by Pranab Bardhan
In the last two decades I have been to China many times, mostly for lectures and conferences primarily in Beijing and Shanghai. Of course, compared to what I saw in my first visit in 1989, China has undergone a dramatic economic transformation. The most dazzling of commonly visible changes are in infrastructure, highways, skyscrapers, bullet trains, airports, etc. There are parts of Shanghai now, say the eye-catchingly rich Pudong district, where once coming out of my hotel for a moment I was confused if I was really anywhere near the Shanghai city I had seen before. My academic colleagues tell me that the pay scales in top universities are now almost the same as in America, in order to attract top talent back to China. Chinese airports and high-speed trains are certainly more advanced than the ones you see in most American cities. My Chinese students in Berkeley have often told me that in application of digital technology in daily life (particularly in retail trade and local transportation and communication) they are struck by how backward the US is compared to China.
I remember going to a conference in Beijing at the turn of this century, along with several other international economists which included Thomas Piketty (now of rock star-like fame for his work on inequality). We arrived at Peking University the day before. In the afternoon Thomas and his then wife, Nancy, went out for a walk in the streets holding between them the hands of their 3 little daughters. All the Chinese pedestrians stopped and were gawking at the extremely unusual sight of a family with 3 children in a country then with one-child policy.
Next morning our conference was in a room at the China Center for Economic Research in an impressive building that Justin Lin, then head of the Center, said used to be an imperial palace. The first speaker that morning was Piketty and I was to chair the session. When Piketty brought out the plastic ‘transparencies’ he had for his talk and was looking for a portable overhead projector, there was none. The Chinese who were using smudgy blackboards in seminar rooms less than a decade back had by then leap-frogged to power-point projection from laptops, skipping the stage of using transparencies. The Chinese hosts were initially nonplussed; then someone said in another part of the campus one might get such an overhead projector in a store room and rushed to procure it. While we were waiting for it to come, I told Thomas, “You come from a backward country, France, where you are allowed to have 3 children and also use transparencies for seminars”!
Chinese advance in technology is not always for general benefit. The technology for surveillance of the citizenry, with Big Data and facial recognition devices, has become so sophisticated in China now that it is possible to describe the Chinese state today as approaching ‘totalitarianism’, in a more accurate sense than any of the earlier loose descriptions of authoritarian countries as totalitarian. The totalitarian state controls and saturates every little bit of social space and makes possible what the German jurist and Nazi academic Carl Schmitt called Totalstaat in an influential work in 1927. Artificial intelligence is now allowing the Chinese state to reach a degree of control unattained by possibly any other state in history. The Economist magazine has called this digital totalitarianism in China.
There is a large social engineering project in place in China now (though not yet fully or uniformly implemented), called the social credit system. If you have failed to repay a debt or violated some rules or even played loud music in public, you can get a negative social credit evaluation which is recorded. If you are in the official blacklist then you may have problems in buying train or plane tickets or getting jobs or hotel reservations. In the West or even in India this’d be considered as unacceptably intrusive, but what is interesting to note is that common people in China are not particularly bothered about this, they often consider it as necessary for boosting public morality. (Some people point out that in the US the control by tech and credit card companies on your access to services like insurance, accommodation or transportation based on your credit score is not much less objectionable).
As a short-term foreign visitor to China I have not yet encountered the full might of the totalitarian state. A couple of years before the pandemic in a conference organized by Justin Lin at Peking University some of us foreigners openly, though politely, deprecated the recent turn in China toward heightened repression; our Chinese audience just listened to us in sullen silence.
A few years before that, after my China-India comparative book Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay came out, I was invited by Tsinghua University to give a public lecture on that topic. It was quite a large audience, and halfway through my lecture I thought to myself that I was criticizing India’s performance a bit too much relative to that of China. To make some redress I decided to cite a striking example on the opposite side of the ledger, as it were. I went on to say that both countries had the capital punishment, something that I was opposed to, but there was a striking difference in the way this punishment had actually been carried out: according to some Amnesty International data that I had seen, China at that time executed every week on average a number that exceeded the total number executed in India over the previous 60 years. When I said that I heard a soft but distinct whooshing sound rippling across the room. But nobody raised any question about this either then or in the discussion time.
After my lecture a Harvard Professor and China specialist, Dwight Perkins, whom I knew and who happened to be visiting the university and sitting at the front, walked to me and whispered that If I said that thing about capital punishment 10 or 15 years back, the police could have given me trouble. Later at the dinner, seated next to me was my friend and ex-colleague from Berkeley, Yingyi Qian, who was the Dean of the School of Economics; I asked Yingyi if what Dwight said was really true. Yingyi laughed and said, maybe in not so many words but definitely implied, that the Chinese authorities thought that foreigners spoke all kinds of nonsense, but if a Chinese person said the same thing he/she could have been in trouble.
I should also mention that when my China-India book was published by Princeton University Press in 2011, it entered an agreement with a Beijing publisher for bringing out a Chinese edition. When I got a copy of the latter from Beijing, I showed it to one of my Chinese students in Berkeley. He took it and told me the next day that comparing it with the English edition that he had already read he found out that most of my statements in the book criticizing the Chinese government or its policy had been cut out. Of course they did not take my permission, which was in the agreement with Princeton. I wrote to the Beijing publisher in protest, but there was no response.
So at the beginning of my public lecture at Tsinghua I told my audience not to read the Chinese edition, as it provided a censored and highly unbalanced comparative study of the two countries. Next day a very shy, nice young woman came to see me. She introduced herself as the translator of my book and kept on profusely apologizing. I did not have the heart to raise the matter of the broken agreement. From my brief conversation with her I gathered that, as is not uncommon in authoritarian countries, much of the censorship was preemptive self-censorship on the part of the publisher, not the government.
I have known Yingyi for many years. Like Masahiko Aoki and Gérard Roland I have mentioned before, his research was in comparative and institutional economics. He suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution, but then thrived in the post-reform period and became a major theorist of that reform. He introduced me to a leading Chinese journalist Xiao Meng. I have met her a few times on my later visits to Beijing. She did not speak much English but was quite well-read in the Economics literature. Over the years she got many of my journal articles translated in Mandarin.
One time she took me out to lunch along with some of her junior colleagues. After lunch she said her home was within walking distance, if I’d care to visit. I agreed and we went to a lovely house with a traditional courtyard and a lot of greenery. In her living room she showed me a photo of Mao with herself as a teenage girl with a red scarf—apparently she was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution (later I heard that her father served as a Minister in Mao’s government). She knew of my interest in films, so she took me to another room stacked with thousands of DVD’s, most of them of foreign films—she said with a large grin that all of those DVD’s were, of course, pirated. (I was reminded of Joe Stiglitz telling me that once walking in a Chinese city he saw a big photo of his on the window of a bookstore; he walked in, saw hundreds of copies of his books piled up and soon realized that they were all pirated editions. For a moment Joe was not sure if he should be sad for loss of his royalty income or glad by this kind of publicity—in the end, he decided to be glad, as in any case he is not a strong believer in intellectual property rights.)
At the end of my visit to her home Xiao Meng told me that she was particularly interested in showing me her long-time home because soon it was going to be demolished by the city authorities as part of a big highway construction project. Her associates told me that because she was well-connected the authorities gave her some time before demolishing the house. I have heard that for common people quite often when the authorities decide to demolish a house, the residents or home-owners do not get much notice. One morning you wake up and see your outer wall marked with a large Chinese character, meaning ‘Raze’, and that’s your notice.