Xi Jinping’s War on Spontaneous Order – The Scholar's Stage


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

Kevin Rudd argues that China’s “pivot to the state” is occurring because Chairman Xi Jinping is determined that his country shall “win a generational contest against cultural dependency on the West” (“What Explains Xi’s Pivot to the State?” op-ed, Sept. 20). Yet the majority of firms and media products targeted by Mr. Xi’s new campaign are not Western, but Chinese.The drivers of this campaign are also domestic. In Chinese eyes, each of its targets is associated with a longstanding social ill. The sorts of social problems Brooklyn hipsters chalk up to “late capitalism” exist in China, too—and in most cases in far worse form. The new restrictions on video games, to choose one example, are less a reaction to the popularity of Western games (China’s blockbuster titles are for the most part homegrown) than the humiliating reality that the amount of time the average Chinese wastes on gaming is double that wasted by the average citizen of any Western nation.One can forgive the gamers for their addiction: Urban Chinese life is atomized, tech-addled and status-anxious. A people whose national anthem begins with the words “Stand up! You who refuse to be slaves!” now finds themselves trapped in a billion-man rat race.It was only a matter of time before Chairman Xi’s promise to deliver a brighter future collided with the commodified and cutthroat culture of China’s present. This collision, not hostility to foreign influence, best accounts for the Chinese Communist Party’s “pivot to the state.”1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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