Karl Polanyi in Beijing: why is there so much smog in Shanghai?

To explain why the smog is so bad in Shanghai you can point to air pressure, christmas, temperature etc. But to really understand, like most things, you have to go back at least half a century. You might think its odd that I begin the meat of these posts with land and nature and not people. But until very recently China was an agricultural country. It makes perfect sense to start with the environment.

So, to kick off, I won’t pretend environmental damage wasn’t widespread in Mao’s China. “Political repression, utopian urgency, dogmatic formalism, and state-sponsored relocations affected and distorted Chinese relationships with nature in the Mao years” as Shapiro wrote in her Mao’s War on Nature. Among the most bizarre attacks was an utterly mad attempt to eradicate sparrows, rats, mosquitoes and flies, from the Chinese countryside. Unfortunately, the environmental degradation produced in the Mao years pales in comparison to the damage which contemporary reforms have fathered.

Mao’s death in 1976 ended the lost decade of the Cultural Revolution, but also created a power vacuum and a period of instability in the Communist Party of China. The elevation of Deng Xiaoping to leader offered a welcome solution to the Chinese people, and he entered office with a mandate for change. The change he proposed was described as “market adjustment” and “adjustment by the plan” at the December 1978 Third Plenum. Reform began in urban areas with an attempt to create an urban labour market by allowing selected managers to hire on a contractual basis. The reforms also included provisions to allow state owned enterprises to raise prices and retain profits. In 1981, amid rising inflation and urban unrest, urban reforms were brought to a halt and focus was switched to rural areas.

Rural reforms began not long after their urban counterparts in September 1980. They initiated a major step in the rural reform process; the commune based agricultural system was to be replaced by the Household Responsibility System (HRS). You don’t understand anything about China unless you understand this. The commodification of land began in the countryside; the HRS divided commune land into individual family farming plots, and tied earnings to the yields produced by each family. They had to make compulsory deliveries to the state but anything above that was free to be sold on the market. Within three years 98 percent of peasant households had been incorporated into this new system. Eager to taste the new life offered to them the Chinese peasants were keen to undertake this transition.

Although the land remained communal property, which was leased out to individual tenant farmers, the HRS amounted to a de facto commodification of land in the countryside. As well as abolishing the old order and implementing the HRS, the Chinese state has also played, and continues to play, a vital role in forcibly commodifying land; dispossessing China’s peasants of their plots . Reflecting on the HRS, The Economist credits the spectacular growth in the Chinese countryside to the free play of market forces. However, what Meisner calls the most “economically successful period in the history of Chinese agriculture” can more accurately be described as the culmination of thirty years of successful state led investment. The rise in productivity being the results of a one-off price increase on compulsory grain deliveries that corrected, previously low, state prices.

Most economists would argue that China suffers because of its ambiguous property system — uncertainty prevents long term planning and investment. However, by equating commodification with free-hold, they ignore that the commodification of land can be done largely on a leasehold basis, as it was in London and New York. Within the Chinese context it is important not to equate the commodification of land merely with status as “private property.” Even as commentators denounce China as Communist in name only, domestically the term private property has still not lost its subversiveness. Therefore, in urban areas, land is often traded in “primary” and “secondary” land-markets, while also remaining state property. This essay will argue, for both land here, and labour in the next chapter, that although unconventional, the commodification which has occurred is subject to the same analysis Polanyi used in The Great Transformation.

The Double Movement does not occur in a vacuum, class interests play an active role in fermenting and directing the countermovement. By mediating the enclosure movement in early-modern England, the monarchy and the Church represented the interests of society and prevented it from massive social upheaval. The countermovement against commodifying land slowed the pace of change and allowed new measures to be developed to deal with the new problems which were part of this new social system. After the experiment of Communal life many peasants were keen to taste the new life offered to them by the HRS. Moreover, the CCP officials who oversaw the dissolution of the Communes, often themselves profited directly from this process. Both of these factors may help to explain the initial weakness of the Double Movement in China. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of the Chinese peasantry and the CCP for reform, has not prevented a catastrophic destruction of the Chinese environment.

The annihilation of the Chinese countryside is not a certainty; there are some embryonic examples of a countermovement. The Western Development Programme was an attempt to demonstrate the government’s commitment to national unity. It is not a simple or straightforward programme with a discernible single aim. Rather than just attempting to eliminate inequality, most of the programme aims at incorporating the underdeveloped Western China into an enlarged home market. However, this would ignore the element aimed at protecting the environment, the “Grain for Green” programme. In essence it asks farmers to refrain from using the land for profit, and instead to return it to natural forests and grasslands. This serves to protect the natural environment from over-exploitation and callous destruction.

However, projects such as the WDP do not alter the fact that the success of Chinese agriculture is threatened by the market. The institutions which had maintained the major works that allowed China to equitably feed the largest nation on Earth, have been dismantled in an effort to commoditise land. This has not been met by new coping mechanisms or new social projects. Polanyi argues that economies which are embedded will be more successful than those which are not. The HRS was the cause of a cumulatively huge one-off increase in the living standards of millions, but was followed by stagnation in living standard and declining grain yields. Grain yields declined because, precipitated by Deng’s call to diversify, many farmers turned to small-scale private business instead of farming. Moreover, most damaging for individual wealth of those Chinese tied to the land the HRS has put a halt to much mechanisation of Chinese agriculture – a centuries long Chinese ambition.

In 1997, it was suggested that China could take advantage of its backwardness, evade chemical pesticides and fertilisers, refuse to make extensive use of automobiles etc. and bypass the most destructive elements of development. One look at Shanghai shows you that this advice was not heeded and the Chinese people and natural environment have paid the price. The market as instituted in China is incapable of delivering the environmentally balanced development essential in China. Polanyi argued that only by mediating the change and embedding the economy, did the enclosure of England not result in social calamity.

The literature on the environmental damage of modern China abounds, but to be succinct we can restrict our discussion to idea of a “Green GDP” which has been considered by the CCP. A simple idea, the “Green GDP” subtracts the economic cost of environmental degradation, from the increase in a traditional calculation of GDP, more net domestic product than gross. Despite the fact that it “used low estimates of environmental damage to health and did not assess the impact on China’s ecology” the new growth calculations were so meagre that they were politically unusable. The CCP could not maintain its economic credibility with such poor growth figures. The commodification of land has caused huge damage; Vaclav Smil estimated that one seventh of China’s potential GDP in the late 90s was sucked up by environmental abuse. Despite, and perhaps because of, this widespread destruction, there have been some recent movements towards a rebalancing countermovement; such as the WDP described above.

I’ve tried to outline and analyse the problems that have confronted the commodification of the Chinese countryside. In light of; the “Green GDP,” the decline of public works, and the stagnation in peasant living standards since the mid 1980s, the foresight of Polanyi’s argument become clear. An embedded economy will be more efficient than a disembedded market. China is experiencing a continent-wide expropriation of social property, but without being coupled with a concerted effort to maintain the standard of the natural environment essential for the well-being of the Chinese people.

The market is systemically unable to deliver economic growth without doing environmental damage. It is possible to price these externalities, but just because it is possible does not mean it is happening. Pricing externalities requires complex institutional design and a class of people to make the case. The people most badly affected by the damage done to the environment are too weak politically to respond. That a pigou tax is possible but not in place strengthens Polanyi’s position that an economy works better when embedded. Wednesday’s post looks at labour and tells a similarly ugly story.


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