“Carbon Technocracy Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia” by Victor Seow

Fushun Coal Mine, about 1940 (WIkimedia Commons) Fushun Coal Mine, about 1940 (WIkimedia Commons)

In 2021, China launched the world’s largest carbon market in furtherance of its “dual carbon” goals of peak emissions in 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. That same year, China set a  new record for coal production, extracting over 4 billion tons. How any country could  reconcile such output with rising environmental standards remains to be seen. But whatever else one can say about China’s Communist Party, they’re not averse to grand projects. Their ambitions in this case extend far beyond engineering better solar panels or retrofitting power plants: Chinese energy policy will affect everything from business investment and household consumption to climate change and international agreements. And while today’s challenges seem unprecedented, fossil fuels have long preoccupied China’s rulers. Victor Seow’s new book Carbon Technocracy offers a valuable perspective on current dilemmas by exploring three 20th-century regimes that made Chinese coal central to their plans. 

In 1896, the Russian government obtained a railway concession in Manchuria, along with mining and timber rights on land adjacent to the track. Backed by Russian investors, two Chinese merchants opened coal mines near the city of Fushun in 1901. After the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War, awarded both the railway and the mines to Japan in 1905, the Japanese government conferred de facto sovereignty on Mantetsu, a “semi-public, semi-private” corporation. That hybrid entity expanded the mines far beyond anything its founders could have foreseen; by 1945 more than 95,000 men and women worked there. In the early years Mantetsu kept up a pretense of legalism, paying a settlement to one of the mine’s original investors in 1907 and later to the families of workers who died on the job. Authority always remained in Japanese hands, but the Chinese workforce carried out dozens of strikes that wrung concessions from Mantetsu’s management. Such restraint ended in the wake of Japan’s full-scale invasion after the 1937 Mukden Incident. Violence became the mines’ most salient feature, usually hidden under euphemisms like the “special workers” designation given to forced labor, but sometimes flagrant, like the massacre of local civilians in retaliation for attacks on the mine itself. When the Nationalists took control in 1946, they found that the occupying Soviets had looted practically everything of value. Perhaps if more leaders in that regime had displayed the courage and fortitude of the engineers Seow describes here, China might have been spared the horrors to come. Instead, Manchuria would fall to Lin Biao’s Fourth Field Army in 1948. The mines of Fushun were one of the few places where Communist victory actually resembled a “Liberation”. The book’s narrative ends with peasants starving in the tens of millions so that industrial workers could hit their state-assigned targets.

Throughout the book, the mine acquires agency of its own, an insatiable force that swallows the adjacent town and countless lives.

Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia, Victor Seow (University of Chicago Press, April 2022)
Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia, Victor Seow (University of Chicago Press, April 2022)

Seow emphasizes the continuities across regimes. They all saw coal production as a measure of their own success, making the greater exploitation of natural resources a pillar of their legitimacy. Another parallel was the labels attached to mines themselves. Mantetsu named mines after military leaders from the Russo-Japanese War. The Nationalists named a mine after a murdered engineer, only to have the Communists rename it “Victory” a few years later. All three found dirigisme harder in practice than in theory. Fushun might have been a vital resource for the Japanese Empire, but it provoked a protectionist backlash from coal miners on the home islands. For their part, the Nationalists never resolved the contradiction between low energy prices and running a fiscally sustainable mine. The Communists achieved an enormous increase in coal output during the Great Leap Forward, only to see much of it wasted in the infamous “backyard furnaces”. Despite these affinities, Seow eschews simplistic energy determinism, instead showing how the mine opened new opportunities for its occupants, but then shaped each ruler’s perspective in turn.

This book began as Seow’s doctoral dissertation at Harvard, a genealogy that’s apparent in the stupendous depth of research. He cites countless primary documents: Chinese, Japanese and US government records, internal Mantetsu training manuals, professional engineering journals, and much else, besides. The secondary sources across the social sciences are just as thorough, allowing him to situate the particular in the general. Thankfully, this erudition never feels forced. Rather, Seow’s considerable labor rewards readers with clear exposition of both the mine and its inhabitants.

To cite just one example: coal’s carbon content dictates whether it feeds into energy production or metallurgy. Fushun had both types in enormous quantities, making it a prize far more valuable than mines in, say, Sichuan or Korea. Years of research allow Seow to trace the multifarious consequences of seemingly mundane geology. To say he mastered the technical minutia is to risk considerable understatement. Seow delineates coal’s role in East Asia’s industrialization, tracing its mutual dependence with every sinew of the wider society: agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and (especially) the military. The evolution of mining techniques could have made for dull reading, but time and again, this book humanizes the engineers and workers who adapted foreign technology to local conditions. Men such as the Scottish-trained Kimura Tadao, who adjusted methods from Edinburgh to optimize shale oil extraction for Mantetsu, or the humble laborer Wei Xijiu, who perfected a method for muffling noise from old Japanese drills still running the 1950s.

Seow humanizes the engineers and workers who adapted foreign technology to local conditions.

Throughout the book, the mine acquires agency of its own, an insatiable force that swallows the adjacent town and countless lives. But in every chapter Seow reminds readers of the human beings in and around Fushun: people like Liu Baoyu, powerless to halt Mantetsu’s destruction of his ancestral burial plot, Mo Desheng, a child hiding amongst his family’s corpses during a wartime massacre, and Xiao Jun, the Fushun miner purged by the CCP when his novel Coal Mines in May paid insufficient homage to the Party.

Edmund Burke once asked the House of Commons to “get out of general discourses, and vague sentiments, which … had been one of the main causes of our present troubles, and to appreciate the value of the several plans that were, or might be proposed, by an exact detail of particulars.” That was good advice for handling a crisis in 1776, and even better today. Victor Seow has taken Burke’s wisdom to heart, writing a book that shows how and why details matter. One can only hope that a few policymakers take the time to consider them, as well.

A former US Marine and Iraq war veteran, Dr James Herndon worked in Udaipur, India while completing his PhD in Economics. He currently works as a consultant in Birmingham, Alabama.