China’s Exit to Year Zero

Li Ziqi/YouTube

Zhong Qing, one of China’s most influential message board theorists, had the good fortune to be born at a time when his talents were appreciated. He appeared at the very moment that the political imagination of the Chinese people was taken online. It was Zhong’s first step towards his role as a prominent intellectual, carving out a niche on the burgeoning 2000s-era Chinese internet, and being among the first to imagine China’s industrialization as part of a total national rejuvenation.

Zhong was born in 1970 and went to college in the mid-1980s. If he had been born a decade earlier, he would have come of age before the university entrance exams were reinstated. At that time, he would have been forced to elbow aside the thousands of elite youth who returned from the countryside to sit the reinstated gaokao. If he had been born a decade later, he would never have known the opportunities afforded to him by growing up in the twilight of the socialist economy. He was old enough to have lived under an alternative to market logic and he was young enough that he could get on the internet to complain about it. He was too young to take part in the “culture fever” of the 1980s, but old enough that he could still soak up some of its revolutionary atmosphere.

Zhong Qing’s activity on the bulletin boards of the early 2000s prefigured and possibly inspired the vision and rhetoric of the Xi era. It was also among the first instances of a fork from party orthodoxy among young, dissatisfied Chinese professionals. Twenty years later, the vision he inspired has reached prominence. But the party’s increasing focus on financialization over industry, and the growing demand for an exit from industrial modernity among the most alienated segments of China’s middle class, suggest a coming fork in China’s carefully developed social order.

The Industrial Party

As Reform and Opening Up kicked into high gear, there was a new openness toward questioning what direction the country might take. The incarceration or death of the last generation of leaders and the end of the Cold War meant that grand narratives were up for debate. The new helmsmen—Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang, and Jiang Zemin—were still feeling their way toward an ideological consensus. Discussions about Alvin Toffler’s futurism, neo-Confucianism, critical theory, the scientific merits of qigong exercises, and the relative benefits of accepting colonialism could take place publicly.

The events of 1989 turned down the volume on intellectual debate. The leadership reached a consensus on key issues. It became too risky to let a cultural fever turn into political paralysis again.

The party re-marginalized the intellectuals and its leaders turned instead to their friends at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As the end of the 1990s approached and the promise of World Trade Organization accession was extended, the state further relinquished control over the economy. They tossed more state-owned enterprises to the market and embarked on liberalization of the banking system. By the end of the decade, the number of workers laid off stood at around a hundred million. Fortunately, relations had greatly improved since the Americans objected to the way the party handled things in the summer of 1989.

There was less space than there had been in the 1980s for dissenting views to run in traditional media, but internet message boards had flourished on computer networks at elite universities. By the early 2000s, they were spreading out onto commercial networks. Men like Zhong—particularly with academic backgrounds in science, technology, and engineering—found a community online. Their boards shared a focus on military affairs and current events.

In an essay written years later, Wang Xiaodong, the writer and famous stoker of nationalist sentiment, retroactively christened them the Industrial Party.

These young men were ideologically heterogeneous but united by the nationalistic undercurrent of the 1990s. They took a step beyond angry or pitiful patriotic rhetoric, moving instead to discussions on how industrial policy and the use of unparalleled scientific expertise could guide the country. Their core idea was that industrialization should become, like science and democracy, a universal value. They were reacting to the seeming abandonment of industrialization as the country shifted to a market economy.

In one of the defining moments of the new tendency, Zhong squared off with fellow Industrial Party member Chen Jing in an online debate on the future of the nation.

Chen and Zhong agreed on the basics—accelerate industrial development and technological advancement—but disagreed on the question of opening up the economy. Chen Jing sided with official political and economic orthodoxy, which relied on foreign direct investment, low-end export-oriented manufacturing, and allowing certain sectors to be exposed to the market. Zhong, meanwhile, went as far as predicting the collapse of the Chinese economy if current policies continued.

The Zhong Qing program called for technocratic state control of key sectors to shield them from competition. It also advocated a radical industrial policy that could catapult the nation forward and give it a technological and political lead over the West.

This debate caused an early split in the Industrial Party, but Zhong seems to have been vindicated by history—and by a publishing deal. The material he had blasted Chen Jing with was collected into a book called Scrub Dishes or Study?, published in 2005, while Zhong was working as an electrical engineer in Japan. 

The title draws on a metaphor commonly employed to describe Chinese economic policy: a Chinese student gets a visa and travels to America; instead of taking on the costs of pursuing education, he decides he would rather take a steady job and quick cash scrubbing dishes in the back of a restaurant. The construction of an industrial base and technical expertise between Liberation in 1949 and Reform and Opening Up in the ‘70s required an investment of capital and effort without immediate benefit—but the China that joined the WTO was content to wash dishes.

In the book, Zhong took the example of Japan, which developed itself in the postwar period by allowing central planning of core industries, and by harnessing the scientific spirit and expertise built up during the previous century of industrialization. They built their industrial base with a wealth of technical expertise. The same was possible in China. Zhong predicted that China would eventually reach Japan’s level of GDP, but it could leapfrog the developed nations with aggressive industrial policy and the development of science and technology.

He was writing at a time when the idea that China might abandon its comparative advantage in low-end manufacturing to start building jets and chips was still a radical one. There was little conception that China could or should challenge Western hegemony, much less that it might overtake the developed West.

In the years that followed those early internet discussions and publications, the Chinese found themselves continually humiliated by the United States and Europe. In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Western media’s coverage of race riots in Lhasa and terrorism in Xinjiang, capped with political blustering and threats of boycotts, brought people into the streets across China. The Anti-CNN website, a reactionary clearinghouse founded by huckster Rao Jin, got funding from Eric X. Li and praise from state media.

Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were replaced by Xi Jinping. The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation began.

Under Xi, it seemed as if the key ideas of the Industrial Party—restoring the grand development narrative, cherishing scientific thinking, and leapfrogging the West through a focus on advanced technology—might energize the leadership. The economic theories of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era still leaned on an interpretation of Marxist economics. But the idea of developing and unleashing advanced productive forces through scientific and technical innovation was strongly reminiscent of what had been discussed on military affairs boards in the early 2000s.

It’s conceivable that Industrial Party message board theorists and Communist Party policymakers arrived independently at the idea of industrial development as a way of both transitioning from an export-oriented economy and of winning legitimacy from nationalists. It’s also conceivable that some members of the embryonic Industrial Party—young men from elite science and technology academic backgrounds concerned about the nation—later found themselves in positions to guide Communist Party policy. But the anonymous nature of message boards and the black box of Chinese policymaking means that it’s difficult to establish a causal relationship between Industrial Party thinkers and the official turn to national rejuvenation through industrial policy.

Whatever the case, the Industrial Party moved from obscure opposition to accelerationist cheerleaders just as the message boards were giving way to social media. Online thinkers on China’s development could now reach a much wider audience.

Zhong Qing stepped aside for a younger generation.

Passing the Industrialist Torch

Shenzhen Ningnanshan, another anonymous blogger who has written extensively on industrial policy and development, has become the new face of the Industrial Party. Little is known about the writer’s true identity. He’s been credited as Ning Nanshan in his latest published work, which looks closer to a real name. His online biography only reveals that he is a middle-class man from Shenzhen, who possibly works in supply chain management.

He echoes the gospel of saving the nation and breaking Western hegemony through technological development. The frame is backed by Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and energized by a trade war with the United States.

He has nearly seven hundred thousand followers on Weibo and a quarter million on Zhihu, which means he is being listened to—and by people with the ability to put state power behind his suggestions. The link between the turn to industrialization gospel around 2011 and the Industrial Party of Zhong Qing is unclear, but it is almost certain that Shenzhen Ningnanshan has—or had—the ears of the leadership.

In an interesting contrast to the West, the Chinese Communist Party listens to bloggers and message board theorists. Sometimes they do it so that they know who to put under house arrest during key anniversaries; more often, it’s so that they know what’s being said about their policies. They are particularly interested in the massively popular finance and development bloggers. These circles are usually—but not always—immune from the routine online rectification campaigns that see widespread takedowns even of more innocuous social media accounts and websites. The People’s Online Public Opinion Annual Report in 2011 specifically mentioned the value of tracking the opinions of “high-income groups, such as real estate investors, businessmen, and investors.”

Political authorities have increased their surveillance of what is being posted, but also recognized that posters can give valuable feedback and ideas to the leadership. In China, ministries and even smaller state bodies have access to sources like Online Public Opinion, a People’s Daily’s publication that compiles online thought, and other service providers.

Going the other direction—spreading the message from the leadership to the people—it is clear that those in power have confidence in Shenzhen Ningnanshan’s message. He is routinely quoted in state media, with the Global Times translating one op-ed into English. Shenzhen Ningnanshan’s most recent book on industrial policy was published by Red Flag Publishing House, which is closely linked to the theoretical party journal Qiushi

The first half of his latest book—The Future is on China’s Side—is a celebration of China’s accomplishments:

In the four major first-tier cities of Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, the per capita GDP mark of $20,000 USD has already been broken, but second-tier cities like Nanjing, Suzhou, Changzhou, Wuxi, Zhuhai, Wuhan, Changsha, and Hangzhou are already there, as well. They have already reached or exceeded developed nations. Within ten years, the entire country will break that mark, putting us within striking distance of Portugal, the Czech Republic, and Greece. 

In his view, this is explained by China’s incredible technical innovation. There are jet fighters, petroleum exports, high-performance bearings, offshore oil drilling, high-stress springs, agricultural chemicals, titanium alloys, and optical membranes. He even boasts about China’s tire industry: ChemChina’s Pirelli deal made them the fourth-largest manufacturer of commercial vehicle tires. There’s plenty about high-end manufacturing, finance, and software, too. The earnest young nationalists discussing industrial policy on military affairs bulletin boards in 2005 could only dream of a position like this.

In the remaining three sections in the book, Shenzhen Ningnanshan gives a roadmap for a radical industrialization policy that will allow China to break Western hegemony and accelerate past developed nations. The focus of that policy, he suggests, would be aerospace, robotics, artificial intelligence, biomedical engineering, pharmaceutical, energy, and information and communications technology. These are mostly areas where the West still has an advantage but relies on Chinese expertise or equipment. Tesla is one example; the United States has a clear advantage in electric vehicles but needs Chinese battery technology. One sector that the West has a clear advantage in is biotechnology, so Shenzhen Ningnanshan suggests that should be a target for investment by the state.

Expertise and equipment aside, he believes that China can leapfrog the West through advantages of scale, as well as state planning. Artificial intelligence is one example, with the American government having nothing akin to the State Council’s “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan,” which lays out a scheme for developing the industry that extends out to 2030.

For Shenzhen Ningnanshan, there is nothing that industrialization cannot achieve. But there are signs that the Communist Party is no longer following the program as diligently as they once did. 

The Industrial Party as represented by Shenzhen Ningnanshan, as well as his northern counterpart Beijing Saidong, would like things to go a step further. Both writers have expressed concern that putting financialization of the economy over industrial development will end the party prematurely.

Shenzhen’s Ningnanshan’s online writing has more bite than his cheery book for a state publisher. He made waves in 2018 for a piece questioning the liveability of cities, titled “My Complaints as a Member of the Middle Class.” He warned the leadership not to pursue the Hong Kong model of using real estate to “squeeze the common people to make a minority of capitalists extremely wealthy.” This post also specifically mentioned his readership among the higher-ups.

Beijing Saidong has likewise warned that the country could “enter a period of declining fertility and aging population much more rapidly than Japan did, and while we’re at a much lower rate of development.”

Shenzhen Nanshan describes the worst-case scenario as a continued drop in fertility among the majority, with a stable birth rate among ethnic and religious minorities, as well as the introduction of an immigration program, leading to serious social conflict; a middle class slaving to pay off mortgages, while even the relatively wealthy live in conditions worse than those enjoyed by the average Westerner; and most people living in small, cramped accommodations similar to the cage homes of Hong Kong.

But contrary to what either Shenzhen Ningnanshan or Zhong Qing would advise, COVID-19 recovery in China has relied on freeing up credit and triggering a real estate market boom.

What Shenzhen Ningnanshan and Beijing Saidong are talking about in their unsentimental ways is the idea that financialization robs people of their humanity and the nation of its lifeblood. Financialization reduces people to numbers.

That’s what the controversy around 996 working hours—9 AM through 9 PM, 6 days a week—is about. That’s what the JASIC protests were about. The government introduced the term “low-end population” during a municipal effort to clear out migrant workers and unregistered residents after a fire ravaged an apartment block in Beijing’s Daxing District, killing nineteen, injuring eight, and leaving dozens homeless.

If the alternative to financialization and giving up the grand narrative of national rejuvenation is not industrial policy, then what is it? 

Digital Counter-Modernity

Some answers have again emerged from the world of “keyboard politics.” This online political philosophizing differs in significant ways from that practiced by the Industrial Party on message boards in the 2000s. Yao Yunfan has argued that there was a significant change in online politics around 2008. Closer online supervision and the dominance of a handful of sites gave heterodox thinkers stable platforms supported by algorithms. Meanwhile, those at the extremes are forced to use creative language to express their opinion and generate clicks.

This helps explain phenomena like Liu Zhongjing: he is more notable to the few Westerners familiar with him for his map of an alternate China carved up into dozens of independent states than for his ideas about Spenglerian ethnic invention. Creative language helped him evade censorship, while also setting him apart from other rightist voices on the Chinese internet.

In recent years, the most durable keyboard politics phenomenon has been Ruguanism: “entering the pass studies.” Ruguanism analogizes contemporary China’s relationship to the liberal international order with the Jurchen people’s breaching of the Great Wall—during which important battles happened at the Shanhai Pass or Shanhaiguan—and their later takeover of the leadership of China as the Qing Dynasty. The Chinese are the barbarians, kept outside the wall and forced to make a living selling ginseng. But with proper strategy, they can topple the corrupt Ming represented by Western hegemony. Although the metaphorical breaching of the Shanhaiguan is more philosophical and academic, this vision of the world sees a military showdown with the Western powers as imminent. Preparing for war is certainly one way to handle economic directionlessness.

The Ruguanism discourse also introduced Cao Fengze and his philosophy of Caoism, which helped popularize the idea of involution. The essence of involution is that although output per worker grows with technological development, that connection is eventually severed, leading to decreased output. Cao takes the metaphor of Ruguanism and extends it to explain not only the situation of China against Western hegemony but also the problems of the individual worker. The frame is straightforward:

Major premise: We have to work 996 working hours because of “involution.”

Minor premise: “Involution” is caused by the Great Ming (America) hegemony and their ability to expropriate the fruits of our labor.

Conclusion: We have to “enter the pass” and destroy the Great Ming to live a peaceful life, get a pretty girl, live in a big house (achieve a standard of living similar to that of developed nations).

The ideas of Caoism eventually led to posters suggesting a more pragmatic and personal response to involution. If you can’t wait for China to break through the pass and you find yourself jogging on the treadmill of life, the solution is to find your own personal “Africa,” where primitive accumulation of a sort might still be possible:

Your very own Africa is waiting, as long as you open your eyes and fight for it. That Africa might be a job that pays less but doesn’t force you to do overtime. It might be a move to a second-, third-, or fourth-tier city. It might mean sending your kids to a less competitive school that’s more affordable and taking them out of their forty grand a year programming classes. It’s 2020: if you’re still a slave, it’s because you want to be. If you can get over yourself, you don’t have to live that way anymore.

There are abstract Africas out there too. The new urban cores built from scratch in peripheral areas—like the “ghost city” Kangbashi District in Ordos, or projects like Nanhui New City—are one way that China has tried to create its own. Building tertiary industry and agribusiness on the fringes are other strategies. This is related to the recent celebration of young people returning to the countryside. Reports on the phenomenon focus on things like fish farming and fruit growing. But even they are bound by the same law of Caoist involution. The inevitability of climate change means that some of the agricultural and industrial projects underway or proposed will not survive.

Then, there’s Li Ziqi.

No normal account of keyboard politics would include Li, but she might have the most potent and thorough response to the problems of the age. If the dream of industrialization is really dead, and if a future of cage homes or of seizing comparative advantage running a fish farm in a fourth-tier “Africa” is not appealing, the answer for individuals might be deindustrialization. Like the ascetic for Siddhārtha, Li is pointing to the exit: exit from progress, exit from modernity, and exit from the nation.

Since 2015, Li has been making videos about rural life. They are photographed through soft focus filters. Everything is clean and dreamy. She rarely speaks. She plants, picks, and spins cotton. She preserves persimmons. She cooks over a wood stove. She does embroidery. She grows flowers. She washes her grandmother’s feet. She makes furniture out of bamboo. She pickles vegetables. She wears modest, traditional clothes.

The project began when she gave up on a dream of living in the city. She had worked as a waitress, her biography says, starting when most kids are still in high school, and then as a DJ. She returned home—a village in Sichuan, roughly equidistant between Xi’an and Chengdu—to look after her grandmother, who had cared for her after her parents separated and her father died. The videos were originally intended to generate interest in her Taobao shop.

There were rural video bloggers before Li, but she went in another direction: pure fantasy. In her carefully curated pastoral vision, there is not much of the modern. Rare glimpses of walk-behind tractors, plastic basins, or farmyard trash are jarring. You might guess she is in Western China, but she weaves together culinary and craft traditions from multiple regions. One of her most popular videos embroiled her in a controversy about the birthplace of kimchi.

This is a vision of life without conveniences, untangled from the cash nexus, and unencumbered by modernity. The idea of a rural utopia is itself novel for China. Despite being a nation that only recently embarked on rapid urbanization, there are few positive cultural images of rural life in socialist or postsocialist China.

The back-to-the-land movement that produced “roots-seeking” literature saw artists—many of whom had been part of the group of elite students involuntarily rusticated during the Cultural Revolution—returning to adopted or actual native places. There, many attempted to reconstruct a local culture that might challenge the grand narrative of the Chinese nation. But few of these books made decamping to the hinterland particularly attractive, and most were composed in the comfort of studios in Beijing.

The fact that they were written far away from their subject is a jab at their authenticity. But it’s not particularly important to understanding what writers like Han Shaogong or Zhang Chengzhi were attempting. We need not get too hung up on the authenticity of Li Ziqi, either. We already know she was snatched from relative obscurity by a content producer, and it’s not unfair to think of her as the latest iteration of manufactured web celebrities. Before her, there were Hooligan Sparrow and Furong Jiejie. Hooligan Sparrow is the online alter ego of Ye Haiyan, known at first for sexually suggestive pictures and then for her activism on behalf of sex workers. Furong Jiejie, a charmingly oblivious loser played by Shi Hengxia, got launched by the online public relations whiz Chen Mo from the Tianya message board in the mid-2000s.

Li’s “romantic counter-modernist”—to borrow a term from Maia Ramnath’s Decolonizing Anarchism—rural fantasy is in reaction to the celebration of industrialization as the solution to China’s problems, as well as to the financialization of the economy.

What makes her project interesting is that it is personal. Her rural fantasy is one that revolves around her.

That choice must be personal because collective action is politically risky. Since 1949, any movements that might be classifiable as representing agrarian resistance have come under pressure that could not be withstood. The Mashan Uprising in Guizhou in 1956 lasted seven months before being smashed. The White Sun Society managed to hold out in the mountains for years during the 1960s and ’70s, but even the Cultural Revolution’s distraction couldn’t stop their leaders from being executed. The rebels of Pingyuan in Yunnan found that even stolen military arms couldn’t hold back the tide. Even the holdout communes like Nanjie and Huaxi have given in to the logic of marketization. One could go back before 1949 for more theoretical meat, but nothing in the way of success stories.

The Li Ziqi vision of actually-existing personal deindustrialization—exit from the city, the embrace of subsistence agriculture, and disconnection from state apparatuses—also appeals for its lack of a circumscribed political or social program. This allows her romantic counter-modernism to glide seamlessly through the algorithms and make headlines in state media, but it also leaves it open to interpretation. Her viewers know that they desire an exit, and she teaches them the methods required to make it. As for theory, they can supply their own.

Ruguanism and Caoism, as well as the Industrial Party and thinkers like Shenzhen Ningnanshan, have been given attention by academics, journalists, and state censors; Li, however, has been under-analyzed. Serious writing on Li has focused on her use as a “cultural export,” or, more relevant to her romantic counter-modernism, the idea of her as a bellwether for urban young people disillusioned with the urban dream. Her sex and choice of medium, as well as the sheer depoliticization of the age, means that she can be celebrated for something as dull as keeping alive local tradition without those in power considering the implications of the rural fantasy.

The present trajectory that China’s leadership has put the nation on is one of convergence with the West. The theories and the apparatuses that govern that convergence will look slightly different from those in the West, but the outcome is the same: Shenzhen Ningnanshan’s worst-case scenario of dehumanization, simmering social problems, and a failing core population.

With the logic of industrialization and its grand narrative seemingly abandoned, it remains to be seen what the alternative to financialization will be. Even given China’s political history and the continued adoption of Marxist language, thorough depoliticization after 1979 and the strangling of left-populist attempts in recent years makes it unlikely that the answer could be as simple as a collective attempt to nudge the party-state back toward its Maoist roots. The idea of a liberal alternative that’s cooked up within a middle class immiserated by debts and desperation is equally improbable. Those who can’t take it will cash out and head to Northern Virginia or the San Gabriel Valley.

There were those in the early 2000s who saw the possibilities in Zhong Qing’s political imagination. Similarly momentous alternatives may be bubbling up even now. It might not ultimately take the form of an apocalyptically confrontational Ruguanism, or of an army of Caoists headed out to find their new Africas. It might not even be Li Ziqi’s romantic counter-modernism inspiring a generation of eco-anarchists. But the path of rapid development and its associated pains and dreams will unleash social and ideological forces which the party-state cannot understand on its own. Out there somewhere are the next generation of message board theorists who will eventually present a potent antithesis to the party’s best-laid plans. The future, both in China and beyond, depends on whether they are embraced as insightful sources of new ideas, or suppressed as a threat to political stability.

Dylan Levi King is a Tokyo-based translator of modern Chinese literature and a writer on contemporary online culture. You can follow him on Twitter @dylanleviking.