, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation, based on close cooperation with the Institute of Rural Development in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This close collaboration suggests that it intends to express then-current ideas about strategy and policy within the Chinese government.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the leaders of China have been preoccupied with one overarching goal; the modernization of the nation. Our [Chinese] vision for the early part of the 21st century perceives the rural economy as an integral part of this modernization effort, with equitable increases in income, and the elimination of poverty, achieved in large part by transferring rural labor to the urban−industrial economy—all accomplished in an environmentally sustainable manner. We envision an enormous government effort in transforming its role into an investor for public services and goods and fostering a market environment—enabling individual farm and nonfarm producers, consumers, and traders to make more efficient decisions and improve their welfare. 

In pursuit of this vision, two issues remain central to the government’s rural development objectives: food security and poverty alleviation. China has made remarkable progress in meeting these goals; the economy, including the rural sector, has grown at phenomenal rates during the reform period. The growth of food supplies has exceeded the growth of domestic demand and China exports horticultural, livestock, other agricultural, and aquacultural products. The growth of rural industry has been an important element of recent growth as the rural economy continues to diversify. Increased productivity and income growth have reduced the massive pre-reform poverty problem, improved the standard of living of most residents, and launched the structural transformation of China from a traditional rural to a modern society.

This summary involves some of almost all the options mentioned above — improvement of farm productivity, growth of urban jobs, growth of rural industry, and establishment of a more extensive safety net. In practice, however, it seems that the government has given the greatest emphasis in its economic policies to the growth of urban jobs and out-migration from the rural sector.

In their 2003 report “Scenario Analysis on Urbanization and Rural-Urban Migration in China”, Shenghe Liu, Li, and Zhan (researchers at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences) summarize Chinese policy thinking on the rural question in these terms:

It has becomes a common consensus that the most headachy “agriculture, farmers and rural areas” (three nong) problems in China are unable to be solved by farmers themselves, inside the agriculture sector and rural areas. Promotion of the urbanization process is needed to help more rural surplus labor forces seek employment in non-agricultural activities and in cities and towns, serving the purpose of reducing the agricultural population, improving agricultural productivity and increasing the farmers’ income. In summary, reducing rural population through active promotion of urbanization is considered to be the only best way to make farmers rich. Thus, the prospects and scenarios of China’s urbanization and rural-urban migration are bound to have tremendous impacts on its agricultural development and policy making.  (link)

Or in other words, Liu, Li and Zhan reiterate the idea that rural-to-urban migration is a key part of Chinese policy for improvement of income and wellbeing in the rural areas.

Here is a short clip summarizing a study by the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University, finding that the Gini coefficient in the countryside has increased significantly. It also makes the point that a very large component in the growth of rural incomes is remittances from migrants who have found higher-paying jobs in manufacturing and construction.

Here are some resources available on the web on the subject of rural transformation in China.  A very useful treatment of the issue is Francis Tuan, Somwaru and Diao’s working paper for the International Food Policy Research Institute (link). Scott Rozelle et al have a very useful paper, “The Evolution of China’s Rural Labor Markets during the Reforms,” that focuses on the opportunity and challenge of increasing non-farm labor in rural areas (link). A useful resource on urban-to-rural migration is a slide presentation by Kam Wing Chan from 2008, “Internal Labor Migration in China: Trends, Geographical Distribution and Policies” (link). Chan is also the author of Cities with Invisible Walls: Reinterpreting Urbanization in Post-1949 China.

Chinese authors are writing about the human side of these transformations — rural poverty, migrant insecurity, the difficulties of urban life for poor people. Here is a book by Xin Zhang, whose title is loosely translated by a friend as An Analysis of Social Classes in China. I wish I was able to read it.

Beyond divergence

As I’ve noted in previous posts, there has been a major debate in economic history in the past 20 years about what to make of the contrasts between economic development trajectories in Western Europe and East Asia since 1600.  There had been a received view, tracing to Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, that European “breakthrough” was the norm and Asian “stagnation” or “involution” were the dysfunctional cases. E. L. Jones represents this view among recent comparative economic historians (The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia).  

Then Kenneth Pomeranz and Bin Wong challenged this received view in a couple of important books.  Pomeranz argued inThe Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. that the premises were wrong. He argued that Chinese productivity and standard of living were roughly comparable to those of England up to roughly 1800, so China’s economy was not backward.  And he argued against the received view’s main theories of Europe’s breakthrough — the idea that European economic institutions and property rights were superior, or the idea that Europe had a normative or ideological advantage over China.  Instead, he argued that Europe — Britain, to be precise — had contingent and situational advantages over Asia that permitted rapid growth and industrialization around the end of the eighteenth century.  These advantages included large and accessible coal deposits — crucial for modern steam technology — and access to low cost labor in the Americas (hidden acreage).  Bin Wong made complementary arguments in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, where he addressed the parallel processes of development of political and economic institutions in the two sets of polities. Wong’s most fundamental insight was that both processes were complex, and that balanced comparison between them is valuable. 

Now the debate has taken a new turn with the publication of R. Bin Wong and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal’s Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe. Rosenthal is an accomplished historian of European economic development, and Wong is an expert on Chinese economic, social, and political history. So their collaboration permits this book to bring together into one argument the full expertise available on both ends of Eurasia.  

The book aims to unsettle the debate in fundamental ways. Wong and Rosenthal take issue with a point that is methodologically central to Pomeranz, concerning the units of comparison.  Pomerantz wants to compare England with the lower Yangzi region in China, and he gives what are to me convincing arguments for why this makes sense.  W&R want to compare Europe with China, making England a special case. And they too have good reasons for their choice.   

Second, they disagree with the temporal framing that has generally been accepted within this debate, where economic historians have generally focused their research on the early modern period 1600-1900). Against this, they argue that the causes of divergence between Europe and China must be much earlier.  They set their clock to the year 1000, and they examine the large features of political and economic development that started around that time. 

Finally, they offer crippling objections to a number of standard hypotheses about Imperial China as a place to do business. They show that there were alternative credit institutions available in Ming and Qing China. They show that the Chinese state was sensitive to levels of taxation, and kept taxes low (generally comparable to European levels). And they show that Imperial social spending (the granary system, for example) was generally effective and well managed, contributing to economic prosperity. So the traditional explanations for Chinese “stagnation” don’t work as causal explanations. 

They find one major difference between Europe and Asia during the first part of the second millennium that seems to matter. That is the multiplicity of competing states in Europe and a largely hegemonic Imperial state in China and the scale of the relevant zones of political and economic activity. Chapter 4, “Warfare, Location of Manufacturing, and Economic Growth in China and Europe,” lays out this argument. Here are the key points.

We believe that the most persuasive explanation for Europe’s late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century transformations is best provided by comparing the politics of economic change within China and Europe in the centuries that preceded their visible economic divergence. (6)

To explain these differences in factor prices, we will stress conditions that are the outcomes, we will argue, of more basic differences in the spatial scale of polities in China and Eu rope. In this analysis we parallel Robert Allen’s recent work on the progress of industrialization in England (2009a). Indeed, Allen puts special emphasis on relatively high wages and low fuel costs in explaining why the technologies we as-sociate with industrialization were developed and deployed in England. (7)

From the perspective of what individuals choose, we think that some of the most important factors influencing different likelihoods of economic change in the early modern era  were unintended consequences of actions taken for reasons largely unrelated to improving the economy. (8)

Instead, we take the contrasting spatial scales of Chinese and Europe an polities as key factors that both let and led rulers in these regions to develop different political priorities and policies. (14)

The competing states of Europe were frequently drawn into conflict; and conflict often resulted in warfare.  R&W argue that this fact of competition had a fateful unintended consequence.  It made fortified cities much safer places than open countryside. And this in turn changed the calculation about where “manufacture” could occur at lowest cost.  Labor costs were higher in cities, so absent warfare, producers were well advised to pursue a putting-out system involving peasant workers (proto-industrialization; link). But with the threat of marauding armies, European producers were pushed into urban locations.  And this in turn gave them incentives to develop labor-saving, capital-intensive techniques.  Putting the point bluntly: China didn’t have an industrial revolution because it was too safe an environment for labor-intensive production.

Another important feature of Before and Beyond Divergence is its use of simple economy models to explore the incentive characteristics of various historical circumstances.  For example, they provide a simple representation of the costs of contracting in China (76-77), the costs of warfare on manufacturing (108-109), and a mathematical analysis of credit and interest in China (135). Their perspective is one that essentially presupposes the idea of decision-making based on prudence, or a rough-and-ready rational choice framework. They believe that various historical circumstances change the price and opportunity environment for producers and consumers. So once we can estimate the magnitude of these changes, we can also gauge the approximate magnitude of the change in behavior that results.  Or in other words, their approach is one of economic historians, not simply historians of economic institutions and behaviors. They are reluctant to consider cultural or normative sources of behavior.

Certainly this book too will generate a lot of critical response. It is an important contribution.

Health disparities in the US and China

Health disparities across a population are among the most profound indicators of social inequalities that we can find.  And the fact of significant disparities across groups is a devastating statement about the circumstances of justice under which a society functions.  These disparities translate into shorter lives and lower quality of life for whole groups of people, relative to other groups.

Both the United States and China appear to display significant health disparities across their populations. Here are a couple of studies that draw attention to these facts.

United States

Here is an important new study on the question of health disparities in the United States by public health researchers at Harvard and UCSF.  The study is “Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States”. And the answer the researchers provide to the question above is that the US possesses very significant health disparities across segments of its population. The study is worth reading in detail.

The authors analyze mortality statistics by county, and they break the data down by incorporating racial and demographic characteristics. The data groups fairly well around the eight Americas mentioned in the title:

Here is how they describe their findings:

The gap between the highest and lowest life expectancies for race-county combinations in the United States is over 35 y. We divided the race-county combinations of the US population into eight distinct groups, referred to as the “eight Americas,” to explore the causes of the disparities that can inform specific public health intervention policies and programs.

And here is their conclusion:

Disparities in mortality across the eight Americas, each consisting of millions or tens of millions of Americans, are enormous by all international standards. The observed disparities in life expectancy cannot be explained by race, income, or basic health-care access and utilization alone. Because policies aimed at reducing fundamental socioeconomic inequalities are currently practically absent in the US, health disparities will have to be at least partly addressed through public health strategies that reduce risk factors for chronic diseases and injuries.

For example, their data show that “the life expectancy gap between the 3.4 million high-risk urban black males and the 5.6 million Asian females was 20.7 y in 2001.” This is an enormous difference in longevity for the two groups; and it is a difference that tags fundamental social structures that influence health and risk across these two populations.

Here is a time-series graph of the behavior of longevity for the eight Americas:
So what are the factors that appear to create these extreme differences in mortality across socioeconomic and racial groups in America? They consider health care access and utilization; homicide; accidents; and HIV as primary potential causes of variations in mortality for a group. Most important of all of these factors for the large populations appear to be the health disparities that derive from access and utilization.  And here they offer an important set of recommendations:

Opportunities and interventions to reduce health inequalities include (1) reducing socioeconomic inequalities, which are the distal causes of health inequalities, (2) increasing financial access to health care by decreasing the number of Americans without health plan coverage, (3) removing physical, behavioral, and cultural barriers to health care, (4) reducing disparities in the quality of care, (5) designing public health strategies and interventions to reduce health risks at the level of communities (e.g., changes in urban/neighborhood design to facilitate physical activity and reduce obesity), and (6) designing public health strategies to reduce health risks that target individuals or population subgroups that are not necessarily in the same community (e.g., tobacco taxation or pharmacological interventions for blood pressure and cholesterol).

These findings are squarely relevant to assessing the justice of our society. The country needs to recognize the severity of the “health/mortality equity” issue, and we need to make appropriate policy reforms so that these disparities begin to lessen.


Several research papers address these issues for the case of China.  One is a World Bank working paper by David Dollar called “Poverty, Inequality, and Social Disparities During China’s Economic Reform” (link).  Dollar notes that China has dramatically reduced its poverty rate over the past 25 years, whereas its income inequality measures have increased sharply during the same period. (Albert Park and Sangui Wang review the poverty statistics for this period in China Economic Review; link.)  They conclude that these inequalities between rural and urban populations, and between well educated urban professionals and the urban working class, have also resulted in significant inequalities in health status and outcomes for the various sub-populations.

Shenglan Tank, Qingyue Meng, Lincoln Chen, Henk Bekedam, Tim Evans, and Margaret Whitehead review the current evidence available on health equity in China in “Tackling the challenges to health equity in China” (link).  “Although health gains have continued, concern for the equitable distribution of social benefits of economic progress has grown” (25).  Further:

Disparities in income and wealth between the urban and rural areas, between the eastern and western regions, and between households have widened substantially. In 1990, the richest province had a GDP per person more than seven times larger than the poorest province, but by 2002, the same ratio had grown to 13 times greater.41The Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality,42increased for China as a whole from 0·31 in 1978–79 to 0·45 in 2004. The level of income inequality in China is now similar to that in the USA, roughly comparable to that in the most inequitable Asian countries—Philippines and Thailand—and approaching the notoriously inequitable levels in Brazil and Mexico. (29-30)

The authors quote Amartya Sen on health equity (Amartya Sen, Why health equity”; link):

Health equity cannot be concerned only with health in isolation. Rather it must come to grips with the larger issue of fairness and justice in social arrangements, including economic allocations, paying attention to the role of health in human life and freedom.  Health equity is most certainly not just about the distribution of health, not to mention the even narrower focus on the distribution of health care. Indeed, health equity has an enormously wide reach and relevance.

And inequalities in personal income in different provinces lead to highly different levels of ability to fund public amenities in these provinces, with large effects on public health in poor provinces:

Living conditions differ greatly between areas of different affluence. Safe drinking water is available to 96% of the population of large cities but to less than 30% in poor rural areas. Differences in access to effective sanitation are even larger, 90% of residents in large cities have adequate sanitation, compared with less than 10% in poor rural areas (figure 6).

Two graphs capture the big picture:


In figure 1 the data demonstrate a strong correlation between life expectancy and average income for China’s provinces and municipalities, from just about 65 years for the poorest regions to 78 years in Shanghai region.  Figure 2 demonstrates major inequalities in child health between rural and urban locations.  The authors further report that infant mortality also varies dramatically across regions: “Rural infant mortality rates are nearly five times higher in the poorest rural counties than in the wealthiest countries — 123 versus 26 per 1000 live births, respectively” (26). One important source of data on these issues that these researchers use is the Chinese National Health Service survey of 1998; link.

The most detailed analysis of health disparities in China I’ve been able to find is a paper published in 2010 by Feinian Chen, Yang Yang, and Guangya Liu, “Social Change and Socioeconomic Disparities in Health over the Life Course in China: A Cohort Analysis” (link).  They make use of the China Health and Nutrition Survey to allow for a longitudinal study of health in several segments of China’s population. (Here is a description of the CHNS.) Their conclusion:

Using data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey, we find significant socioeconomic status (SES) differences in the mean level of health and that these SES differentials generally diverge over the life course. We also find strong cohort variations in SES disparities in the mean levels of health and health trajectories. (126)

It would appear that studies of health status in China disaggregated by population segments are not yet as fully developed as one would wish.  The CHNS appears to have limited data coverage (much more limited than the national census, for example), and none of the studies mentioned in these articles appear to disaggregate down to levels lower than the province.  But the summary findings of all three of these articles point in the same direction: it is probable that there are significant inter-regional and inter-sectoral inequalities in health outcomes for the sub-populations corresponding to these segments.

China’s role in world history?

People sometimes want to make large statements about China’s future in the coming fifty years. These range from a Sinocentric paen — “The twenty-first century will be marked by a hegemonic China on the world stage”, to the dubious — “China’s polity will ultimately shatter under the pressures of regional inequalities and competing political interests among elites.” Generally speaking all these large claims seem a bit Hegelian to me; I don’t think we can make large predictions about the course of world history. So I don’t think that China’s role is pre-ordained.

That said, a few things seem fairly clear in China’s present, and these features have some implications for the future as well.

One is that China has embarked an a remarkable expansion of its university system in the past twenty years, and these efforts have turned the corner when it comes to the production of talented young people and significant, original innovations in science and technology. There are now something like 15 million university students in China, including a significant percentage in the elite national universities. This is something like a 15-fold increase in the past 30 years. China’s research centers in many areas of technology and engineering are world-class today, and they are getting better every year. This means that China will have the talent needed to confront almost any large technological problem. Think of the Great Wall, planned and implemented by a million talented new engineering graduates. For example, the concentration on optoelectronics in Wuhan in universities, research centers, and private companies seems to make it highly likely that China will be a leader in this field in the future. So the idea that many in the West have that the universities in Europe, Australia, or North America are of higher quality, or that the research that takes place in the West is more innovative, seem to be based on wishful thinking rather than sober factual analysis. If the West has an edge in any of these areas today, it is one that is likely enough to disappear in the medium-term future.

It is also worth noting that there is a very high degree of exchange of talent between China and the West. Many of the scientists and leaders one meets in universities and research institutes have done some or all of their advanced training in the United States or the UK or have spent time there as post-doctoral students. I’m sure there are “styles” of Chinese research organization that are distinct from Western models. But there seems to be no reason at all to expect that the rate of new discovery in the future will be substantially different in the West and in China. And given that China is establishing a larger base of research resources, this seems to imply that the production of innovation will shift to China.

Second, and related to this first idea, China’s leaders and guiding ministries are very deliberately seeking to steer China’s economic activities up the value chain. Much of China’s growth in the past thirty years was based on low-wage manufacturing. But China’s leaders inside and outside of government are very explicit in their goals of shifting to higher-level goods and services — exactly the areas where European and American leaders hope to dominate. Moreover, China seems to be much more deliberate than Western governments about the need to invest in the infrastructure that will provide the basis of this transformation. China has invested massively in transportation, research centers, and universities throughout the country. These investments are synergistic: they make the next steps of high-end development multiplicative rather than additive. The coordination and cooperation that are facilitated by high-speed rail and air connections amplify the ability of researchers, planners, and entrepreneurs to bring their projects to completion. And the investment funds made available by further economic growth success in turn amplify the state’s ability, and the growing private sector’s ability, to make expanded investment in the following periods.

These factors would point us in the direction of expecting China to move to a position of global economic preeminence in a fairly short period of time. However, contemporary China has obstacles to further progress that are fairly large as well.

One of these handicaps is the governing party’s fundamental view of the appropriate flow of information within society. The government seems to take the position that it needs to carefully manage the access to information that the public is able to gain. Its willingness to censor the Internet for its citizens is a symptom of this view. Chinese society would be stronger if there were a fundamental rethinking of openness about information. And eventually China’s leaders will need to recognize that Chinese society is stronger, not weaker, when citizens can freely express their views and interests.

Second is the fact of persistent inequalities in Chinese society, by sector (rural-urban), by status (resident and well educated / migrant and poorly educated), and by region (coastal-western regions). These inequalities will eventually hold China back — they reduce the talent pool and they stimulate resentment and disassociation among the disadvantaged groups.

Third, government non-accountability and its cousin, corruption, create serious obstacles to effective forward progress. The apparent problems of accountability and perhaps corruption that came to light in the railroad ministry a few months ago cast a shadow about the integrity of the rapid expansion of high speed rail — from safety procedures to construction standards to administrative effectiveness. So more accountability and transparency will be needed in the future, or else China’s major aspirations will be frustrated by ineffective implementation.

These are fairly systemic factors that seem likely to impede China’s progress in the future. Here is a fact that will seem trivial by comparison, but I think it is not. It is the factor of traffic and pedestrian safety. Each city I’ve visited has a traffic environment that can only be described as barely constrained anarchy. Drivers cross four lanes of traffic to make an abrupt right turn; motor bikes roar up the inner lane in the wrong direction; traffic snarls to a stop when a bus gets sideways at an intersection; pedestrians try to make their way across eight lanes of non-stop vehicles; drivers hurtle towards pedestrians and bicyclists until they scatter. This sounds trivial (until you’re caught in the middle of those eight lanes of traffic), but it seems to reflect a more basic and important fact. Doesn’t sound urban planning involve careful design of a traffic system that keeps vehicles moving in the same direction; where pedestrians are largely separated from vehicles; and where signals and road design permit safe pedestrian crossing? And yet those rational plans seem not to have been developed in China’s cities. One possible reason is that China’s planners have simply not given sufficient priority to creating rules and structures that protect the public’s interests — whether in traffic control or in food safety. Build the buildings, stimulate the economic growth, and don’t worry too much about the consequences. If this is correct, it too indicates a feature that will interfere with China’s future development.

In brief, contemporary China seems to display dynamic properties that point in contradictory directions. On the one hand, any visitor can see the dynamic, fast-moving creativity and intelligence that are transforming China and its universities and businesses. On the other hand, there are barriers to “business as usual” development that perhaps set limits to how much further China can go without some important reforms. And it’s possible that the governing party may find those reforms to be unacceptable for one reason or another.

So the Owl of Minerva still has its wings quietly folded when it comes to China’s role in future world history. It remains for China’s people and its governing institutions to write the story.


Beijing Forum 2011

I’m attending the Beijing Forum 2011 this week, and it’s a superb international conference. Much of the conference took place at Peking University. Over three hundred international scholars were invited to participate, and there are dozens of interesting conversations going on at any one time.  The goal is to stimulate productive dialog among scholars from many nations about the issues of modernity and tradition we currently face, and the setting works. I’ve had very interesting discussions with scholars from Thailand, China, Angola, Laos, and Mexico, and it is very interesting to get the different perspectives that we all bring.

The focus is on academic perspectives and dialogues around the overarching theme of “The Harmony of Civilizations and Prosperity for All.” This year’s organizing theme is “Tradition and Modernity, Transition and Transformation.” There are seven themes for the Forum’s discussions this year:

  • Change and Constancy: Historical Perspectives on the Way to Social Transformation
  • Economic Growth in the Context of Globalization: Opportunities, Challenges and Perspectives
  • Inheritance and Innovation in Education
  • Transformation and Stability: Achievements and Challenges in Developing Countries
  • Artistic Heritage and Cultural Innovation
  • Urban Transformation and the Future of Mankind
  • Deliberative Democracy and Social Harmony

Each group contains a distinguished selection of academics from around the world, heavily focused on European, American, and Asian scholars. (There were only six scholars from sub-Saharan  Africa, and  only two participants from Latin America.)

My paper, “Justice Matters in Global Economic Development,” was included in the Economic Growth theme. I argued five basic points: We generally agree about the basics of a just society. The current state of the world badly contradicts those values (poverty, inequality, abuse and coercion). Amartya Sen’s writings provide a powerful basis for those commonsense ideas about justice. The greatest impediment to improving justice is the untrammeled power private and state interests have vis-a-vis the poor. And injustice matters because it causes serious social problems. So states need to strive to reduce injustice.

I didn’t really have a good sense of how the argument was received by the participants, but there was a fairly clear split between “laissez-faire” growth advocates and economists who took inequalities of income and health very seriously.  I assume the latter group was more receptive than the former.

The academic question I received during the formal discussion period came from an American economist. He pointed out that China’s 10% annual growth since the 1990s has greatly improved the standard of living for a hundred million people in coastal China, and created job opportunities for tens of millions of migrant workers. He wanted to know if I was seriously advocating a slower rate of growth as the price of greater justice. The question reflects the assumptions of many of the economists in the session: state policies aimed at enhancing equality are highly destructive to economic growth. So, by inference, preferring economic justice is harmful for a society. 

My response, in a nutshell, was “yes”.  Economic development involves choices. And it is possible that a strategy with a  lower growth rate would do a better job of bringing all of China up together, rather than creating a broadening gap between rural poor and affluent urban people.  I am indeed arguing that it would be best to choose the second strategy.  (This might take the form of investing a larger percentage of China’s formidable savings and reserves in substantially enhanced public goods for the rural poor — education, healthcare, and retirement.)

What is equally important, is that the power differential between poor people and propertied interests in China today almost guarantees that the poor will lose out. Property confiscations by businesses and municipal development authorities are a good example. (Coincidentally, the Thai urban planning expert I talked with said this is precisely the case in and around Bangkok, and the Angola urban planner made similar comments about Angolan farmers and the residual white settlers.) So injustice is as much about power as it is about exploitation. And this means that legal and institutional reforms are needed if China’s inequalities are to be reduced. 

It was striking to me that the thrust of my talk seemed to be most resonant with the Peking University students in the room. A cluster of them came over to talk about the implications of these ideas for China during the break.  These young people seemed genuinely concerned about how China might address some of the large issues of social inequality that have arisen since the economic reforms began in the 1980s. (In fact, even some officials I’ve talked with here in China believe that more serious attention to justice issues is needed in China’s future — for example, with regard to China’s rural poor and to migrant workers and their families.)

(The talk is included as a page on the list at right. I plan to post the bilingual PP as well.)


Notes from Xi’an

People here in Xi’an say: “The Chinese city of the present is Beijing.  The city of the future is Shanghai.  The city of China’s past is Xi’an.”  This seems to be more than a slogan.  People in Xian seem deeply proud of the history and heritage that Xian represents — the thirteen dynasties that made Xi’an their capital, the extraordinary excavations that the Shaanxi region hosts, and the “forest of stones” that is a remarkable collection of steles conveying calligraphy from the Tang Dynasty (Xi’an Beilin Museum).  (The entire collection of the sayings of Confucius are represented on one massive Tang-era stone monument.)

At the same time, the city is not trapped in the past.  Since my previous visit in 2007 the city has undergone many of the same changes that are so striking in other great Chinese cities: new skyscrapers and hotels, more traffic, more smog, and more luxury shopping.  One of Xian’s major universities, Xi’an Jiaotong University, is developing a major new campus.  Particularly striking is a newly developed park in the center of the city that memorializes the Tang Dynasty and its emperors with sculptures, monuments, and light shows.  Like the rest of urban China, Xi’an is moving forward rapidly.

Particularly interesting for me, though, is the opportunity that a visit to Xi’an creates for talking to people about how they feel about China’s rapid changes.  A couple of conversations stand out.  I asked a very accomplished young historical guide at the Beilin Museum whether Chinese young people found any resonance with the values of ancient Chinese culture — whether Confucian ideas about the duties of governments and officials or the aesthetic values represented by calligraphy were formative for young people.  His response was a reflective one.  He observed that middle-aged Chinese men seem to be very interested in these topics, and very interested in practicing calligraphy.  He noted that all of China’s top leaders in modern times, including Chairman Mao, took pride in their calligraphy.  Young people, by contrast, do not share these interests, and they prefer to use the click of a mouse rather than pen and ink to produce a character. He disapproved of this change in cultural attitudes and indicated that learning calligraphy is learning to think in a particular way.

Another value slipped into this conversation almost unnoticed.  The guide informed me that one pagoda contains a Qing-era stele with a text from the Emperor exhorting the suppression of a minority-based rebellion.  This pagoda is sealed, he said, because the government wants to create a feeling of national harmony and the message of the stele is contrary to harmony.  Even scholars are not permitted to view the text.  His ready acceptance of the legitimacy of the government’s suppressing information was very striking to my ears.  It made me think of the regime’s casual decision to make western blogging platforms unavailable on the Internet in China, making a vast domain of information and opinion unavailable here.  The idea that the government has the right to select and filter the information that citizens can access is a harmful one to anyone with liberal values; but it is one that is readily accepted and justified by many thoughtful people in China.

Another snippet of conversation that interested me took place with a university staff person.  This young man’s wife is expecting the delivery of their first (and only) child in the next month.  Because he works for a university, he is interested in education.  So I asked him about the current situation of the education of Chinese children.  He was very passionate on this subject.  He talked about the incredible pressure that children are under from the very earliest age, to compete and excel in school.  The competition to gain entry into the “best” kindergarten, middle school, and high school pushes parents and children to unbearable effort.  He talked about middle school children pushed by their parents and the sense of deeply important competition, to excel in their grades, their violin and piano lessons, their dance lessons, and their other extra-curricular activities.  And he talked about middle- and high-school students working on homework well past midnight in order to gain the best possible grades. He observed that this pressure takes a terrible toll on children, even while it produces students who are very, very good at taking competitive examinations.  But he doubted whether the other qualities of a well-educated student are coming through — an ability to communicate well, and an openness to innovation, for example.  What was striking to me in the conversation was not only the content of his observations, but the passion and emotion with which he spoke.

One additional observation seems somewhat telling.  This has to do with the flying public in China.  As I passed through the first class seating area to my own seat in economy flying from Shanghai to Xi’an, I noticed that the first class section was completely filled with young Chinese professionals, their smartphones, laptops and folios in hand, heading off to a day’s worth of appointments in Xi’an.  This is a sign, of course, of the familiar fact that China’s professional service class has expanded dramatically in the past twenty years.  This is part of the change that has brought Prada, Jaguar, and Ferragamo to every large city in China.  But I also noticed something else in the economy section of the flight from Detroit to Shanghai – a good number of young Americans who have decided to spend some or all their careers in China.  The opportunities created by China’s growth are drawing a large number of middle class Americans to work in Shanghai rather than Knoxville, Peoria, or Tampa.  This isn’t the business elite that has done business in China for decades, but a new wave of young engineers, managers, or skilled workers who are following the global opportunities.  The young man sitting next to me in economy defined the situation for me: a Kentuckian with a community college degree in technology, experience in the US in setting up a factory, and now employed in a two-continent job taking him between Shanghai and Louisville working for a Chinese company that is setting up a major chemical plant in Suzhou. He recently married a young Chinese woman who will be returning to Kentucky with him in a month or so.

A final observation about Xi’an: People here seem to be very accepting of China’s system of single-party rule.  The comment is often heard that “when the central government has decided what to do, it gets done.”  This comment was made about the rapid and impressive development of the Tang Dynasty Park in Xi’an mentioned above, but it seems to be in the back of mind for many areas of policy and change.  And the government seems to get a great deal of credit for its success over the past thirty years in moving China forward: economic growth, world stature, and a sense of Chinese national pride are all achievements that many citizens accord to the government’s decisions and policies.  A twenty-something professional said to me: “The government is trying seriously to address China’s problems. Our leaders are moving in the right direction. It may take two generations to solve some of our problems (like rural-urban inequality).”  I haven’t yet been exposed — in this visit or in prior visits — to a sense of discontent, whether about the state’s control of individual liberties and access to information, or about other aspects of political control.  Of course there is discontent in several sectors of China’s society — rural people whose economic progress is slow and whose property is subject to seizure; workers whose wages aren’t being paid; urban people whose environments are subject to repeated toxic incidents.  But those sources of discontent don’t seem to have percolated into a more widespread sense of dissatisfaction in the broader urban public.

Signing off from the home of the Tang Dynasty – I have a temple to visit!


The standard of living across time and space


A very basic question for historians is how to measure and compare the standard of living experienced by people in different historical settings. Is it possible to arrive at credible estimates of the standard of living in the Roman Empire, medieval Burgundy, nineteenth-century Britain, and twentieth-century Illinois? Can we say with any confidence that Romans had a higher (or lower) standard of living than a twelfth-century Burgundian?

One part of the problem is conceptual. What do we mean by the standard of living? Is there a specific set of characteristics that are constitutive of the standard of living — say, nutrition, income, access to health remedies and education, quality of housing, personal security? And how should we take account of the unequal distribution of these characteristics across a given population? Should we be content with an estimate of an average level of nutrition — even though this may reflect a misleading impression of the circumstances of the poorest segment of society? Should we hope to be able to arrive at an estimate of the standard of living of certain typical social actors — landless workers, skilled laborers, merchants?

The second major problem we must confront is the availability and quality of historical data about wages, prices, and consumption. The series of wages and prices that are available in different countries are, of course, incomplete. And, more importantly, the commodities that satisfy basic nutritional needs are different in different countries and regions. So it is necessary to make assumptions about the nutritional equivalents in different cultures before we can begin to arrive at estimates of relative standard of living.

Different approaches to these problems have been offered in the past fifty years. One logical approach is to consider a list of “necessities of life” and to estimate the degree to which these necessities are available to people of various stations in various times and places. Nutrition, housing, and clothing are close to the core for much of the history of humanity, and for much of that time, these goods have been available largely through the market at a price. So a standard approach has been to define a wage basket; measure the prices of the goods in the basket; and measure the typical earnings of people in historical settings of interest. This allows us to calculate the subsistence rate — the percentage of the population whose income is more than sufficient to purchase the items in the wage basket. What this leaves out is “self production” (for peasant farmers, for example) and state provision. Another logical approach is to look at the human results — the overall health status of people at various times and places. This can be estimated by contemporary data — height, longevity, and age information collected by the military, for example — or by analysis of skeletal evidence centuries later. (Amartya Sen’s The Standard of Livingreviews many of the complexities of defining the standard of living and offers his own rationale in terms of capabilities and functionings.)

An important step forward is now possible in our ability to estimate and compare historical living standards, thanks to the research by an international group of scholars in Living Standards in the Past: New Perspectives on Well-Being in Asia and Europe, edited by Robert Allen, Tommy Bengtsson and Martin Dribe. The introduction to the volume by Allen, Bengtsson, and Dribe does a great job of providing an overview of the issues. All the essays are first-rate, and particularly noteworthy are contributions by Kenneth Pomeranz, Li Bozhong, and Robert Allen. (Here is a link to the table of contents of the volume, which gives an idea of the breadth and rigor of the research.)

This group has concentrated their efforts around the current controversy about European and Asian growth patterns in the early modern period. This has several parts: first, careful comparison to determine whether there was a significant difference in the standard of living between Europe and Asia (as held by Smith, Malthus, and Marx); and second, to attempt to determine the timing and causes of differences as they emerged. The editors describe the group’s purposes in the introduction in these terms:

How did the standard of living in Europe and Asia compare in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? (Kindle loc 230)

The main concern of this book is to assess when the gap between the East and the West emerged and to not only take economic perspectives into consideration but social and demographic ones as well. (Kindle loc 159)

The researchers bring three methodologies to bear on these questions: economic analysis of prices and wages to estimate the real wage; demographic analysis of biometric features such as height, longevity, and fertility to estimate relative standard of living; and historical population analysis to observe the severity of adaptation (mortality, fertility, migration) created in a population by shortterm economic stress, including especially food prices. Here the reasoning is that a population that is close to the edge of subsistence in normal times may be expected to have higher mortality, lower fertility, and greater out-migration than a population with a more comfortable standard of living. So demographic change can be used as an indirect measurement of a population’s standard of living. Using these three reasonably independent instruments of observation, it is reasonable to expect that we will gain a fairly accurate idea of the standard of living in a region and how it compares to other regions. The last approach is probably the most innovative:

There were demographic responses … to high food prices. In the worst case, high prices caused death for those unable to buy enough to eat. In less extreme situations, people resorted to demographic strategies in response to high food prices. These included postponed marriages, migration, and delayed births. Studies of the correlation of death, migration, marriage, and childbearing with food prices, therefore, provide a new approach to the measurement of the standard of living. When aggregate data show that high food prices raised mortality or reduced fertility, one can conclude that the bulk of the population had a low standard of living. (Kindle loc 288)

Cameron Campbell and James Lee make use of this approach in their contribution, “Living standards in Liaoing, 1749-1909: Evidence from demographic outcomes,” to assess the standard of living of the bulk of the population in Liaoning in northeast China. They find that the mortality and fertility responses to changes in rice prices essentially disappeared in the north and south of Liaoning in 1780-1850 — which leads them to infer that the standard of living and nutrition had risen over the past century. (James Lee and others return to this kind of reasoning in Prudence and Pressure: Reproduction and Human Agency in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900, by Noriko Tsuya, Wang Feng, George Alter, and James Lee.)

Robert Allen attempts to establish something like an empirical baseline for the real wage in different parts of Europe and Asia in his contribution, “Real wages in Europe and Asia: A first look at the long-term patterns”. He compiles a large dataset of wage data for a number of European cities, and he makes careful inferences about comparable data for India, Japan, and China.

Wages reveal the standard of living if they are compared to the price of consumer goods. This is the interpretation that matters in assessing the prosperity of Asia vis-a-vis Europe. Provided low Asian wages were matched by low consumer goods prices, the standard of living of workers could have been the same at both ends of Eurasia even though Asian manufacturers had a competitive advantage in the textile industry. (Introduction to “Real Wages”)

Allen notes that it is necessary to make a number of adjustments in order to estimate the cost of a wage basket in Asia, because of large differences in diet. Allen stipulates 143 kgs/year of rice for the Asian basket versus 208 kgs/year of bread in the European basket. And he converts prices and wages into silver to permit comparison of prices across Europe and Asia. Here is one of Allen’s summary graphs comparing laborers’ real wages in Japan (farm), Kyoto, England (farm), Oxford, and London.

The graph indicates a significant premium for laborers’ wages in London, whereas Japanese and English farm wages are fairly similar throughout most of the period. And it indicates a “take-off” for London laborers’ wage beginning in the mid-nineteenth century — not paralleled by a similar take-off in Kyoto.

Here are Allen’s conclusions:

The wage comparisons undertaken in this paper support several important conclusions about living standards in pre-industrial Europe and Asia.

First, wages expressed in grams of silver were lower in China and India than in Europe. The views of the eighteenth century observers cited by Parthasarathi are confirmed. This is important since it was the proximate cause of Asia’s competitive advantage in textiles and luxury manufactures and was, thus, the basis for Asian-European trade in the early modern period. Why these differentials persisted for hundreds of years is an important question in international and monetary economics that must be addressed to explain the dynamics of the world economy in this period.

Second, low Asian silver wages were matched by low Asian prices with the result that living standards in Asia were similar to those in many parts of Europe. Farm workers in Europe and urban workers in central and southern Europe did not enjoy higher living standards than their counterparts in Asia.

Third, some parts of Europe did generate higher real wages than we find in Asia. When real wages were at their peak following the Black Death, most Europeans had a higher standard of living. But this was a transitory condition for most of the continent. High wages persisted only in the commercial centres of the northwest – London and the Low Countries generally. During the eighteenth century, the provincial towns of England were drawn into the same high wage orbit, but agriculture was left behind. This dynamic, urban economy was the engine of growth in early modern Europe, and Asia appears to have had no counterpart. It is possible, of course, that a more extensive Asian database would reveal a parallel: the absence of information on urban Chinese wages is particularly troubling in this regard. However, neither the Japanese cities nor the capital of the Moghul Empire had particularly high wages. The evidence at hand suggests that Asia lacked Europe’s engine of growth. (Conclusion of “Real Wages”)

Contributions by Kenneth Pomeranz and Li Bozhong take up the issue of the supposed backwardness and stagnation of the Chinese rural economy at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy Pomeranz argued that England and the Yangzi Delta region had roughly comparable levels of productivity and similar levels of standard of living for poor people (laborers and peasants). In his contribution to this volume he pushes this argument forward with more empirical analysis of the standard of living in China. He attempts to handle the “commensurability” problem mentioned above by converting subsistence food commodities to calorie equivalents. He finds that Chinese data for seventeenth century laborers indicate a daily diet of 2,800 calories for adults in the eighteenth century (Kindle loc 532).

Overall, then, the food component of the standard of living seems generally comparable in eighteenth-century China and Europe, and in the most advanced regions of both. (Kindle loc 626)

So Pomeranz’s research here broadly confirms the view he advanced in The Great Divergence, that the standards of living in comparable regions of Europe and China were roughly the same; and he also confirms a significant decline in the standard of living for the bulk of the Chinese population in the nineteenth century.

Li Bozhong takes up the stagnation issue from a different point of view, a careful consideration of farm labor productivity in the Lower Yangzi region. This extends his important work in Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850. And his central finding is an important one as refutation of the standard involution interpretation of China’s economic history; he finds that agricultural productivity rose from 1620 to 1850.

The central theme of this chapter is that labour productivity on farms did improve in Jiangnan between 1620 and 1850. The region of Jiangnan, located in east China and consisting of eight late Imperial Chinese prefectures in the Yangzi Delta, has been the most economically and culturally advanced area in China for centuries. … In some sense, this region is the best ‘window’ through which we can clearly see economic changes in China before the arrival of the modern west. (Kindle loc 1038)

The issue of productivity is key to an assessment of the standard of living, because flat or declining productivity in a region with a rising population implies a falling standard of living — the general “theorem” of Malthus. So Pomeranz’s finding would be difficult to support if we were forced to conclude that agricultural productivity was constant or falling. But Li’s careful and data-rich analysis indicates, to the contrary, that there was substantial gain in productivity from the Ming to the mid-Qing.

The ‘trinity pattern’ is the optimal pattern in the Jiangnan peasant economy because under this pattern higher yields per mu can be achieved with lower inputs. As I point out above, in the early seventeenth century, a farm ran, on average, 15 mu of cultivated land with a multi-cropping index of 140%, the second crop being wheat. The yield per mu was 1.7 shi for rice and 1 shi for wheat. If all the 15 mu of land were planted in rice, this farm would harvest 26 shi of rice and 6 shi of wheat, together equivalent to 30 shi of rice. In contrast, in the mid-nineteenth century, the average farm size was 9 mu with a multi-cropping index of 170&. Per mu yield was 2.5 shi of rice and 1 shi of wheat. Farm output was 23 shi of rice and 6 shi of wheat, totalling 27 she of rice, 10% below the early seventeenth-century figures. However, if we calculate labor productivity according to the number of workers, output per worker would be 15 shi of rice in the early seventeenth century and 27 shi of rice in the mid-nineteenth century respectively. That is, the figure for the late Ming period is only 55% of the mid-Qing figure. (Kindle loc 1160)

So labor productivity had risen significantly from 1650 to 1850. Li’s conclusion is clear:

Since labour productivity and the standard of living are inseparably linked, the rise in farm labour productivity in Jiangnan implies an increase in the peasants’ standard of living. … There is little doubt, therefore, that real incomes of peasants did improve considerably in Jiangnan at this time. Second, the quality of the peasants’ diet also improvied in Jiangnan during the period. Fang Xing suggested that ordinary Jiangnan peasants ate more fish, meat, and tofu, drank more tea and wine, and consumed more sugar than ever before. … The improved standard of living can also be seen in the increase in consumption, not only of ‘ordinary goods’ like cotton cloth, but also of ‘luxury goods’ such as silk, wine, tobacco, and opium. (Kindle loc 1221)

What is most valuable about this project is the empirical grip it provides on these important questions: What have been the dynamics of the standard of living across Eurasia from the middle ages to the twentieth century? And, eventually, what economic and demographic forces account for the inflection points and persistent differences in different regions that are documented? And, as all the contributors agree, one of the key discoveries is the fact of variation at every level, from regions of England to regions of Europe to the ends of Eurasia.

The contributions of this book show the highly complex and diverse pattern of the standard of living in the pre-industrial period. The general picture emerging from these studies is not one of a great divergence between East and West during this period, but instead one of considerable similarities. These similarities not only pertain to economic aspects of standard of living but also to demography and the sensitivity to economic fluctuations. In addition to these similarities, there were also pronounced differences within the East and within the West — differences that in many cases were larger than the differences between Europe and Asia. This clearly highlights the importance of analysing several dimensions of the standard of living, as well as the danger of neglecting regional, social, and household specific differences when assessing the level of well-being in the past. (Kindle loc 455)


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