Made in China 7.2

Dear Colleagues,

I am happy to announce the publication of the latest issue of the Made in China Journal. You can download it for free at this link:

Below you can find the editorial:

Prometheus in China: Techno-Optimism and Its Discontents

In 2020, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping pledged to ‘transition to a green and low-carbon mode of development’, as well as to ‘peak the country’s CO2 emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060’. Xi’s pledge offered a tangible example of what has come to be known as the ecological civilisation (生态文明)—the idea of engineered harmony between humans and nature that was recently incorporated into the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. But what kind of engineering is required for sustainable transitions at this scale and pace? Through which political concepts and technical practices could such a harmonious rebalancing of China’s resource-devouring development be envisioned and achieved?

This issue of the Made in China Journal addresses these questions by borrowing political theorist John Dryzek’s rereading of the Greek myth of Prometheus. Inspired by the story of a demigod who stole the technology of fire for the sole purpose of human advancement, Prometheanism describes an eco-modernist orientation that perceives the Earth as a resource whose utility is determined primarily by human needs and interests and whose environmental problems are overcome through continuous political and technological innovation. In contrast with other environmental perspectives, Prometheanism prioritises human interests and needs over those of ecosystems or the individual needs of other lifeforms. Through this framework, we asked our contributors to offer their takes on the following questions: To what extent can Xi’s dream of an ecological civilisation be understood in terms of techno-optimism and the anthropocentrism that characterise Prometheanism? What price is China paying in its effort to transition towards a heavily engineered ‘sustainable’ market utopia?

The special section of this issue includes 10 articles. Richard Smith opens with a sweeping analysis of China’s environmental and energy policies, arguing that regardless of Xi Jinping’s stated intentions, China cannot meet its carbon-neutrality pledge due to insuperable technical and political barriers. Emily T. Yeh examines the Sky River Project—which promised to scale up China’s weather modification practices by moving water vapour from the southern Tibetan Plateau to northern China—arguing that the initiative is Promethean in that it advances a mechanistic and techno-optimist vision of the atmosphere as a set of relations to be modelled, modified, and optimised for human use. Jerry Zee looks back at a season of successive massive dust storms in Beijing in the early 2000s, showing how since then broad political experiments in mitigating dust events have reconfigured the problem of land degradation into one of large-scale weather intervention across the capital’s airshed. Stevan Harrell argues that nowhere is the Chinese Party-State’s Promethean thinking more vividly apparent than in its continuous proclivity to build more and bigger water projects, and he points out that where these projects create problems, the solution is usually not to remove them but to build further projects—or to construct ‘fixes to fix the fixes’. Michael Webber focuses on projects to store water to overcome seasonal fluctuations and move water to rebalance regional differences in supply and demand, contending that such Promethean endeavours protect the political and economic status of powerful municipalities, stimulate Chinese economic growth, and proclaim the power and administrative capacity of the state. Sigrid Schmalzer argues that recent environmental projects of the Chinese State, including the preservation of ‘agricultural heritage’ and the promotion of ‘ecological civilisation’, are deeply embedded in economic thinking and systems thinking—two ideologies that foster technocratic and growth-oriented approaches to managing the natural environment and ultimately enhance the power of an oppressive, technocratic state. Xinmin Liu concentrates on the widespread techno-science craze in contemporary China, examining its complex and often misguided role in China’s pursuit of ‘urbanism’ as a benchmark of modernisation. Jesse Rodenbiker examines geoengineering for aesthetic and utilitarian ends, arguing that this is part and parcel of the banal operation of state power in contemporary China. Giulia Dal Maso dissects Ant Forest—a Chinese app developed by Alibaba that claims to leverage its technology to solve environmental problems within and beyond China—highlighting how it manipulates the environment as a site of financial and biopolitical calculation. Finally, Corey Byrnes discusses how, in recent years, familiar or seemingly ‘traditional’ landscape forms have provided artists working in China with legible ecocritical modes, focusing on what he terms ‘speculative landscapes’—that is, landscapes that look forward to a time (fast approaching but eerily similar to our own) when the impacts of ongoing environmental crises have definitively reshaped the world.

In the China Columns section, Sadia Rahman and Darren Byler consider the plight and, paradoxically, the power of the undocumented Uyghur community in Turkey in relation to threats received by their families in both China and their host country. Ting Guo deconstructs Shanghai’s reputation and self-perception as an exceptional cosmopolitan space, emphasising how Shanghainese cosmopolitanism is rooted in more than a century of migration, grassroots activism, and the rejection of traditional hierarchical social structures by the city’s residents.

This issue also includes several op-eds. Christopher Connery provides an hour-by-hour account of the protests that took place in Shanghai in November 2022 with an eye to their urban surroundings, bringing into view the multiple perspectives of the protestors and noting the exhilaration but also a critical void. Christian Sorace and Nicholas Loubere push back against those on the libertarian right who held up the recent demonstrations in China as vindication of their own stance against any biopolitical state intervention against the Covid-19 pandemic. Holly Snape discusses how at the Twentieth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party the entrenchment of Xi Jinping Thought was paired with a call to ‘carry forth Great Party-Founding Spirit’—a Xi-era invention turning the gaze inwards on the party itself rather than its guiding theory and goals. Marine Brossard revisits the tangping attitude as a philosophical and political subject pertaining to the universal issue of our relationship to the concept of work, praising the subversive potential of this behaviour to help us face our contemporary global crises. Brian Hioe wades into the discussions caused by the recent visits of US officials to Taiwan, focusing on how some of these officials waded into complex historical debates.

We conclude the issue with a series of conversations. Margherita Zanasi interviews Peter Thilly about his The Opium Business: A History of Crime and Capitalism in Maritime China (Stanford University Press, 2022). Jeffrey Wasserstrom engages Seiji Shirane in discussion about his Imperial Gateway: Colonial Taiwan and Japan’s Expansion in South China and Southeast Asia, 1895–1945 (Cornell University Press, 2022). Matthew Lowenstein and Ghassan Moazzin discuss the latter’s Foreign Banks and Global Finance in Modern China: Banking on the Chinese Frontier, 1870–1919 (Cambridge University Press, 2022). Ivan Franceschini interviews Brian DeMare about his Tiger, Tyrant, Bandit, Businessman: Echoes of Counterrevolution from New China (Stanford University Press, 2022). Jenny Chan chats with Dorothy J. Solinger about Poverty and Pacification: The Chinese State Abandons the Old Working Class (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). Shui-yin Sharon Yam interviews Charlie Yi Zhang about his Dreadful Desires: The Uses of Love in Neoliberal China (Duke University Press, 2022), and Howard Chiang about his Transtopia in the Sinophone Pacific (Columbia University Press, 2021).

The Editors

Ivan Franceschini, Nicholas Loubere, and Andrea Enrico Pia




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