China’s Soviet Shadow


Jacob Dreyer is a writer and editor based in Shanghai.

“Oceania was at war with EastasiaOceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”
— George Orwell

If China’s government and its critics agree on one thing, it’s that there is an analogy between contemporary China and the Soviet Union, whose collapse continues decades after it formally ended. The Red Empire tried to swallow up the continent of Eurasia until eventually, as late Soviet thinkers like Lev Gumilev would have it, Eurasia swallowed it. Today, Chinese exports and infrastructure are trying to bring order to the Eurasian continent, following in Soviet footsteps.

The U.S.S.R. was many things, but above all, it was an organized project of reconfiguring the resources within a territory to achieve material outcomes under a formal, centralized hierarchy. In that, it was a failure — the machine stopped working. “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains,” Vladimir Putin famously put it. Can it be true that China’s leadership falls into the second category?

But the U.S.S.R. was a bankrupt idealism forced onto colonized nations by military power, and China is a savvy entrepreneurial technocracy that has solved the problem of providing basic necessities to its population and is now exporting that model elsewhere. Maybe your country is next. The gap between reality and the “plan” that was so typical of Soviet life hasn’t been seen in China for a while, though some fear it’s coming back.

From climate infrastructure to agriculture to finance, China is reverting to the structure of a command economy, rather than that of a free market economy — in the Chinese phrase, “国进民退” (“the state advances as the people retreat”). This is dangerous in China’s 60/70/80/90 economy: private sector actors contribute 60% of GDP and are responsible for 70% of innovation, 80% of urban employment and 90% of new jobs. Can the state really replace this?

“In China, the politics of water are impossible to escape.”

When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, it was because the multivariable equation of the economy blew a fuse; the supply and demand, capital and labor, stopped working. Oceans dried up. The world stopped behaving in a predictable way. Marxists like Mikhail Gorbachev believed that the system could work if you let air into it; it turned out that it blew away like a handful of dust. The decentralized decision-making structure of the markets in the West triumphed over the planned economy.

Today, scholars of the Soviet Union such as Stephen Kotkin argue that the command economy was one source of Soviet fragility. These historical debates have been lent piquancy by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They certainly have significance in the party schools of the CCP, which has focused on exploring why the Soviet Union collapsed ever since it happened. In China today, statistics (literally the science of the state) are suppressed because they might jeopardize the government’s ability to control flows of capital, data and everything else related to human life.

By its nature, power seeks to perpetuate itself, but China’s meditations on the collapsed U.S.S.R. are contextualized by climate change, whose challenges will make or break the Chinese system and its ability to plan and forecast. Chinese science and technology are brandished by the leadership as the solution to all problems, but there is not just one form of science — nor is science a golden ticket to escape from political contradictions.

As Ben Peters, the historian of Soviet science, told me, “Like a mountain range with many canyons and cliffs, the state of science may appear a single hulking monolith from afar but [is] a labyrinth for those who live it.” In the crises to come, will Xi Jinping’s return to a command economy seem like a sage choice or will it prove as disastrous as Joseph Stalin’s economy of production without consumption, of a “great plan for the transformation of nature”? And what sort of people will dwell in the labyrinths, waiting for a new sort of world to dawn?

The Time Traveler

“Hundreds of miles of desolate, monotonous, sun-parched steppe cannot bring on the depression induced by one man who sits and talks, and gives no sign of ever going.”
— Anton Chekhov

We drove for six hours through a desert that sprayed up white dust in a place with no roads. Once upon a time, visible in filmstrips and paintings, even in preserved cans of tinned fish, Karakalpakstan, the largest province of Uzbekistan, was a marine community of fishermen living on the banks of an inland ocean. The Aral Sea owes its name to a Mongolian root that means “sea of islands.” Today, it is a toxic desert, one which the government of Uzbekistan is trying to heal by planting saxaul trees to hold down the soil.

This ocean was turned into a desert by Soviet irrigation projects intended to grow cotton, or by subterranean bomb blasts, or both. Once the ecological transformation began, there was no stopping it. It was above 120 degrees Fahrenheit when I visited on a trip organized by the Aral Culture Summit, which brought a group of writers and artists to swim in what remains of the sea’s salty waters. I was reminded of nothing so much as H.G. Wells’ time traveler, who voyaged deep into the future and discovered a red sun hanging low in the sky, a salt-encrusted shore by a dull, black ocean, with no signs of life except for crabs the size of human beings.

We saw no crabs, but having taken several commercial flights to arrive and obsessively looking for places to charge my iPhone, I wondered if I was the crab. A ravaged planet was the inevitable future that Wells, one of Victorian England’s most visionary thinkers, foresaw — and here we are.

“Tying natural flows up in knots, the Soviet project suffocated itself and its corpse continues to rot on the terrain of Eurasia, a graveyard of a socialism that is attempting to return in zombie form.”

I found myself trying to explain Lake Mead to our guide Oktyabr, and my fears that Los Angeles would dry up in the near future. He nodded politely. For him, that future happened a long time ago. He grew up in a town called Moynaq, footage of which appeared in an archival film shown at the local museum; it reminded me of working-class Chinese communities of today: a fish-canning factory, a self-contained community, pride in work done for the country. Today, Moynaq is a waystation on what feels like an interminable drive through the desert, where you stop for lunch in one of the remaining buildings on your way across what used to be seabed but is now a dusty wasteland.

The Soviets knew what they were doing; the Aral was collateral damage. After it started to run dry, the Soviets planned to divert Lake Baikal, the spiritual homeland of Buryat Mongols, to refill it, but by then the machine was already breaking down, only slightly faster than the Aral ecosystem itself. Today, both are wrecks. Tying natural flows up in knots, the Soviet project suffocated itself and its corpse continues to rot on the terrain of Eurasia, a graveyard of a socialism that is attempting to return in zombie form.

Back in China, the politics of water are impossible to escape; my flight was delayed by terrible flooding that made the Beijing airport unusable. The Chinese government at its most Ozymandian engages in water-related engineering projects that make the Soviet Aral project look like a child’s sandbox play. The Three Gorges Dam, whose collateral damage was to flood towns like Fengdu, displacing 1.3 million people in the process, looks like the first of an increasingly ambitious list of terraforming projects, with more — the massive dam at Yarlung Tsangpo, the north-south water diversion project — on the horizon. 

The Chinese government’s mentality is that ecological and economic problems can be engineered away and that technology applied at the highest level can solve them. The Soviets thought so too. Is Karakalpakstan a sort of prophecy in miniature, a vision of unintended consequences of interfering with ecologies at scale?

The Great Northern Wasteland

“A thing that has not been understood inevitably reappears; it cannot rest until the mystery has been solved and the spell broken.”
— Sigmund Freud

As we trudged our way through the summer of 2023, I found myself contemplating buying a tract of land in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province and the one that has always felt most Soviet to me. Today, it is being deserted by outbound migration. The thing is, Shanghai and Beijing look like they’ll be 100 degrees or hotter for months every year in the foreseeable future. Wasn’t there some way to escape? I browsed property listings in Yichun, a city of 1.3 million that was a base for forestry in the socialist period. As climate change unfolds, maybe being in the middle of a Siberian forest, with pure air and water and pleasant temperatures even at the height of July, would make for a good life.

During the Maoist period, students were sent down from urban areas to camps there, and they made a huge swath of Heilongjiang into agricultural land. Today, many of these collective farms are owned by the Beidahuang Group — the name literally means “the great northern wasteland” — and they produce around 10% of China’s grain crops.

Beidahuang is a state-owned enterprise — really, it is almost a state within a state. In the 1960s, its “employees” skirmished with Soviet troops. It’s not the only Chinese state-owned enterprise to assume these contours. The Xinjiang Bingtuan — which engages in agricultural and industrial projects in Xinjiang Province and provides healthcare, education, police and judiciary services in the communities where it operates, some of which have populations in the hundreds of thousands — has the same Communist ethos.

These organizations have never been oriented primarily to profits, even if they list on stock exchanges in Hong Kong or New York to raise capital. They reflect political needs — food security, political security. Recently, the former deputy commander of the XPCC was expelled from the CCP for “interfering with the implementation of carbon peaking and carbon neutrality strategic goals.”

All this is to say that the Chinese government is not new to collective, militaristic enterprises in terraforming, nor did it ever stop engaging in them. On the surface, Beidahuang, with its proactive uptake of automated agricultural practices, seems pretty modern. But it is an organization with roots in the reddest of China’s red history.

Historically, Chinese troops were sent to border regions to settle and engage in agriculture — “屯田” or “tuntian” literally translates to “military-agricultural colonies” — a policy that had practical outcomes like producing food and securing territory if that was in doubt. Today, China is building large-scale wind and solar plants on the fringes of the nation, state-owned enterprises are taking up a larger and larger role in the economy, and the logic of GDP or profit as such is being discarded in favor of a different logic — a political logic, one more akin to war communism than the Chinese economy that we’re used to.

“The Chinese government is not new to collective, militaristic enterprises in terraforming, nor did it ever stop engaging in them.”

This doesn’t mean that there are no market practices embedded within the Chinese economy. The government sets the parameters and goals and pits different state-owned entities in competition with each other. Moreover, companies like Beidahuang function very differently than they did in the 1960s: Instead of unskilled labor wasting time in gulag-style encampments, today young engineers are supervising farms that are largely automated, earning high salaries for skilled and technical work.

Nevertheless, this work is done in the service of centralized planning and national reserves of pork or grain, and the market is tightly controlled. It looks like communism from the outside, but on the inside, it increasingly resembles American agriculture.

In 2001, Andrew Solomon wrote of the artists in Beijing, “In the eyes of many Chinese, the Cultural Revolution was like a game; interaction with the West is another version of the same game, perhaps a less interesting one.” Chinese socialism, and more specifically state-owned enterprises like Beidahuang, has integrated practices from the globalized capitalist economy without losing the “Chinese characteristics” (centralized control by the CCP) that it began the journey with.

Eldridge Colby, a leading Republican China hawk, and others have a habit of suggesting that China’s newfound emphasis on food security reflects preparation for war. But Chinese grain yields keep suffering “one-off” climate events, which are increasing in frequency. Last year, China’s agriculture minister told reporters that “crop conditions this year could be the worst in history.”

What if China is simply preparing for a rapid energy transition and food security in case the worst climate eventuality comes true — the “war against heaven and Earth” that Mao talked about? By 2020, China was the largest food importer in the world, a fact that made China’s leadership deeply uneasy. Lodged deep inside of millenarian ideologies like Chinese communism is the idea that everything will change, that some sort of apocalypse is around the corner.

Xi has taken to saying that the world is experiencing changes not seen for a hundred years. The economy that he is directing from Beijing isn’t really following the logic of good times and prosperity anymore. Instead, it’s more like Mao’s slogan: “Dig tunnels deep. Store grain everywhere. Never seek hegemony.”

The Soviet Prophecy

“The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest of control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), and insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization.”
— Giorgio Agamben

The basic feature of the Chinese landscape is the Chinese themselves — “人山人海” or “crowds of people.” The state is forever trying to keep up with them, shaping human flows as it guides rivers, terraforms the land and otherwise modifies nature according to some grand plan. Can the flow of people — their desires and fears — be tamed to generate economic growth in the way a river can be dammed to generate electricity? It seems doubtful, but that never stopped anyone from trying.

Visitors to China are often told that Beijing symbolizes China’s traditional culture. Considering that 95% of its population and footprint were built after 1949, that’s a bit of a stretch — unless we take the view that Chinese culture is not about superficial appearances but deeper, more profound social structures. Crawling through traffic on the ring road that used to be a city wall before it was demolished to allow “qi” to flow, observing the various mountainous headquarters of this or that state-owned enterprise, the city can appear to be the realization in urban form of Walter Benjamin’s parable:

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The storm [of events] irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.

“Can the flow of people — their desires and fears — be tamed to generate economic growth in the way a river can be dammed to generate electricity? It seems doubtful, but that never stopped anyone from trying.”

The coagulation of different, seemingly incompatible historical experiences into a city has given Beijing an irrational, almost mystical quality. It is exactly that quality, of glancing back into historical catastrophe while being pushed forward almost against one’s will into future challenges — which may yet end in disaster — which makes Beijing a world capital. There are subway stations named “Earth City,” parks named “Temple of the Sun”; under the Qing, the city’s urban plan was intended as a mechanism to control cosmic flows.

The fight against nature is becoming more intense every year; Beijing will suffer from heat more than almost any other Chinese city, and it is being fiercely guarded against climate disruptions as if from a marauding army. It is the capital of China’s technocracy, which is willing to change everything — the courses of rivers, the placement of mountains, the homes of millions — in order for nothing to change.

Economists speculate that if China’s state doesn’t manage to cut emissions, the collapse of the state might do it. As an atmosphere of crisis mounts, the deep memories of the state, which long ago became instinct, recur and re-manifest themselves. For China, the only way out is through.