Decentralization and resilience

Dan Wang writes in his 2021 letter from China about the situation on the ground. He’s lived in China for years, and his annual letters have been a window into the country from his perspective traveling around the country, following manufacturing and engineering developments for his day job as an analyst.

It’s a long post, and well worth a read since the pandemic has isolated China from the west.

One big theme: the tension between centralized control and regional economic dynamism.

He has long been a fan of China’s promotion of manufacturing over its consumer internet sector, which came to a head in this summer’s crackdown on Ant Financial and other internet firms.

One point in particular caught my eye. In a section called “Strangling the cultural sector,” Dan discusses the restrictions the state puts on individual voices, and the dampening effect this has on creative work — the sorts of cultural exports that can win global popularity.

There are lots of reasons for Chinese not to speak up: fear of the state; pragmatism from a sense that nothing they say can change the situation; as well as resentment against western voices for invalidating some of the positive aspects of the country. At the same time, the propaganda authorities have weaponized the public sphere to wring out dissent. A critical comment posted to Weibo or WeChat might prompt the platform to delete one’s account. If that doesn’t happen, then the internet mob will pounce. In spite of the greater visibility of this internet mob, I think we are still only scratching the surface of Chinese nationalism.

— Dan Wang, 2021 letter

The internet mob dynamic is not limited to China. Here in the west, it’s not usually motivated by state propaganda. But we have seen plenty of examples of online harassment, doxing and all the rest.

Rather than the authorities, the mechanics of the commercial internet platforms enable the mob. (The old saw says that Twitter is a game in which there’s a new villain each day. Your goal is to not be that villain.)

How much of this is a function of the web generally? Or is it endemic to the centralized technologies that help us discover content on the web — search, domain registration — not to mention cloud hosts and the social platforms? Posting is free, and the platforms amplify engagement.

The platforms also have their own terms of service, which are a take-it-or-leave-it affair. We see tremendous effort going into crypto or “web3” technologies right now, partly in an effort to avoid this sort centralized control. (Vitalek Buterin famously took inspiration for Ethereum when a World of Warcraft rule change weakened his favorite character. See The bulldozer vs vetocracy political axis for recent thoughts on the tension between reform and conservation.) Still, web3 is centralized, as Wesley Aptekar-Cassels has recently pointed out.

One last striking observation from Dan Wang: our attitude toward state capacity and resilience has been very different in America than what Dan reports of China.

The US, for starters, should get better at reform. The federal government has found itself unable to build simple infrastructure or coordinate an effective pandemic response. Somehow the US has evolved to become a political system in which people can dream up a hundred reasons not to do things like “build housing in growing areas” or “admit people with skills into the country.” If the US wants to win a decades-long challenge against a peer competitor, it needs to be able to improve state capacity. China by contrast has invested a lot more in domestic competitiveness and to make its economy more resilient.

Resilience over efficiency. In the US, so much has been left to the private sector, which tends to favor efficiency above all. For now, China seems to be taking another path.

The CCP seems to be working at once toward stronger centralized power and economic resilience. It’s a centralized path for the most part, one with little value for western individualism. Then again China is not the west. We shall see if it’s possible to decree resilience.