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How the Soviets “Fixed” Inflation, but Ruined the Economy

Ryan McMaken wrote . . . . . . . . .

Price inflation and the resulting business cycles are monetary phenomena, and without increases in the money supply—i.e., monetary inflation—there is no price inflation. If the world were a very simple place, we would see this relationship clearly displayed: when the money supply increased, we would also see a general increase in prices soon thereafter. The world, however, is not a very simple place and an economy can include countless factors that can mask, delay, and otherwise obscure the connection between monetary inflation and price inflation.

For example, monetary policy makers in the US have long benefited from the disinflationary effects of global trade and increasing worker productivity. This means that, for decades, consumers should have seen prices of most goods and services falling. Instead, relentless monetary inflation over the past three decades has resulted in positive price growth that is seemingly mild, and policy makers can claim victory over inflation. Moreover, new money can enter the economy in a variety of ways, often manifesting as asset-price inflation rather than as noticeably high price increases in food or household goods.

Governments also have many tools at their disposal to delay or hide the effects of monetary inflation, sometimes for many years. Price controls and subsidies, for example, can obscure the true costs of goods and services for the end consumer. These tactics cause shortages, bubbles, and other problems, but these can often be blamed on “greed” or “capitalism.”

One particularly interesting case of how governments can hide price inflation for decades is the Soviet Union. Under the Soviet regime, the money supply—denominated in unbacked fiat money, of course—was continually expanded to increase wages and create the impression of prosperity. This would have led to price inflation quickly, but for the shortage economy and demand-killing government policies endured by the average Soviet citizen. As is so often the case, the regime was able to cover up the effects of inflation for a time, but the policies ultimately proved to be disastrous.

Preventing Inflation through State Control of the Economy

As a regime increases the money supply, demand will generally rise. But rising prices will become acute only if there are actually products and services on which consumers and enterprises can spend their new money. Thus, a regime wishing to avoid price inflation can keep increasing the money supply so long as it also reduces demand by limiting the availability of goods. This prevents improvements in the standard of living, but it can indeed keep down price inflation.

This cannot be easily done in a country where the population expects to live under a relatively free economy. In an unhampered or partially interventionist economy, a lack of widespread price controls often means a large number of goods and services will continue to be supplied, albeit at higher prices, in an inflationary environment. But, because the USSR oversees a heavily controlled, command economy, the regime could more easily dictate prices, limit imports, and force consumers to save rather than spend.

Ultimately, though, by the late 1980s, the regime was forced to “open up” its economy to market forces as a restive population increasingly demanded a standard of living more in line with what existed in the West. However, once the regime ceased controlling prices and savings, prices exploded, government revenues cratered, and the Soviet regime ended its days in an orgy of money printing and hyperinflation.

How the Soviet Regime Manipulated Price Inflation

The fact that the Soviet regime preferred shortages to inflation has its roots in the hyperinflationary history of the Soviet economy. By the middle of the twentieth century, Soviet planners were already well aware of the dangers of hyperinflation. With the end of the czarist regime, and the cessation of the First World War, the new socialist regime took over a country that was already broke and highly dysfunctional. Hyperinflation soon followed. The Bolsheviks attempted to do away with money altogether, but this naturally failed, and a number of monetary reforms followed. By the late 1920s, however, the regime was engaging in widespread price control efforts, including the highly unusual tactic of peacetime rationing. This limited price inflation for many goods and set the stage for the “repressed inflation” that would become a mainstay of the Soviet system for decades. Prices nevertheless began to rise rapidly in many areas, and the Second World War brought on a new wave of price inflation and prices spiraled upward. This was followed by another currency reform—i.e., devaluation—of the Soviet ruble in 1947. Efforts at price controls were redoubled and overall prices actually declined during the 1950s.

Throughout much of the 1950s and early sixties, the regime was perennially concerned about price inflation. In fact, Soviet ideology stipulated that inflation did not actually exist in the USSR. As claimed by Vasily Garbuzov, the Soviet minister of finance in 1960:

In the Soviet Union there is not and cannot be any inflation; the possibility of inflation is fully precluded by the very system of planned socialist economy. In our country both wholesale and retail prices are established by the government and, therefore, the purchasing power of the ruble is controlled on a planned basis…. The stability of Soviet currency is guaranteed by the monopoly of currency and the monopoly of foreign trade which is one of the most important advantages of the socialist economic system.

This is propaganda, of course, but in a sense, Garbuzov was right. A socialist state really could moderate the price effects of monetary inflation by throttling back the standard of living and consumption options whenever it seemed prices were rising.

This was necessary because the money supply continually expanded as wages rose. In their 1985 study on the Soviet economy, Igor Birman and Roger Clarke wrote:

The reason for the excess supply of money is that the state has consistently “over-paid” the population in the form of wages, pensions, stipends etc., which exceed production (plus net imports and minus net exports) of consumer goods at the currently ruling retail prices (fixed by the state). While there has indeed been a steady rise in retail prices (despite the stability of the official index) this has been very far from sufficient to equalise the real effective demand of the population with the available supply of goods. In other words, the state generates excessive purchasing power in the hands of the population.

In an unhampered economy wages are closely tied to the productivity of workers, so wages would not grow out of proportion to the amount of goods and services available in the economy. In a socialist, economy, however, the price of labor—i.e., wages—were arbitrarily set like all other prices. Wages under socialism are also paid out of the public treasury and can be increased to the liking of the regime itself. This often meant rising wages because higher wages were politically popular. Rising wages potentially created the impression of prosperity, even when the economy wasn’t actually more productive. Also, as Birman and Clarke note

During the last two decades [i.e., 1965 to 1985] it has pursued the “confidence trick” policy of trying to stimulate productivity by higher money wages without raising the supply of consumer goods by nearly sufficient to translate the increase in money wages into increased real incomes.

Increasingly, after 1965, the Soviet money supply was out of proportion to the productive capability of the economy. In a relatively free economy, this would quickly lead to price inflation, but the Soviet regime had ways of shifting the economic burden elsewhere.

Thus, prices were kept under control not through fiscal disciple, but through price controls. This led to shortages because, if wages were rising while goods prices could not, demand quickly exceeded supply. Soviet citizens often found they had very little to spend their money on, with the result being the long queues and empty store shelves we now associate with the Soviet economy.

By this mechanism, the regime can continue to inject new money into the economy but also prevent ordinary people from spending “too much” money and thus ratcheting up consumer prices. The downside, of course, is that the standard of living goes down considerably, as historian Steven Efremov notes:

The system of price controls had deleterious effects both for Soviet consumers and for the economy as a whole…. Shortages of most foods led to lower quality diets, and many consumer products that were routinely available in the West, such as telephones, cars, and modern washing machines were amazingly rare in the Soviet Union. Living conditions were less comfortable in many ways, with less housing space per person, no central heating, no air conditioning, and often no sewer connections or hot water.

The result was essentially forced savings. Efremov continues:

When consumers could not find anything they wanted to buy, many chose to save a portion of their income every year. This effect was cumulative over the years, as unsatisfied demand from each year was carried over to the next and the population’s savings continued to grow.

In some respects, this was good for the regime because these unspendable savings could also be tapped for buying the government’s debt. But this stored up money—known as the “monetary overhang” increased much more rapidly than did the production of goods and services, and Efremov concludes “the money supply had grown to become many times larger than what was needed for regular circulation.” This would come back to haunt the regime when the economy began to open up and consumers could finally spend the money, causing prices to soar.

An additional method of pushing down official inflation numbers was to subsidize consumer goods. Retail price subsidies were introduced in the Soviet Union in 1965 as part of a major economic reform package. Soviet authorities then began to implement price subsidies of “basic foods such as meat, milk, bread, sausages, sugar, and butter.”1 The purpose was to keep prices stable. These subsidies survived subsequent economic reform efforts and became a larger and larger part of the economy heading into the 1980s, with government spending rapidly increasing to push down prices through subsidies.

Spending Rises and the Economy Stagnates

None of this worked to actually help the Soviet standard of living.

To combat the effects of monetary expansion and falling standards of living, the Soviet regime perennially attempted to increase production to narrow the gap between money growth and productivity growth. Due to the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism, however, Soviet central planning could not coordinate goods and capital efficiently, and the productivity of workers stagnated.

Another result was further declines in government revenue. Although taxes were levied and some revenue could be collected on imports, government monopolies—i.e., government-owned enterprises—controlling a variety of goods and services produced much of the income the regime relied on. These enterprises could theoretically increase revenues with increased output, but output often stagnated as wages—i.e., production costs—rose.

Government budgets thus increased alongside falling revenue. Byung-Yeon Kim notes, for example, that “retail price subsidies … rose from 4 per cent of state budget expenditure in 1965 to 20 per cent in the late 1980s.”2

Yet the availability of consumer goods certainly did not keep up. Rather, consumer had few places to spend their money and “the share of forced savings in total monetary savings increased from 9 per cent in 1965 to 42 per cent in 1989.”3

Measured by the prevalence of shortages, it is clear the Soviet economy was in a state of stagnation by the late 70s. Shortages became even worse. Kim concludes:

Consumer market conditions in the official retail network deteriorated rapidly in the years 1965–78. This is most likely to have been caused by stable consumer prices faced with rising consumer purchasing power. Even though the rapid deterioration halted during the period 1979–83, this was not sufficient to restore equilibrium. Further worsening of consumer market conditions occurred after 1984. In particular, shortages in the consumer market intensified significantly in 1989 because household money income increased much faster than the availability of consumer goods.4

The wage increases continued with little positive effect. Throughout the 1980s, Soviet state-owned enterprises raised wages in an attempt to create a “wealth effect” and to placate dissatisfied workers. Yet, with few goods available to buy, rising wages ceased to be much of an inducement to harder work. Birman and Clarke note that after a time, rising wages “become ineffective—additional unspendable money is no longer an incentive to work harder or more productively.” Worker productivity suffered. This problem only accelerated as the decade wore on and, as Igor Filatochev and Roy Bradshaw note, “wages increas[ed] four times faster than labour productivity throughout 1989 and 1990.”

The 1980s: A Time of Growing Deficits and Money Printing

All of this spending on wages and subsidies combined to create conditions under which government deficits rose, leading for even greater monetary expansion. Kim concludes:

Although the budget deficit was officially recorded only from 1985 onwards, many reliable Soviet and western sources have maintained that a sizable deficit already existed well before the 1980s.5

Up until the 1970s, there had been a connection between revenues and spending to the point that deficits were manageable. As time went on, borrowing to address deficits became increasingly expensive for the regime, and printing money—above and beyond the need for wages—was increasingly viewed as a way out:

Printing of money began well before the late 1980s, that is, from 1977 onwards, and tended to increase during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Overall, the Soviet budget tended to destabilize the consumer market, at least after 1977, by putting money into circulation. In particular, a sharp increase in printing money in the late 1980s suggests that the Soviet economy was then on the verge of collapse.

Hyperinflation Sets In

By the late 1980s, the Soviet economy was already primed for price inflation, yet so-called repressed inflation continued to be a sizable factor pushing down official inflation rates until the mid-1980s. With the advent of perestroika and some limited promarket reforms, Soviet citizens were increasingly able to purchase more goods and import more goods. Decades of forced saving led to runaway inflation as shortages became less acute in many cases. That “monetary overhang” came out of savings accounts and drove price inflation to disastrous heights.

It took some time for the official numbers to catch up with reality. The regime’s official numbers had long understated even the moderate levels of price inflation in earlier periods, but after the mid-1980s, the gap between official inflation and estimated real inflation grew considerably. Efremov summarizes the divergence, noting that in 1988 official inflation was 0.6 percent but 6 percent in the real marketplace. By 1989, official inflation was 2 percent, but it was really 8 percent. In 1990, it was 5.3 percent, but really 20 percent. And then the wheels started to really come off in 1991, with 96.3 “official” inflation that was really 200 percent.

The Soviet Union collapsed shortly thereafter, and the new regime did not issue falsified inflation numbers anymore. Instead, the real inflation rate in 1992 was estimated to be more than 2,300 percent. Hyperinflation continued for three more years until the old Soviet ruble finally ceased to exist.

A Socialist Guide to Lowering Price Inflation

The Soviet experience provides an example of how expanding the money supply forces a choice. In response, an inflationist regime can commit to reining in monetary inflation to tackle rising prices. Or a regime can “solve” an inflation problem by destroying demand via price controls and shortages. The latter choice requires lowering the standard of living and gradually reducing consumer choices again and again. Yet even this draconian option fails to prevent hyperinflation in the end.

Source : Mises Institute

A Prehistory of Social Media

Kevin Driscoll wrote . . . . . . . . .

Over the past few years, I’ve asked dozens of college students to write down, in a sentence or two, where the internet came from. Year after year, they recount the same stories about the US government, Silicon Valley, the military, and the threat of nuclear war. A few students mention the Department of Defense’s ARPANET by name. Several get the chronology wrong, placing the World Wide Web before the internet or expressing confusion about the invention of email. Others mention “tech wizards” or “geniuses” from Silicon Valley firms and university labs. No fewer than four students have simply written, “Bill Gates.”

Despite the internet’s staggering scale and global reach, its folk histories are surprisingly narrow. This mismatch reflects the uncertain definition of “the internet.” When nonexperts look for internet origin stories, they want to know about the internet as they know it, the internet they carry around in their pockets, the internet they turn to, day after day. Yet the internet of today is not a stable object with a single, coherent history. It is a dynamic socio-technical phenomenon that came into being during the 1990s, at the intersection of hundreds of regional, national, commercial, and cooperative networks—only one of which was previously known as “the internet.” In short, the best-known histories describe an internet that hasn’t existed since 1994. So why do my students continue to repeat stories from 25 years ago? Why haven’t our histories kept up?

The standard account of internet history took shape in the early 1990s, as a mixture of commercial online services, university networks, and local community networks mutated into something bigger, more commercial, and more accessible to the general public. As hype began to build around the “information superhighway,” people wanted a backstory. In countless magazines, TV news reports, and how-to books, the origin of the internet was traced back to ARPANET, the computer network created by the Advanced Research Projects Agency during the Cold War. This founding mythology has become a resource for advancing arguments on issues related to censorship, national sovereignty, cybersecurity, privacy, net neutrality, copyright, and more. But with only this narrow history of the early internet to rely on, the arguments put forth are similarly impoverished.

What this origin story leaves out are the thousands of people running highly local networks of personal computers (PCs) who created early online communities at a grassroots level. Because they foreshadowed the intensely personal and interactive blogs, forums, and social media platforms that emerged later, exploring how these communities developed and sustained themselves not only provides a fuller history of the internet, but offers insights into how we might build healthier online communities that are more just, equitable, and inclusive.


Even though most people access the internet through a personal computing device such as a laptop or smartphone, personal computers—or microcomputers, as they were also known at the time—are virtually absent from the conventional telling of internet history. ARPANET, which connected a limited number of large, powerful research computers, predated consumer PCs by nearly a decade, and the internet protocols (TCP/IP) that allow computers to communicate were not widely available for Macintosh or Windows until the mid-1990s. To understand how the internet became a medium for everyday life, we need a history that accounts for the creation of personal computer networks and their convergence with the internet.

At the core of this history is a rather strange peripheral: the dial-up modem. In the 1980s, “modem” referred to a device for converting a stream of digital pulses from a computer into an audible signal for transmission over a standard telephone line, allowing computers to relay information via telephone. But modems did not become a standard feature of personal computers until the mid-1990s, and as a result, the modem became a technology of distinction among computer enthusiasts in the 1980s. Modem owners knew themselves as a separate class of computer users, capable of traversing the emerging byways of cyberspace. The networks that they frequented came to be known, collectively, as the “modem world.”

The modem world developed in parallel to the ARPANET family of networks. Whereas ARPANET was created by professional researchers in university and government labs, the modem world was driven by community-oriented amateurs and entrepreneurs—hobby radio groups, computer clubs, software pirates, and activist organizations. Despite their shared interest in computer networking, these were, with rare exception, distinct spheres of social and technical activity.

The predominant form of PC networking was the bulletin board system, or BBS. Hosted on off-the-shelf microcomputers running homebuilt software, bulletin boards systems provided a low-cost infrastructure for people interested in exploring the possibilities of online community. The earliest BBSs were populated by microcomputer enthusiasts trading technical information and chatting about their hobby. Later, they linked a more diverse group of PC owners, including communities bound together by interests and identities that were otherwise excluded from mainstream media systems. Dial-up BBSs made community networking accessible to the grassroots and the peripheries of computer culture.

The modem world is not without a mythology of its own. By most accounts, BBSs emerged out of the famously snowy winter of 1978, when Ward Christensen and Randy Suess created the Computerized Bulletin Board System, or CBBS, using a home-built S-100 microcomputer and a brand-new Hayes modem. Christensen and Suess were members of a local microcomputer club, known as the Chicago Area Computer Hobbyist’s Exchange, or CACHE. The club’s newsletter was a vital source of information—but club members had to be cajoled into submitting new articles, and there was no easy way to provide access to earlier issues. Inspired by a cork bulletin board used for public notices at CACHE meetings, Christensen and Suess set about building an online database of newsletter articles. They installed the system at Suess’s place and had it running by early February. Almost immediately, hobbyists from outside Chicago began to call in to check out the system and swap messages with one another, transforming the “computerized” bulletin board into a public forum. Within a few months, CBBS was fielding dozens of calls from around the country, and new bulletin boards had sprouted up in Atlanta and San Francisco.

CBBS was the archetypal dial-up BBS. It was a clever technical system with an accessible interface and friendly personality. The CBBS “host” computer was hooked up to a single telephone line and could handle just one user at a time. To get online, potential users needed a telephone modem and some kind of data terminal. Early on, most people called in from paper-based teleprinters, but these were soon replaced by PCs with video displays and “terminal emulation” software. Upon successfully connecting to CBBS, the user’s terminal would spring to life, hammering out “welcome to cbbs/chicago … ward and randy’s computerized bulletin board system.” The welcome message also included instructions on navigating the system and encouraged new users to call Christensen or Suess at home to report any problems with the hardware or software. They were told to jump right in: “Feel free to leave a message on any hobbyist computer related subject.”

The functional simplicity of CBBS belied its power as an organizing tool for the hobbyist community. In November 1978, Byte magazine ran a special issue on communications featuring an article by Christensen and Suess that explained the technical architecture of CBBS and invited readers to take the system for a spin. Thousands of readers did, and soon new bulletin boards were being announced around North America and Europe. Each new BBS tweaked the core concept of the computerized bulletin board, adding features for trading files or playing games, implementing rules regarding user behavior, and expressing the local culture and personality of its owners. Most were free to use, save for the cost of placing a long-distance call. BBS enthusiasts ran their phone bills into the hundreds of dollars just to experience these novel outposts on the burgeoning electronic frontier.


The movement grew beyond hobbyists in 1979, when two new commercial online services launched with the hope of attracting PC owners. By the end of the year, The Source, based in Northern Virginia, boasted 3,000 customers dialing from 260 US cities. Subscribers paid an hourly rate of $15 during the day and $2.75 at night for access to international news, stock market data, real estate listings, and restaurant reviews. Meanwhile, the time-sharing firm CompuServe Inc. created MicroNET, an online service aimed at personal computer enthusiasts. Whereas The Source emphasized access to information, MicroNET promised access to computing power. From 6 p.m. to 5 a.m., MicroNET subscribers paid $5 per hour to write and run programs on mainframe computers attached to the CompuServe network. Yet it was neither information nor access to computers that kept subscribers paying the hourly fees. CompuServe and The Source became important community spaces for early modem owners. The discussion forums, software archives, and “CB simulator” chat channels on these systems served as a kind of informal backbone to the emerging network of local BBSs.

The summer of 1983 brought the rise of a new stereotype: the tech-savvy teen. In movie theaters, the Cold War thriller WarGames showed its two young protagonists using a modem and microcomputer to change their grades, download games, and almost start World War III. It was the first time that Hollywood had depicted computers and computer networks as tools of exploration, play, personal identity, and teen mischief. Over the next year, BBSs and commercial services alike saw a surge in new users as teens attached modems to their home computers. But what did the middle-aged hobbyists and teen newcomers have to say to each other? And what teenager could afford to pay for the commercial services? Soon, modem-equipped teens were hosting bulletin boards of their own, adapting the technology to meet their interests and needs.

Unlike the nationwide commercial services, BBSs tended to serve a local population of users since few hobbyists could afford to routinely call long-distance. System operators were keenly aware of the local nature of BBS culture. In a sense, sysops were inviting strangers into their homes. With the host computer sitting on a nearby desk or in a closet, they could hear the whirr of the hard drive and see the flickering lights of the modem as callers dipped in and out. Most boards encouraged the use of pseudonyms, or “handles,” but relationships between users and sysops frequently crossed the boundary between on- and offline. Many sysops hosted parties at their homes or a favorite watering hole where users of their BBS could hang out. These opportunities for face-to-face interaction shaped the social norms of the BBS. Trolling and flame wars took on a different character when the person on the other side could be your neighbor, classmate, coworker, or friend.

Through the 1980s, the distribution of BBSs roughly followed the distribution of people. Modem owners living in densely settled cities had a broader choice of local BBSs to call than people living in smaller towns did. In metropolitan areas, the concentration of boards encouraged sysops to specialize, resulting in BBSs that served communities of interest within the city. People who wanted to talk about amateur astronomy found their way to one board; people who wanted to trade pirated software found another. Those who were interested in both topics could create separate profiles on each board, thereby selecting, revealing, and disclosing different aspects of their online identities. No such luck for rural users: if you were the only amateur astronomer in your area, there might not be anyone on the local boards for you to chat with.

To bring users from different regions together, the modem world needed a way for users of one BBS to communicate with users of another without the burden of long-distance dialing. In 1984, the first BBS-to-BBS connections radiated out of the Bay Area home of Tom Jennings, a microcomputer expert, dog lover, skateboarder, and queer punk. With the help of John Madill, a BBS sysop in Baltimore, Jennings developed a technique that allowed two BBSs running his “Fido” software to automatically fetch messages and files from one another. After a year in operation, more than a hundred Fido BBSs were active on the network and “FidoNet” became an open standard for exchanging files and messages between BBSs. Soon, “netmail” messages were bouncing from Maryland to St. Louis, Texas to Hawaii, England to Indonesia. With its open standards and clever design, FidoNet became a platform for experimentation. Sysops organized new methods for efficiently routing messages and created “gateways” to exchange mail with corporate and university networks. By the end of the decade, the international FidoNet had become a people’s internet, unmatched for its low barriers to entry and global reach.

On average, the demographics of the modem world fit the stereotype of the 1980s computer geek: young, white, middle-class males. But as PCs became more common, BBS technology spread beyond enthusiasts to serve other groups of people with a more urgent need for alternative media. By the start of the 1990s, BBS networks organized around shared identities, cultural interests, and political commitments had become especially vibrant spaces for socializing, organizing, and sharing resources. AfroNet offered wide-ranging discussions of Black interest. GayCom connected BBSs for gay and lesbian people. TGnet was dedicated to transgender identity, health, and culture. AEGIS carried information about living with HIV and AIDS. PeaceNet, EcoNet and GreenNet supported the peace and environmentalist movements. Of course, we should avoid an overly romantic portrayal of this period. The political potential of BBS technology was also embraced by white power groups, militias, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, and other right-wing extremists. Some of the earliest coverage of BBSs on television focused on the adoption of BBSs by neo-Nazi groups in the United States and Canada. Misogyny, homophobia, and white supremacy plagued the modem world, just as they do today’s social media platforms.


From Alaska to Bermuda, Puerto Rico to Saskatchewan, every telephone area code in the North American Numbering Plan played host to at least one dial-up BBS. In 1991, when future vice president Al Gore described the “information superhighway,” many longtime computer users imagined a souped-up network of BBSs. At the time, only about a fifth of Americans had access to a computer at home, and even fewer knew how to get online. Initially, BBSs promoted themselves as a local, friendly alternative to costly nationwide systems like CompuServe, Prodigy, or America Online. They would be the on-ramps, rest stops, and service stations on the information superhighway.

But the process of privatizing the state-sponsored internet was messy. Lacking any central authority or advocacy organization, the interests of BBS users and sysops were hardly considered at all. Compounding that lack of representation, longtime internet advocates were generally unfamiliar with the technology and culture of dial-up networks. The ARPANET family of networks ran on a fundamentally different infrastructure from consumer-oriented BBS networks, and relatively few people were expert users of both. BBSs were not so much ignored by institutions of power as they were overlooked.

Between 1994 and 1995, the World Wide Web—and not the BBS—became the public face of cyberspace. On television and in print, journalists touted graphical browsers like NCSA Mosaic and Netscape Navigator as the internet’s future. As hype mounted, investment capital flooded the data communications industry. But instead of BBSs, the money and attention flowed to firms linked to the nascent Web. Finally, when a moral panic over “cyberporn” threatened to burst the dot-com bubble, BBSs provided a convenient scapegoat. BBSs were old and dirty; the Web was new, clean, and safe for commerce. To avoid the stigma, enterprising BBS operators quietly rebranded. Seemingly overnight, thousands of dial-up BBSs vanished, replaced by brand-new “internet service providers.” In the United States, the term “BBS” fell out of use.


The people who built the modem world in the 1980s laid the groundwork for millions of others who would bring their lives online in the 1990s and beyond. Along with writing code and running up their phone bills, BBS operators developed novel forms of community moderation, governance, and commercialization. When internet access finally came to the public, former BBS users carried the experience of grassroots networking into the social Web. Over time, countless social media platforms have reproduced the social and technical innovations of the BBS community.

Forgetting has high stakes. As the internet becomes the compulsory infrastructure of everyday life, the stories we tell about its origins are more important than ever. Recovering the history of the modem world helps us to imagine a world beyond—or perhaps after—commercial social media, mass surveillance, and platform monopolies. Endlessly modifiable, each BBS represented an idiosyncratic dream of what cyberspace could be, a glimpse of the future written in code and accessible from your local telephone jack. Immersing ourselves in this period of experimentation and play makes the internet seem strange again. By changing how we remember the internet’s past, we can change our expectations for its future.

Source : Issues

Can China Fix Its Broken Housing Market?

Ni Dandan wrote . . . . . . . . .

In July, Wan Jiani received the letter she’d been dreading: there was an issue with the construction of her new home.

Like millions of others in China, Wan and her husband have poured their life savings into a presale apartment, paying for the property years before it’s completed. Now, the developer was saying it needed to push back the delivery date by at least four months.

The delay means that Wan’s family will not be able to move into the building until mid-2024 at the earliest. Meanwhile, they will have to continue paying the mortgage — and renting a temporary home in Shanghai. The developer has offered zero compensation, as it claims the construction issues were caused by China’s “zero-COVID” restrictions, which are beyond its control.

Wan is just praying the project gets completed at all.

“Given all the bad news spreading around, it’s hard not to imagine the worst-case scenario: What if the building is left unfinished?” she tells Sixth Tone.

It’s easy to understand Wan’s concern. China’s real estate sector has been plunged into its worst debt crisis in decades. Developers across the country are defaulting on payments and bringing construction on new projects to an abrupt halt.

Unfinished apartment blocks — known as lanweilou, or “rotten-tail buildings,” in Chinese — ring China’s urban centers. Around 5% of the apartments under construction in 50 major cities — around 71.5 million square meters of property — are now lanweilou, Shanghai Yiju Real Estate Research Institute found in a survey conducted during the first half of 2022.

Buyers who invested in these developments have been left in dire situations. Some, no longer able to afford their rent, have taken the desperate step to squat inside their half-constructed homes. Others have organized joint mortgage strikes, arguing they should not be forced to pay for apartments that do not — and may never — exist.

Meanwhile, confidence in the real estate market has fallen sharply. Commercial property sales were down 28.8% year-over-year during the first seven months of 2022, according to National Bureau of Statistics data. Local government land sales were down more than 30%.

Chinese authorities are taking emergency steps to ease the crisis. The central government plans to issue 200 billion yuan (US$29 billion) of special loans to allow cash-strapped developers to finish construction on stalled projects. Several local governments are also launching their own bailout funds.

Yet some argue more fundamental reforms are needed. For decades, China’s property boom has been built on a lax presales mechanism, which allows developers to require buyers like Wan to pay for new-build apartments in full long before they are completed.

This policy has handed developers enormous power to raise capital, enabling them to finance gigantic amounts of construction. But it has also led to them amassing dangerous levels of debt — and riding roughshod over buyers when projects go sour.

For many analysts, the presales mechanism is the root of the current crisis. China’s real estate market cannot be set on a sustainable path, they argue, until the system is overhauled. Yet doing so could also have far-reaching — and painful — consequences for the Chinese economy.

Jump-starting the market

To understand how integral the presales system is to China’s housing market, it helps to explore why the policy was first introduced. Its origins lie in a previous crisis: China’s acute housing shortage of the 1990s.

The country’s market reforms unleashed an unprecedented wave of urbanization during this period, as people left their farms to seek higher-paying jobs. Over 150 million people moved into the cities between 1990 and 2000 — and all of them needed somewhere to live. The existing urban population, meanwhile, began demanding larger, more modern homes as their living standards rose.

China’s traditional, state-controlled property sector couldn’t cope. In 1990, the average urban resident in China had just 7.1 square meters of living space, according to government data. Most families relied on employers to provide housing, but they often had to wait years because the system was overwhelmed.

“The practice was not sustainable,” says Huang Zhonghua, a professor at East China Normal University who researches China’s real estate market. “It led to lots of capital pressure on the government and the slow development of the property sector.”

Dong Liping, a retiree in Shanghai, recalls waiting more than five years for her employer — a public hospital in the city — to provide her family with an apartment, after beginning her career in the late 1970s.

“It was in 1984 that my family of three moved into the one-bedroom, 27-square-meter apartment,” says Dong. “Although all the apartments were small, we were all very happy to finally have a home.”

The Chinese government turned to the private sector to solve the shortage. In 1991, China had 4,200 property developers. Four years later, that number had jumped to more than 33,000, as officials opened up the real estate market. Yet these private firms were brand new and cash-poor. Each developer held just 46.6 million yuan of assets on average in 1996.

“That asset scale means the developer is incapable of building even one medium-sized residential building in Beijing,” Yan Xiaodong, the then-deputy director of the Beijing Unirule Institute of Economics, wrote in an article published in 1999. “We cannot compare them with foreign real estate developers, which have billions in assets.”

And so, in 1994, the Chinese government issued a new policy designed to jump-start the market: the urban commercial housing presale management method. The system — which was closely modeled on a similar policy Hong Kong had been using for four decades — allowed developers to begin selling properties inside new residential projects once at least 25% of construction had been completed.

The regulation took effect in 1995 — and its effect was almost immediate. Chinese developers began routinely demanding buyers pay 100% of the apartment price upfront once they had signed a presale contract. This enabled them to raise huge amounts of capital, and begin scaling up their operations dramatically.

“The change injected lots of vitality into the property sector,” says Huang. “It eased the capital pressure on developers, substantially increased the market supply, and improved people’s living conditions.”

The growth of China’s real estate market over the following years was stunning. In 2003, Chinese developers built nearly 117,000 square meters of new properties. By 2010, this figure had soared to 4 billion square meters, making the country’s property market the largest in the world.

Shaky foundations

Yet opposition to the presales system was already intensifying. As early as 2005, China’s central bank — the People’s Bank of China — called for the policy to be scrapped, arguing it was creating unacceptable levels of financial risk.

According to the PBOC, developers were committing fraud on a jaw-dropping scale to fuel their expansion. Under the presale mechanism, many property firms financed the construction of new projects using the capital from mortgages issued for presold apartments. Yet the mortgages were often fake: If the developer couldn’t presell enough properties in time, they simply applied for the mortgages themselves — and assumed they’d find some real buyers later.

“Developers use the information of their own staff or their close contacts to get mortgages from the bank,” the PBOC wrote in a report. “Some developers paid back the bank after they sold the apartments, but some didn’t — they ran away with the money after they failed to sell all the units.”

The fraud was causing major problems for Chinese banks. Around 80% of the bad debt held by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China — one of the country’s “big four” state-run banks — was linked to fake mortgages, the PBOC said.

But the presale mechanism was not canceled. Instead, it became even more central to China’s real estate sector over the next 15 years. In 2005, 57% of new commercial properties on the market were presales, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. By 2021, this figure had climbed to 87%.

The problems with the presales model did not go away. As developers financed more and more new projects, they began amassing eye-watering debts. Market leader Evergrande alone reportedly owes over $300 billion. Concerns about overbuilding simmered, with reports of “ghost cities” filled with unoccupied properties in some areas.

Meanwhile, real estate firms were able to rip off buyers with impunity. As customers were required to pay the full price in advance, developers enjoyed enormous leverage. Many abused that power, using shoddy materials, installing cheap appliances, or delaying construction without offering compensation, according to Chinese economist Ren Zeping’s research team.

“The presale mechanism is unfair to the public even though it helped solve the shortage of apartments in the 1990s,” the team wrote in their 2021 report. “Under the presale regime, developers have used fancy marketing tactics and made promises that they didn’t necessarily keep. Seeing is believing matters a lot — it provides a fundamental guarantee for property buyers. It can also pressure the developers to improve the quality of construction.”

Yet, until the crisis erupted, presale apartments were often highly sought-after in China. Due to government price controls, new homes are far cheaper than second-hand properties in many regions. And as China emerged as one of the world’s most unaffordable real estate markets, price trumped all other concerns for buyers.

Wan is a case in point. When the 40-year-old decided to invest her family’s life savings in a property in Shanghai, she faced a choice: She could spend the 5 million yuan on a second-hand apartment on the outskirts of Shanghai, around 40 kilometers from her office; or a presale home that was far closer to the city center.

The presale would not be ready for two years, but Wan eventually decided it was still the right choice. The location was just so much better, and new builds tend to be higher quality, she says.

“New developments are priced more reasonably,” says Wan. “But the bad thing is that they will be ready in two years and there’s the risk of delay, which unfortunately happened to us.”

Wan had seen reports about lanweilou in the past, but these zombie projects were rare in Shanghai. They tended to happen in smaller, less prosperous cities. It wasn’t until this summer — when reports emerged of thousands of buyers boycotting mortgage payments over unfinished properties — that Wan began to worry her home might be left in limbo, too.

“This is a new phenomenon,” says Huang, the professor. “It warned us of the loopholes with the monitoring of presale capital.”

Too big to fail?

Now that developers’ debt problems have reached crisis point, many in China are once again calling for the presale mechanism to be canceled. Yet industry insiders argue the cure may prove worse than the disease.

An investment director at a state-backed real estate company, surnamed Cheng, tells Sixth Tone that many developers would be unable to survive without the presale mechanism. Their need for capital is too extreme due to their high debt loads.

“The development of the property sector is very fast-paced,” says Cheng, who declined to reveal his full name due to the sensitivity of the topic. “If you pull the brake now, many will crash.”

A few years ago, a group of government officials visited Cheng’s company and asked Cheng what would happen if they overhauled the presale policy. “I replied that the market and developers wouldn’t be able to handle the consequences,” he recalls.

The immediate effect would be to cause developer after developer to fold, leading to a wave of new lanweilou, Cheng says. Over the longer term, there would be a dramatic slowdown in the property market, as the surviving companies would no longer be able to finance as many new housing projects.

Despite all its problems, the presale mechanism is an effective tool for getting large numbers of buildings off the ground quickly. Chinese developers are often able to recoup their entire investment within eight months of purchasing a parcel of land, Cheng says.

“But if we’re only allowed to sell completed homes, it takes 1.5 years to get an 18-story building completed,” he says. “That’s three times the current period for developers to get the money from buyers. The pressure on capital flow will be huge.”

The upshot of this would be a spike in housing prices, Cheng predicts. Despite overbuilding in some areas, the underlying demand for new housing remains enormous in China. In 2021, there was over 18 trillion yuan of commercial property sold in the country — dwarfing the total in the United States.

“If the policy changes, there won’t be a valid supply in 2023,” says Cheng. “The public will panic as there are no apartments to buy, and property prices will rise.”

Huang agrees that property prices would increase if China removes the presale mechanism. “The cost of development will go up, but developers will still need to make money: They can only turn to the consumers for that,” he says.

Any slowdown in the real estate sector would also have knock-on effects for many other industries, Huang adds. By some estimates, housing activity drives nearly 30% of China’s gross domestic product, a far higher rate than most developed nations.

“Businesses along the supply chain, such as those in the construction materials industry and manufacturers, will also need to deal with the blow,” says Huang. “The bigger a developer is, the longer it takes for them to pay those suppliers … If the developers disappear or go bankrupt, who will pay these suppliers?”

Local governments, meanwhile, would have to confront gaping fiscal deficits, which could have sobering consequences for communities across the country. In 2021, land sales totaled 8.7 trillion yuan in China, accounting for nearly 43% of the country’s fiscal revenues.

This year’s property crisis has already sent shockwaves across the Chinese economy and forced local governments to take drastic measures to balance their budgets. If the slowdown becomes permanent, China would likely undergo a major economic and fiscal readjustment.

Lu Wenxi, an analyst at property agency Centaline Property, says it would be impossible to scrap the presales mechanism completely. But there is an urgent need for better regulation — especially when it comes to monitoring developers’ use of capital.

“Capital supervision should be made more open and transparent,” says Lu. “Homebuyers and even the whole society should be allowed to supervise the accounts.”

Under China’s current presale rules, the money buyers pay upfront is supposed to go into an account that is then monitored by both the banks and local housing regulators. Developers are only allowed to access a certain proportion of the money based on the progress of the project — such as 50% of the capital once 50% of construction is completed, though local rules vary.

Yet, in reality, the funds often go missing. According to Cheng, many developers are so desperate for capital that they’ll go to any lengths to access the money early.

“When they see a chance to break through (the restrictions), they’ll go for it,” he says. “Developers will always have the motivation to bribe their way through to access the capital in advance.”

The Chinese government should also consider reforming the presales system to shift the risk away from individual buyers, Lu says. Buyers, for example, have long resented having to make mortgage payments on properties long before they’re ready to live in.

“Changes could be made to this practice,” Lu says. “Homebuyers should be allowed to start paying back the mortgages after the apartments are ready for them.”

China could also partly restrict developers’ access to capital on presale apartments, Lu says. If they could only access the buyers’ down payments — which are set at a minimum of 35% of the property price for new homes in Shanghai — then buyers would be at less of a disadvantage. The economic fallout from this kind of reform would be significant, but manageable, Lu suggests.

“This change would definitely phase out many developers. But why do we need so many developers? It’s a good chance to kick out businesses with low capabilities,” says Lu. As of 2019, China had nearly 100,000 real estate development companies.

Huang, meanwhile, says that China could take inspiration from European countries, which allow buyers to pay for presale homes gradually based on the progress of the project. “Consumers can also participate in monitoring the project,” he says. “If things go wrong with the project, they can refuse to pay the rest.”

Introducing a step-by-step payment system would be challenging in China, however, due to the sheer size of the property market. In 2021, Chinese developers invested a total of 14.76 trillion yuan ($2.16 trillion). In the U.S., meanwhile, commercial real estate investment hit a record high of $746 billion.

“The scale of new property development in the whole of the U.S. is only equivalent to that of a few large Chinese cities,” says Huang. “It’s a huge market to regulate.”

Cheng considers a step-by-step model unrealistic. “When a part of the project gets done, the housing authorities would need to dispatch people to inspect it,” he says. “That’s a huge amount of work. How many more staff would the government have to hire to take charge of this?”

Then, there’s the question of whether the new system would work in practice. In Cheng’s view, it won’t — unless the government manages to eliminate corruption within the system.

“The more steps and procedures are involved, the more opportunities there’ll be for developers to access the money in advance using any means they can think of,” says Cheng.

For now, it remains unclear what policy approach China plans to take. Wan, the buyer in Shanghai, is more concerned about what will happen to the country’s hundreds of stalled projects — and her half-finished home in particular.

She has spent the past few weeks closely monitoring the work at the construction site, and the developer’s other projects in Shanghai. So far, she hasn’t seen anything to suggest the company is about to fold, she says.

“It feels like there’s a better guarantee here,” says Wan. “The city government won’t allow lanweilou to interrupt its urban development plans, right?”

Source : Sixth Tone

Infographic: The People’s Republic of China: 70 Years of Economic History (1949 -2019)

Infographic: The People’s Republic of China: 70 Years of Economic History (1949 -2019)

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Source : Visual Capitalist











她的这种暗示在学界也得到了呼应。新加坡管理大学(Singapore Management University)法学院终身教授高树超(Henry S. Gao)在推特上转发了这篇文章,并评价说,在中国,历史并不仅仅是一些有趣且无用的事实,它往往预示着重大的政治变化。在推文中,他还贴出了作为文革导火索的姚文元文章《评新编历史剧〈海瑞罢官〉》的截图。











Source : RFA

Read also at 中国历史研究院

中国历史研究院课题组:明清时期“闭关锁国”问题新探 . . . . .

A Brief History of Wastewater Testing and Pathogen Detection

Since humans started building permanent structures in which to live, even as far back as the Babylonians around 4,000 B.C., we have sought to get our waste as far away from ourselves as possible.1 That effort has continued to the modern-day, where the sewers under our feet carry billions of gallons of waste (every day!) away from our most populated areas.2

It is the pinnacle of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

But in flushing and forgetting our waste, we are also flushing a wealth of information about our biology and the infectious diseases that threaten our health. What if, we could use our waste to spot the outbreak of disease before a community even starts to show symptoms? It’s a powerful thought and one that could change public health. And it’s not new. The concept of pathogen detection through wastewater testing is centuries old.

Monitoring the Complexities of the Human Microbiome

What makes wastewater pathogen detection so valuable is the incredible quantity of microbes that live within our digestive tracts. These microbes, comprising the gut microbiome, play an incredible (though poorly understood) role in overall human health, for everything from digestion to cardiac health to the immune system.3,4 Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other microbes form a complex system within the gut, competing with invading pathogens for attachment sites and nutrients, aiding in carbohydrate digestion, producing vitamins, and more. Many biological functions that need to be executed for us to survive are carried out by the human microbiome. We can find evidence of the organisms contained within it in the fecal matter we eliminate and draw conclusions about the health of the subject or community from where it came. While the concept of getting this waste far away from where we live may be as old as human settlement, the idea to utilize that same waste to monitor health and disease on both the individual and community level is a much more recent development, dating back to the 19th century.

Wastewater Surveillance Through the Centuries: A Timeline

The first waterborne disease to be scientifically documented was the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1854 in London.5 Impressively, Dr. John Snow (the father of epidemiology, not of Winterfell) was able to convince local officials of the disease’s source and vehicle of transmission decades before germ theory had been proven.6 Snow managed this feat by comparing the water sources of disease-stricken and untouched households and tracked the outbreak to a single pump on Broad Street. Ever since, epidemiologists have looked to water for answers about how diseases are spread, and how they might be tracked without relying on large-scale individualized testing.

In the 1940s, epidemiologists utilized wastewater to track and contain disease outbreaks in the United States, particularly polio.7 The cell culture methods used were crude by today’s standards, but effective nonetheless, and wastewater surveillance remains a critical tool for eradicating polio across the globe.8 Still, many pathogens are either difficult or impossible to culture, and more efficient and cost-effective methods have been developed, like hybridization with radioactive cDNA probes to monitor Hepatitis A in the 1980s.9 It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that the gold standard of wastewater pathogen detection techniques was brought to the front lines with PCR.10,11

Because PCR can be quick and efficient, detection of pathogens in wastewater can be done even before those infected start to show symptoms.12 Recently, innovative and highthroughput PCR-based workflows have been used for ongoing monitoring of the COVID-19 pandemic. As nasal swab testing was limited and often delayed in the early stages of the global spread of SARS-CoV-2, wastewater testing was suggested as a way to bypass some of the bottlenecks in our testing infrastructure and identify areas where outbreaks were just starting, long before case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths took off. Some universities used this strategy to identify which dormitories required individual testing. A recent study from a university may be good resource to add to this list (They used the KingFisher Flex platform). Here is the link to the preprint. Rapid, large-scale wastewater surveillance and automated reporting system enabled early detection of nearly 85% of COVID-19 cases on a University campus.

Modernizing the Approach to Wastewater Surveillance

While wastewater detection shows immense promise, both for the current pandemic and beyond, a detection method is only as effective as the quality of extracted proteins or nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) allows it to be. Our MagMAX Microbiome Ultra Nucleic Acid Extraction Kits can help with the challenging sample types required for microbiome detection and wastewater testing. And there’s a bonus: The kit is automation-ready, allowing higher throughput with Thermo Fisher’s KingFisher Flex sample purification system. Automated protocols require less hands-on time and enable faster workflows. Together, these products empower research and clinical laboratories to work smarter, not harder, and streamline processes to allow for high-throughput DNA/RNA extraction, suitable for many downstream applications.

KingFisher system-optimized kits, reagents, and protocols that can be used to maximize purity and yield for each extraction target and sample type. MagMAX kits are best suited for automated extraction of DNA or RNA due to their ease of use and reliability.

We should probably continue our practice of eliminating our waste from the places we live, but that doesn’t mean we have to flush the countless opportunities to improve our health by leveraging the vast information contained in such undesirable substances and sample types. From studying how disruptions of microbiota contribute to cancer to stopping the next global pandemic in its tracks, the answer could be in what we put in our toilets.

Source : ThermoFisher Scientific

Explicit Content

Suzannah Lipscomb wrote . . . . . . . . .

What follows will be explicit because it is about expletives; it may also seem offensive, because it is about how words have become so.

I stumbled upon this question as a historical consultant for a new drama set in the 16th century, when I needed to assess whether certain curse words in the script would have been familiar to the Tudors. The revelation – given away in the title of Melissa Mohr’s wonderful book Holy Sh*t – is that all swear words concern what is sacred or what is scatological. In the Middle Ages, the worst words had been about what was holy; by the 18th century they were about bodily functions. The 16th century was a period when what was considered obscene was in flux.

The most offensive words still used God’s name: God’s blood, God’s wounds, God’s bones, death, flesh, foot, heart, arms, nails, body, sides, guts, tongue, eyes. A statute of 1606 forbade the use of words that ‘iestingly or prophanely’ spoke the name of God in plays. Damn and hell were early modern variations of such blasphemous oaths (bloody came later), as were the euphemistic asseverations, gad, gog and egad.

Many words we consider, at best, crude were medieval common-or-garden words of description – arse, shit, fart, bollocks, prick, piss, turd – and were not considered obscene. To say ‘I’m going to piss’ was the equivalent of saying ‘I’m going to wee’ today and was politer than the new 16th-century vulgarity, ‘I’m going to take a leak’. Putting body parts or products where they shouldn’t normally be created delightfully defiant phrases such as ‘turd in your teeth’, which appears in the 1509 compendium of the Oxford don John Stanbridge. Non-literal uses of these words – which is what tends to be required for swearing – like ‘take the piss’, ‘on the piss’, ‘piss off’ – all seem to be 20th-century flourishes. For the latter, the Tudors would have substituted something diabolical – ‘the devil rot thee’ – or epidemiological – ‘a pox on you’.

But the scatological was starting to become obscene. Sard, swive and fuck were all slightly rude words for sexual intercourse. An early recorded use of the f-word was a piece of marginalia by an anonymous monk writing in 1528 in a manuscript copy of Cicero’s De officiis (a treatise on moral philosophy). The inscription reads: ‘O d fuckin Abbot’. Given that the use of the f-word as an intensifier didn’t catch on for another three centuries, this is likely a punchy comment on the abbot’s immoral behaviour.

Frig and jape were also on the cusp of offensiveness. Randle Cotgrave’s 1611 French-English dictionary translates the French fringue as ‘to lecher or lasciviously frig with the tail’ (tail was a euphemism for penis). Cunt was also starting to move from being the most direct word to describe a part of the anatomy into obscenity. Shakespeare makes jokes in Hamlet about ‘country matters’ in which he clearly means (as the next line says) what ‘lie[s] between maids’ legs’. Bugger remained a non-explicit word for anal sex.

Today many of these words have an admirable grammatical flexibility for which the Tudors had no clear substitute. For a phrase to express unfortunate circumstances that seem impossible to overcome (‘we’re fucked’), the Historical Thesaurus of English tells us that they would have proclaimed themselves to be ‘in hot water’ (first use 1537), ‘in a pickle’ (1562), ‘in straits’ (1565) or, in the most extreme predicament, at one’s ‘utter shift’ (c.1604). To ‘fuck up’ or spoil something, they’d have used ‘to bodge’ or ‘to botch’. To say something was codswallop, baloney, bollocks, they’d have gone with trumpery, baggage, rubbish or the wonderful reduplicating terms that appear in the 1570s and 80s: flim-flam, fiddle-faddle, or fible-fable.

But, holy words aside, if you really wanted to offend someone in the 16th century, you’d call them a whore, knave, thief, harlot, cuckold, or false. They still cared more about a reputation for behaving badly than how to describe the behaviour itself.

Source : History Today

Did ‘God Songs’ Kill China’s God of Rock?

Cai Yineng wrote . . . . . . . . .

Quick, catchy, and inane, short video-optimized “god songs” have taken over Chinese music. Does anyone still have the patience for an old-school album?

Last August, legendary rocker Cui Jian released his first album in six years to a largely indifferent response. “Flying Dogs” won Cui the “Best Male Singer” prize at the Golden Melody Awards in Taiwan — a first for a mainland singer — but 35 years after his iconic live performance of “Nothing to My Name” at Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium, his new music barely registered as a blip on the Chinese mainland.

The album’s lukewarm reception stood in sharp contrast to Cui’s virtual concert in April, which was viewed live by over 40 million people. With regular tours all but impossible due to China’s strict COVID-19 protocols, livestreamed concerts have become a rare bright spot for the industry over the past three years. In addition to Cui, millions have logged in to streaming platforms to see performances by pop pioneer Lo Ta-yu, early 2000s idols like Stefanie Sun and Jay Chou, and boy bands like Westlife and the Backstreet Boys.

Perhaps inevitably, the most popular of these shows have leaned heavily on viewers’ nostalgia for earlier eras of Chinese music, whether the heady, intellectual rock of the 1980s or the pop idols of the ‘90s and ‘00s. Although this nostalgia has helped artists weather the storm of COVID-19, it’s also laid bare some brutal truths about China’s music business, which even before the pandemic was growing increasingly dependent on partnerships with tech companies for survival. What does it say about the traditional music-making and marketing model when audiences are more willing to spend multiple hours watching ad-laced virtual concerts than listening to short, cohesive albums by the same artist?

In contrast to the United States or United Kingdom, where rock music was born out of working class culture, the early Chinese rock scene, at least on the mainland, was largely dominated by the political and cultural elite. As China’s economy and politics became increasingly liberal in the 1980s, a wave of cultural change took place both within and outside the system. Cui himself is a representative example: His father was a trumpet player for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force; his mother was a professional dancer. Passionate about literature and music from a young age, he became enchanted with Western musical styles such as jazz and rock after they were reintroduced into China in the late 1970s.

Cui’s ability to mix these diverse influences propelled him to stardom in the mid-1980s; his 1986 performance at the Workers’ Stadium is considered a seminal moment in the history of Chinese rock and helped set the template for a generation of literary-minded rockers. Although wildly popular, Cui and other members of the 1980s rock scene like He Yong sought to present themselves as poets and polemicists, rather than merely commercial acts.

This elitist model of cultural production came under sustained challenge in the 1990s. To start, the Chinese government began reasserting more forceful control of the arts: Cui’s nationwide tour in 1990 was called off halfway; He Yong was quietly blocked from performing to large audiences for over a decade after 1996. Meanwhile, and perhaps more fundamentally, the music industry, fueled by the craze for pop music from Hong Kong and Taiwan, became increasingly commercialized.

This mirrored trends in other sectors of pop culture on the Chinese mainland throughout the 1990s. As economic liberalization took root and spread, the “culture fever” of the 1980s receded, giving way to a market frenzy. In music, there was the rise of pop; in film, Hollywood-style blockbusters ruled the box office; and on TV screens, melodramatic Taiwanese dramas competed for eyeballs with locally produced shows.

At the time, the commercialization of Chinese music was hailed as a sign of the “democratization” of culture, if not Chinese society. Key to this narrative was the rise in the 2000s of reality shows like 2004’s Super Girl, where TV viewers across China could vote for their favorite contestant via phone.

Rather than fight back, the heirs to Chinese rock retreated into ever smaller subcultures. An oft-quoted 2001 declaration by Wu Tun, lead singer of the band Tongue, sums up the prevailing attitude: “Seeds must be planted underground.” Distancing themselves from both officialdom and capital, rock musicians mocked their contemporaries for attending bureaucratic forums or performing at state-backed events. Cui Jian himself turned down an invitation to perform at the 2014 Spring Festival Gala.

Meanwhile, the “democratization” of Chinese pop music accelerated with the rise of short-video apps like Douyin, the mainland Chinese version of TikTok. A 2021 survey found that, in December 2020, mobile internet users in China spent an average of two hours a day on short-video apps, compared to just 28 minutes a day listening to music online.

As users migrate to addictive short-video apps, contemporary pop artists have been forced to adapt their approach to music creation and marketing. With only 15-second blocks to work with, artists in the short-video era eschew traditional song structures in favor of simple, cheaply made melodies that influencers can dance to and listeners can memorize quickly. These shenqu — or “god songs” — have replaced singles as the dominant form of music consumption among young Chinese. Even Douyin itself has been unable to steer users back to more traditionally produced tunes.

Unsurprisingly, breaking songs down into 15-second bites does not make for meaningful music. Critic Li Wan sums up the predicament faced by the music industry in China and abroad as a kind of unbearable “lightness”: Distracted by inane melodies and shallow sentiments, people have gradually lost their concern for the human condition. “The kind of intense soulfulness that music demonstrated in the past is now nowhere to be found,” he bemoans. Even rock music has become “inarticulate.”

That’s not to say all is lost. Somewhat optimistically, Li believes “Flying Dogs” represents a return to form for Chinese rock. He also cites Omnipotent Youth Society’s 2020 album “Inside the Cable Temple,” which deftly evokes social issues such as pollution, corruption, and declining class mobility. Crucially, unlike “Flying Dogs,” “Inside the Cable Temple” was a hit, selling hundreds of thousands of digital copies in a matter of days and proving that there’s an audience for carefully crafted albums — though bassist Ji Geng still felt the need to thank fans for their patience in listening to the whole album in the liner notes.

There’s no particular reason to hope that Chinese music will return to the elite-centric model of production and consumption that reigned in the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean accepting the fast-food approach to music being pushed on us by tech companies, record firms, and the cultural authorities. “Flying Dogs” might not have been a commercial hit, but there’s something appealing about an artist who, after nearly 40 years of making music, insists on making music their way. As Cui himself puts it in the lyrics to “The B-Side of Time”: “I haven’t changed at all.”

Source : Sixth Tone

Chart: A History of U.S. Home Values

Robert J. Shiller American Housing Price Index

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Source : Robert J. Shiller

Charts: National Association of Realtors Housing Affordability Index

Source : National Association of Realtors