“Folding Beijing”

by on December 16, 2016 at 2:40 am in Books, Economics, Science | Permalink

It is an extraordinary short story, one of the best things I’ve read all year, and it’s proof positive of how rapidly China is becoming a society supercharged with creativity.  I am pleased to see it received a Hugo Award for best novelette.

The author is Hao Jingfang and it’s on-line here.  Did you know she is a macroeconomics researcher at a quango in Beijing?  One key part of the plot and premise revolves around macroeconomic theory, here is an excerpt:

“Hard to say.” Lao Ge sipped the baijiu and let out a burp. “I suspect not. You have to understand why they went with manual processing in the first place. Back then, the situation here was similar to Europe at the end of the twentieth century. The economy was growing, but so was unemployment. Printing money didn’t solve the problem. The economy refused to obey the Phillips curve.”

He saw that Lao Dao looked completely lost, and laughed. “Never mind. You wouldn’t understand these things anyway.”

I cannot excerpt more without giving away spoilers.  Definitely recommended, and for the pointer I thank Eva.

1 Ray Lopez December 16, 2016 at 6:01 am

The marriage of economics and sci-fi is common, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Moon_Is_a_Harsh_Mistress and a certain Heinlein, as well as in a certain college named George Mason there’s a certain Hanson, who made a derivative albeit creative take off of Egan’s “Permutation City”. Even Star Trek has spawned the term “Post Scarcity Economics” aka “Star War Economics”. Move along rubberneckers?

2 Ray Lopez December 16, 2016 at 6:14 am

Oh, ok, interesting. I read the story, starting at the end and working backwards (always the fastest way to read something) and only understood the story when I saw a comment in the Comment section. It involves a Deus ex machina (Greek: ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, literally ‘from machine god’) and one theme is inequality. I learned that the author thinks big cities should have an 85% service sector ratio for GDP (China overall is at 50% now; the West is at roughly 70%) but I think this high of a service sector is not really progress but a symptom of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baumol%27s_cost_disease

3 Rich Berger December 16, 2016 at 6:48 am

Thanks Ray. That’s also what the Latin means.

4 dearieme December 16, 2016 at 7:22 am


5 Thelonious_Nick December 16, 2016 at 11:34 am

” I read the story, starting at the end and working backwards (always the fastest way to read something)”

damn a give don’t I, dear my, frankly

I don’t know, doesn’t seem to go that fast for me.

6 Dan Wang December 16, 2016 at 7:39 am
7 rayward December 16, 2016 at 7:44 am

Inflation: a general increase in prices and fall in the purchasing value of money. How can there be “inflation” (i.e., a general increase in prices) if wages are flat or falling? Sure, there are bubbles, but bubbles are not a “general increase” in prices. The Phillips Curve subsumes a low level of inequality, with wages rising faster than productivity. That it takes a “macroeconomics researcher” in Beijing to make that obvious observation (in a short story, no less) speaks volumes about the level of understanding of basic concepts in America. [Yesterday the Fed raised interest rates for fear of “inflation” due to the relatively low level of unemployment. Are wages rising faster than productivity? No, not yet, but the Fed wants to make sure they don’t. Because inflation. Maybe the Fed governors should read more short stories and fewer research papers.]

8 Jeff R December 16, 2016 at 8:07 am

How’s it stack up to Judge Dredd?

9 Tom Anichini December 16, 2016 at 8:43 am


10 Bryson B December 16, 2016 at 8:38 am

I have always wondered how a country expanding as fast as China can sustain growth. Their economy is based on manufacturing and there is only so far this industrialization can go. It begs the question of whats next for China and who will become the next industrial superpower if China manages to transition to new opportunities.
Controlling population growth must be just as much of a problem as controlling inflation. How can the government hope to control both while still expanding their economy?

11 mulp December 16, 2016 at 12:40 pm

China consumes a quarter the energy per capita as the US, but is committed to not reach parity by burning four times the capital, but by building ten times the energy harvest and storage capital. Building capital is labor intensive with the wages turning into consumer spending so the faster capital is built, the faster the growth.

Just saw a report that some recent wind farms are being repowered, ie, part of the existing turbines are being upgraded with new technology, demonstrating the rapid innovation in wind turbines in the past dozen years. So, once China builds lots of energy capital in high volume, the older assets will be profitably replaced with newer technology.

Fossil fuels are labor saving, ie, job killing, which makes lots of sense when you have a labor shortage. But most of the world now has huge labor surpluses.

And we have seen how lower oil prices have no job creating power, but instead kill jobs. We are at 1987 again with oil producers trying to kill jobs in the US and North Sea to create oil scarcity so Persian Gulf producers can get $40- $50 profit per barrel with a production cost of $10. Tillerson as EXXON CEO would want half the current US oil production, and definitely not US energy independence.

If a tariff on job killing imports is desired, number one is a $50 a barrel tariff on imported oil. That would restore oil job back to 2014 levels in six months and in another six years, the US would produce 15 million barrels a day, the majority on private land. It would crater the global oil price from another 5 million barrel demand deficit. Bad for dictators.

12 Steve Walser December 18, 2016 at 9:54 am

“Killing” jobs is exactly how we increase wages. Kill the low skill jobs and replace with higher skilled ones by using capital to increase productivity. The trick is to make sure you have a high skills populace to take these emerging jobs. This i one arsea where the current US political/cultural system in not keeping up.

13 rayward December 16, 2016 at 8:40 am

Paul Krugman and Tim Duy are at it again, this time over the “cost” of a liberal trade policy. http://economistsview.typepad.com/timduy/2016/12/responsibility.html What Duy ignores, and what Krugman always avoids, is inequality: it wasn’t liberal trade policy alone that “cost” jobs in the mid-west, but the capture of the enormous additional income from a liberal trade policy by a very few. If that additional income had been re-invested in America, then the “cost” would have been more than offset by the benefits. Instead, the additional profits of American companies that shifted production to (for example) China were either hidden in tax havens (e.g., Apple) or realized by the investors who owned the companies (e.g., hedge and other investment funds). And not only were the profits not reinvested in America, but the companies and their owners no longer had a stake in the American communities, contributing to a steep decline in public investment (e.g., infrastructure) as the result of resistance among the same companies and their owners to taxes that are necessary to pay for public investment.

14 N.K Anton December 16, 2016 at 9:19 am

No cheap shots at macroeconomics being linked to fiction?

15 Banned Norse Warrior December 16, 2016 at 9:22 am

Will be in Beijing in a week. Will have enough time to try out Cowen’s food tips, for the first time. Happy to report Marginalrevolution is not banned by the great firewall. In a sense, the story is a great hyperbole regarding inequality. The big question is, what would have to happen to make the average Chinese worse off in a few decades than he is today? The limited space aspect seems to resonate better with Hong Kong than Beijing. I recently did see some pretty cramped condominium in Hong Kong, but it made the owners half way millionaires in 5 years.

Switching topics a bit, I just watched a pig getting slaughtered a few hours ago, and was thinking back to the end of meat post by Alex. Watching the pig die from a punctured jugular was not nice, and it did trigger the thought that at any moment, I might have less than a minute to live, given optimally bad circumstances. However, the stir fried pork belly was quite nice.

16 Thiago Ribeiro December 16, 2016 at 9:31 am

You should see my mother breaking a chicken’s neck. The bird must be coocked right after it dies or the blood coagulates. And it is necessary to step on its wings or it will try to use its cunning to escape. And it yells and yells as if someone is trying to kill it — which makes sense actually.

17 Ray Lopez December 16, 2016 at 12:03 pm

She’s doing it wrong. Try slitting the throat, easier, and let it flap upside down for a few minutes (preferably inside a conical killing cone) while the blood escapes the body, otherwise you’ll get “black” meat from the blood inside. It’s not as tasty with blood. BTW, a chicken can actually “yell” even with the head chopped off. It’s rare but it happens, since the thorax / chicken voice box is in the neck.

18 Thiago Ribeiro December 16, 2016 at 1:19 pm

They can do even more without heads. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_the_Headless_Chicken

Breaking its neck first crushes its attempts to escape.

19 Viking December 16, 2016 at 9:33 am

Blood pudding was not bad, but most of the flavor came from the chili paste dipping sauce.

PS, trying out whether my original moniker is still banned.

Viking, aka Banned Norse Warrior

20 Ray Lopez December 16, 2016 at 12:09 pm

The Vikings were feared raiders until about 900 AD, when they converted to Christianity and got soft. The Byzantines used them as bodyguards.

21 Thiago Ribeiro December 16, 2016 at 3:32 pm

It was not Christianity per se.

22 Troll me December 16, 2016 at 7:14 pm

I thought they controlled most of the river systems between the Baltic and East “Roman” Empire, which gave rise to the name “Rus” of “Russia”, which referred to oars.

You suggest they were subaltern to Byzantines. The presence of some Norse bodyguards does not unmake the trading systems they controlled through much of Eastern Europe at that time.

23 Ray Lopez December 16, 2016 at 12:07 pm

The pig feels no big pain, just a painful sensation in the neck, a pain in the neck, followed by lights out. I want to see a pig die after trying to corral a pig a while ago, I nearly broke by nose chasing the nasty beast. I hate pigs after that. Baby pigs are cute, you can pick them up by the leg briefly, and they squeal like little pigs, but sometimes the mother rejects them and will try and even bite them, it’s weird. Farm animals are generally stupid and without humans would die in the wild. Now a pet monkey on the other hand: very cute, very interesting, but generally does not respect and will bite children, and sometimes freaks out with even adults. Lots of drama with monkeys but they are adorable. I like my pet monkeys.

24 uair01 December 16, 2016 at 3:02 pm

This sounds very plausible. When we exercised jiu-jitsu neck holds we had to be extremely careful not to let our partner pass out. From personal experience I know that there are not many seconds between the start of the hold and the onset of unconsciousness. No blood to the brain works very quickly.

25 psmith December 16, 2016 at 10:00 am

Quite the juxtaposition with Alex’s Gurgaon post.

26 ChrisA December 16, 2016 at 10:18 am

A bit too heavy handed on the analogy for me. I think, like music, fiction should be written to entertain the consumer, not make political points. The whole premise is pretty silly anyway, what kind of economy spends those kind of resources to create a slum? Surely the resources would have been better spent on some high rises out of the sight of the rich folks. You may say I am missing the point – but this is simply an emperor’s new clothes’ type of response – if this story has to have any meaning as social commentary it should also be realistic. I also find it hard to treat the story as a Kafkaesque absurdity, it’s ironically too realistic. Compare this story with the treatment of inequality in Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, which explores in a meaningful way what morality would mean in more advanced technological world.

It’s not very nice of me to say this, but I would say this is preaching dog kind of admiration, and that is unfair to the many actual good writers in China.

27 TraderChow December 16, 2016 at 10:02 pm

I’m with you. this novelette is like a Seth Rogan social satire movie. A bit too obvious and simple on the social commentary front, without solid narrative or character development.

nevertheless, It’s better than Three Body or whatever the English name they gave to the other recent Chinese Hugo Prize winner. I cringed so hard reading the protagonist big thinker’s interaction with his love interest. It’s like every socially awkward engineering student’s wet dream. Xenophobia and inferiority complex towards western society are less obvious, yet not hard to find.

Haven’t read the English translation, I wonder if they tuned it down a notch, or it’s just a lost in translation.

28 chrisare December 16, 2016 at 10:43 am

George Elliot she was not.

29 anon December 16, 2016 at 1:44 pm

I liked it. It was sneaky enough with the McGuffin that I did not immediately get “First Space” as First World, and Third Space garbage pickers as something we do indeed have in our real world.

It is just harder for people who burn wire on home fires to strip insulation to show up at first world parties.

Or news yesterday was that black lung is 10x underreported in America.

But bring back those jobs, eh?

(Apparently the rude reality of coal mine automation is that fewer workers face much more dust .. until the robots really take over.)

30 anon December 16, 2016 at 3:08 pm
31 Viking December 16, 2016 at 8:16 pm

I need to second ChrisA’s contention that a folding city might be poor usage of resources. This story might be better as a 1960s criticism of capitalism.

There are 2 important questions: Are people aging during their drug induced sleep? If so, the lumpen proletariat are enjoying 3 hours of spare time per 48 hours.

Are they free to simply move outside the folding zone and escape?

The other point regarding economics is that high population density is often associated with an enhanced GDP per capita, why invest in high density, but plan for the majority of the population to participate in make-work? If I am extremely cooperative, and believe all land outside Beijing is private and the third shifters would be ZMP there, there might be some sense to a reservation.

Perhaps the author is really cunning, that the folding Beijing is a side effect of the whole foods crowd paradise, that all meat is humanely raised, so by making all chicken free range, humans must be kept in cages, and hibernate for the majority of their time?

32 Thomas Sewell December 16, 2016 at 10:08 pm

Somewhat interesting concept. The writing itself is pretty clumsy, which may in part be an effect of the translation. It’s likely only Hugo-worthy to the NY-fashion crowd.

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