Culture

Breaking the Iron Rice Bowl

Francis Fukuyama argues that China's authoritarianism will thrive as long as it can continue to provide economic growth from the commanding heights, regardless of the inequality its governance seems to be generating.

I've read several interesting articles about China and not one of them has to do with tiger moms. Many people have noted this Francis Fukuyama op-ed in the FT about China: "Americans have long hoped China might undergo a democratic transition as it got wealthier, and before it became powerful enough to become a strategic and political threat. This seems unlikely, however. The government knows how to cater to the interests of Chinese elites and the emerging middle classes, and builds on their fear of populism. This is why there is little support for genuine multi-party democracy." He argues that China's authoritarianism will thrive as long as it can continue to provide economic growth from the commanding heights, regardless of the inequality its governance seems to be generating. Protests remain local and marginalized, and those who aren't reduced to apathy by their immiseration likely focus on improving their personal lot rather than figuring out how to forge solidarity. A useful by product of the state's having "broken the iron rice bowl" and done away with most of the social safety net.

Ads Without Products offers some thoughts on Chinese workers, inspired by Ai Weiwei's installation featuring 100 million handmade porcelain seeds.

When the visual titanicness of the display meets your recognition that each of the 100,000,000 seeds was painstakingly handpainted by human beings working for a wage, one comes as close as one can – as I ever have – to a painfully concrete yet at the same time marvellously abstract sense of the absurd scales, absurdly tipped scales, that orchestrate our world today.

It is very hard to fathom the scope of the labor whose availability in the global economy we have come to take for granted. What does it mean? For the workers, it means stultifying alienation: AWP cites a BusinessWeek article about Foxconn, the megamanufacturing firm that makes Apple's goods, among many other things.

“Life is meaningless,” said Ah Wei, his fingernails stained black with the dust from the hundreds of mobile phones he has burnished over the course of a 12-hour overnight shift. “Everyday, I repeat the same thing I did yesterday. We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here.”

For us, it means a life more thoroughly saturated with consumerism

Nouriel Roubini has an item in Newsweek about the "Confucian conusmer" that explores those "tipped scales" in macro terms. Roubini covers the longstanding problem of global imbalances: the "Chinese model of economic growth required the U.S. and a few other countries to be consumers of first and last resort, spending more than their income and running ever-larger trade deficits—so that China could be the producer of first and last resort, spending less than its income and building ever-larger trade surpluses." He then speculates as to why the Chinese don't consume more. I always find this question fascinating, because I wonder whether China is hatching an alternative to the consumerism with which we've been inculcated in the West, and if so, whether it is more or less corrosive to personal identity. Roubini lists seven "structural reasons" why the Chinese savings rate is so high, including some of the usual suspects -- the broken iron rice bowl, the demographic troubles brought on by the one-child policy (one grandchild must support four elderly grandparents). This recent VoxEU paper makes the case that much of the savings rate can be explained by "increased income uncertainty" and unfavorable pension reforms.

Neither Roubini nor the VoxEU paper mention the alleged "Confucian character" of the Chinese people that is sometimes presumed to make them less interested in material prosperity and invidious distinction. Presumably the "iron rice bowl" would have facilitated that attitude as well any traditional tenets about social stability. Roubini stresses corporate oversaving, which stems from underdeveloped financial markets: "a whopping 25 percent of savings in China is in the form of the retained earnings of the corporate sector, mostly state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In most private economies, those firms’ profits would become dividends that would increase household income and thus consumption. In China, they become retained profits that go into more capital accumulation and excess capacity." In other words, the profits from all those manufacturing firms making our iPods and the like don't go into wages and they don't go into dividends -- they go into building even more factories, which has the effect of making the global imbalances worse.

That eventually trickles down to the level of ordinary American consumers, who face an even cheaper and more tempting flood of consumer goods, making it that much more difficult to transition out of a wasteful lifestyle and into one that's more austere, self-sufficient, and environmentally responsible. Or into one that revolves less around the consumerist values of novelty and convenience and disposability and isolation and so forth. Thus Chinese economic policy exerts material pressure on the ideology governing our behavior in the West. Even if they were Confucian consumers there, they could not export that approach to consumerism to us -- they actually export our own attitude about consumerism to us, anchoring it, supplying its base. And breaking the iron rice bowl hasn't acclimated Chinese to increased personal choice and consumption in a market society as might be expected; instead it has fomented insecurity and rational miserliness. I wonder if this is what conservatives hope to bring to the U.S. when they fantasize about undoing health care reform -- more insecurity and less consumer spending seems like a great recipe to stop the "job killing."

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image