&: Year Zero

It’s undeniable that there was a political tightening-down at the start of the 2010s, and, obviously, people did get thrown in jail or sent into exile, but much of the narrative of stalled political reform and intellectual apocalypse is driven by Western observers of China and dissident academics holed up in Fairfax or Bethesda, who were looking out for potential leaders of a Jasmine Revolution. Liberal factions were losing their patrons among the Party elite long before Xi Jinping came to power, and many have become out-and-out Trumpistas 川粉, Kwokist partisans preparing for Guo Wengui 郭文贵 to pull a Juan Guaidó or Ahmed Chalabi and declare himself leader of the nation in exile, or glorified dàilùdǎng 带路党, ready to feed coordinates to CIA officers calling in airstrikes. Yes, sure, anyone that cares about politics is an authoritarian nationalist, and that includes the fringes of the left, but for most, two decades of—apart from patriotic indoctrination, which is required in a country surrounded by American bases and submarines—depoliticization, the solutions come down to: accelerationism or pastoralism, and maybe industrialization or deindustrialization, a divide between pastoralists and industrialists.

This is actually just an excuse to write a description of the industrial party 工业党, then talk about Li Ziqi 李子柒)

On the high tech side, there is the gon̄gyèdǎng 工业党 (literally: the industrial party), who imagine all China’s shortcomings as engineering problems, and the rivalry with the West something that can be resolved by catapulting the nation into the technological lead.

A writer for the Paper summed up the group like this (工业党的历史叙事:生产力和国家赞歌):
The so-called "industrial party" is not a party in the traditional sense, but rather a loose collective of internet users that share similar beliefs about China's modern history and present development. They generally believe in the fundamental nature of industrial development, and see the world as divided between advanced industrialized nations and backwards agricultural nations, with the latter forced to endure the whip hand of the former. The core issue for the industrial party is how the country can achieve technological development, and avoid falling into a disadvantageous geopolitical situation by developing from an agricultural nation to an industrialized nation. Therefore, the industrial party supports China's revolutionary philosophy and the previous thirty years of reform.
Their name was repurposed from a 2011 essay by Wang Xiaodong 王小东, “Chinese industrialization will determine the fate of the country and the world—A showdown between the ‘industrial party’ and the ‘sentimental party’” (feelings party?) (中国的工业化将决定中国与世界的命运——兼论“工业党”对决“情怀党”), but “ruthless industrialization will solve this” tendency existed long before, probably springing first from discussions among post-’80s men (bālínghòu 80后—that is, born after 1980) on science and technology, and military affairs message boards.

The idea of an online political tendency developing in China that put the development of productive forces ahead of humanistic concerns makes perfect sense. The Communist Party’s technocratic heads have mostly discouraged cultural exploration, while also devoting significant portions of the nation’s GDP to science and technology research and development.

The “Industrial-holics” were brought to some degree of respectability by the publication of Wash the Dishes or Read Books? 刷盘子还是读书 by Zhong Qing 钟庆 (an electrical engineer working in Japan) in 2005, and Lofty Goal: Political Consultation and Ourselves 大目标:我们与这个世界的政治协商 by a group that included Ren Chonghao 任冲昊 (an engineer and writer with the reactionary Guancha 观察者网) and Zhou Xiaolu 周小路 (he gives his occupation as zháinán 宅男, or otaku). These books both take the approach of retelling world history after the Industrial Revolution, and pushing industrialization as the key to avoiding stagnation and countering American hegemony—with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the United States reaching its apex, it’s the perfect time to chart a new course for Chinese development.

As Lu Nanfeng 卢南峰 and Wu Jing 吴靖 pointed out in their comprehensive history of the industrial party tendency (“Grand narrative at history’s turning point: a political analysis of the internet ideology of China’s 'industrial party'"), nationalism—almost like a fusion of the techno-commercialists and ethnicists from the Spandrellian Trichotomy—was usually a factor but I would argue there was a minority depoliticized accelerationist contingent, too. As time’s gone by, the results of the 2007-2008 crisis have shaken out, the United States has adopted an increasingly bellicose foreign policy while also looking increasingly financially shakey, the ideas of the industrial party seem increasingly Darwinian.

Bloggers like Ning Nanshan 宁南山 and the community that orbits him, including the Wind and Cloud Association 风云学会) have come to represent the tendency. A piece on the Chublic Opinion blog describes a loose collective that:
...share a lexicon of terms such as “per capita GDP”, “demographics”, “supply chains” and “national fortune”, which reflects a tendency to think in aggregates and a competitive arena-shaped world view. … Collectively they depict a picture of a merciless ladder called “development” on which nations laboriously climb. At the top of the ladder sit countries with the highest per capita GDP, enjoying comfortable privileges, while other lower income countries fight to occupy favorable positions underneath.
A Mercator Institute paper (“Ideas and ideologies competing for China's political future: how online pluralism challenges official orthodoxy”) describes the group’s general outlook on politics:
When discussing their preferred political system, Industrialists do not debate concepts such as participation versus stability. For them, the key virtue is effectiveness, and the debate revolves around which political system can deliver the best results towards this end. Some Industrialists view participatory democracy as outdated and favor an autocratic system as long as it does not hinder economic development, while others argue that liberal democracies provide more room for entrepreneurial activities.
Completely depoliticized. Whatever works. What does the ideal society look like?

It doesn't look like the industrial 1950s. It's not going to be Never Forget Class Struggle 千万不要忘记 (1956), but smart cities and Foxconn in Zhengzhou. The future is already here, Ning Nanshan says (he's about to publish a book called The Future is on China's Side 未来站在中国这一边): "After a period of long development, China's development has already reached a critical point where we are on the verge of becoming an advanced nation" 在经过长时间的高速发展之后,中国的发展其实已经逐渐地逼近向发达国家进阶的临界点. He makes three points about China's technological development, but the most convincing is that much of China's developed regions (the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Metropolitan Region) already are at the level of advanced nations 中国的发达地区已经迈入了发达国家门槛.

For the development bloggers, the industrial party's talk about beating the advanced nations sometimes comes down to a patriotic impulse (strengthen the nation) or even a racial antagonism (crushing the Anglo-Saxons), but often, it seems to be about the promise of individual enrichment and convenience—if you've been left out of that, where do you go? You're not going to live in those computer model homes by the manmade river.

The answer, for the Chinese government, which would like to clear the cities of undesirables (dīduān rénkǒu 低端人口): the countryside, long seen as a source of urban labor, but also a sponge that could soak up the urban poor, if they were no longer needed in the city. The situation for those returning to the countryside is grim, given the developments there over the past two decades, but that is the fantasy.

It's not just a fantasy of state planners, but also the more romantic among those undesirables on the knife edge of being booted from the city. I’m going to talk about Li Ziqi.

Li Ziqi makes videos of herself cooking and gathering food and making household items, all while wearing hanfu 汉服. She streams from rural Sichuan. The videos are remarkable for how much they don’t look like the Chinese countryside. The rare glimpses of walk-behind tractors and plastic basins and farm yard trash stand out. It’s an idealized, sanitized pastoral vision of China, not really connected to any particular time period or region.

Li Ziqi is a prepper. Li Ziqi is Randy Weaver in hanfu. Her videos are a manifesto on revolutionary deindustrialization, or at least a complete rejection of progress and urbanization.

Li Ziqi represents mass disenchantment with the promises of urbanization (李子柒的人设,集中了这个流量时代的全部痛点).
The death of urban romance was revealed in the 2010 slogan of "escape Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou" [táolí Běi-Shàng-Guǎng 逃离北上广]. House prices kept going up, being crushed into a subway car or a bus to commute to a distant job was enough to drive people to suicide, and anyone just getting by, renting in the wrong part of the city was vulnerable to being swept out in the campaigns against the floating population [liúdòng rénkǒu 流动人口]. The dreams of countless young people that hoped to make it in the city were crushed. For those that persist, shedding sweat and blood in the city, Li Ziqi presents a vision of the alternative.
It’s in the countryside that a person can reclaim their humanity, untangle themselves from the cash nexus, tend their bitter melon...

This makes me think of the films I’ve been watching, all from the middle of the 20th century, where the same tension is there, too: 1960s and 1970s films alternating between factory and village settings. When the politics of the 1970s imploded, artists went to seek their roots xúngēn 寻根 in the countryside in a process not unlike Liu Zhongjing's 刘仲敬 Spenglerian ethnic invention (mínzú fāmíng 民族发明), the tension between nation and region, town and country forefront again. Li Ziqi is Han Shaogong 韩少功 with a Douyin account. Go back two generations and she’s Shen Congwen 沈从文, seeking the primitive nation in Sichuan, like he did in West Hunan.

This isn’t a battle between liberalizers in the industrial party and what the MERICS paper calls traditionalists. In fact, both groups are made up of post-’90s kids so thoroughly depoliticized that they don’t even talk about politics in any concrete sense.

The countryside represents rural plenty, an escape from the atomization of the city, family, like in the videos by Dianxi Xiaoge 滇西小哥.

Nobody wants to live in an accelerationist industrial party nightmare. Or watching pretty girls in the countryside is all part of the accelerationist nightmare.