Yu Kuang unpacks the tragic February 2021 Texas snowstorm through a socialist lens. Far from a “natural” disaster or an exceptional state failure, Yu reads the tragedy as the logical outcome of a superstitious U.S. devotion to small government, “state’s rights,” and the abdication of political responsibility under a diffused federalist system.
As a representative crisis of neoliberal capitalism, Yu frames the Texas disaster as a cautionary tale for those ideologues in China who have embraced a Western doctrine of privatization.
This article was originally published in Utopia under Yu’s pen name, USA另一面 (The Other Side of the USA).
“A leaking roof facing overnight rain / a late ship encountering headwinds”
—Feng Menglong, Stories to Awaken the World
A United States still struggling through the pandemic was also recently hit by a major snow storm. To date, 37 states have already faced emergency winter conditions, with the southwestern state of Texas being hit the hardest, where temperatures have dropped below -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).
This is equivalent to China’s Guangdong province suddenly entering into a Northeastern Liaoning-like wintery state; it’s not hard to imagine the misfortune of the Texan people. And because of the storm, people also lost water and power, truly a case of “frost layered on snow” (one disaster after another). To date, Texas has already had tens of people die from this snow storm.
In the last few days, the Chinese and U.S. media have had a lot of coverage of the snow storm, but the analyses are very similar. This article is my attempt to approach it from a different angle.
1. A small government is not necessarily a good government
Tim Boyd, mayor of Colorado City, Texas, recently went viral in the U.S. due to one of his social media posts, in which he wrote:
“No one owes you or your family anything; nor is it the local governments responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim, it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn hand out!” If you were sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you because your lazy is direct result of your raising! Only the strong will survive and the week will perish. Folks, God Has given us the tools to support ourselves in times like this. This is sadly a product of a socialist government where they feed people to believe that the FEW work and others will become dependent for handouts.”
Boyd’s words enraged many people, and he was forced to resign. But did he say anything incorrect? He was merely speaking more bluntly than other government officials. Under the U.S. system, most politicians would not say this out loud, but they all think and act this way. Texas has been described as the U.S.’ “smallest government,” or in other words, you can think of them as the “most American,” so it shouldn’t be surprising that their politicians think this way.
The above words make it difficult to not think of China. Mayor Boyd’s criticism doesn’t make us feel any shame about having a socialist government at all. In fact, it creates a sense of pride. When there are difficulties there is an accountable government. No matter what it seems better than freezing in freedom!
In the not-too-distant past, we were repeatedly taught in domestic universities with the “night watchman” minarchist government philosophy that “the smallest government is the best government.” Few professors objected to the idea that “small government, big society” should be the ideal. But seeing the naked “small government” confession above, I wonder if domestic scholars and professors would also agree with it? Or do they disagree, but are afraid of expressing ideas contrary to the collective value orientation of their peers?
Many scholars and professors have lost their confidence in their own system in the face of hegemonic U.S. discourse, and they have also lost their ability to think independently. This situation has metastasized for decades in China’s ivory towers.
Is a small government necessarily a good government? Is a big government necessarily a bad government? These two questions have no real meaning—a government being good or bad simply does not have a direct relationship with its size.
The formation of various countries‘ political systems has its objective historical and social factors. A country becoming a hegemonic power does not mean that its political system is superior. The Xiongnu, the Khitans, and the Mongol Empire were all once past hegemons, but surely their tribal alliance system does not represent an “advanced” political system.
China has five thousand years of civilization, and a modern national governance system was formed two thousand years earlier than Europe and the United States. Now if you cut your feet to fit your shoes or “learn to walk in Handan,” you will only end up incapacitating yourself. 1
Fortunately, not all scholars are this muddled in their thinking. Many years ago, Wang Shaoguang put forth his ideas about a “way of politics,” and Zhang Weiwei has repeatedly emphasized an analytical framework of “good government vs. bad government.” It is very good that more and more young people are beginning to think about problems from this perspective. As for how small a government is suitable for the United States, let us leave that to the Americans to debate.
2. The “incompleteness” of federalism
Facing a major snow disaster, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that it was the responsibility of the state government and not the responsibility of the city government.
Maybe Mayor Turner is right to delineate the powers of governments at all levels, but is it reasonable for the city government to do nothing in the face of such a large natural disaster? Think about what would happen in China if a city encountered a natural disaster and the mayor said that it was the responsibility of the governor. What would happen? Dismissal on the spot! And that would be considered a relatively light punishment—it’s very likely that that kind of dereliction of duty would be met with jail time.
The United States is a federalist country. Each state is independent of the federation, counties are independent of states, and cities and towns are independent of counties. This is often interpreted as the superiority of the American system, but in fact, it has many drawbacks.
China is a unitary country, and local officials’ responsibility is not limited. The United States is a federalist country. Each state is independent of the federation, counties are independent of states, and cities and towns are independent of counties. The upper-level government does not have Chinese-style leadership over the lower-level government. This is often interpreted as the superiority of the American system, but in fact, it has many drawbacks.
Fudan University’s Professor Fan Yongpeng pointed out in his piece “Unity, Federalism and the “Feudalist” Factor in the American System” that the national structure of federalism is “unfinished.” I think this statement is very accurate.
If the internal organization of a country is mature enough and the coordination of various internal parts is good, then it will inevitably move toward a “completed” unified state structure. But the federal system rejects this mature and highly coordinated system. In other words, it is a historical choice that prevents a country from achieving sufficient maturity and high coordination.
But it is by no means the end of history. With the development of science and technology and as exchanges between people grow more frequent and in-depth, people will increasingly tend towards a unified market environment, a unified legal system, and unified rules of procedure, eventually eliminating the federal system.
Texas suffered a snow disaster—if this happened in China, it would be a case of “difficulties on one side, support from all sides,” but this would be very difficult to achieve in the United States. Aside from some charity work, it is difficult to get material support from other states.
This is not to say that Americans are not as moral as Chinese people, but that under the federal system, each state not only has to consider its own interests, but also its own set of legal systems and mechanisms for debate and decision-making. It is difficult for the federal system to efficiently allocate resources. If politicians in other states want to help, they would still need to take voters into account. Even if a politician bravely put forward a proposal for assistance, it would likely be difficult to pass through their state legislatures.
I have long felt that federalism as a form of national structure is very similar to the feudal system of the Western Zhou Dynasty in China. Setting aside the epochal differences between agricultural and industrial society, modernity and antiquity, as well as the differences between the monarchy and the republic, there is a great similarity between the two in terms of organizational structure.
The Zhou was the co-master of the world with its underlying states; the Zhou rituals formulated the guidelines for work and life in all of the states under the Zhou. The U.S. federation has a similar status, forming a co-governance relationship with the states as laid out in the U.S. Constitution.
The various states of the Zhou and the states of the United States have a great degree of independence. The Zhou Emperor and the United States federal government both have little ability to manage affairs below the state level.
When the emperor and the federation are strong, states have relatively high loyalty to the emperor and the federation, and their centripetal force is relatively strong. Once the power of the Zhou royals declined and federal hegemony began to waver, states began to move in their own direction. Not so long ago, some people in Texas were calling for independence. Some people on the Internet joked that if Texas became independent, a simple blizzard would destroy the country.
The Zhou’s feudal system was eventually replaced by the Qin Dynasty’s system of prefectures and counties. Afterwards, future dynasties all followed the Qin political system, and China entered the modern political era two thousand years ahead of the West. In the future, after American hegemony declines, whether there will be a rebirth from the ashes and movement towards unity, or toward a greater dissolution and separation, it is still hard to say.
Here we must also criticize Yan Fu’s view that “knowing that a partitioned Europe is prosperous, it follows that a unified China is weak.”
What is strange is that there are many people who still superstitiously believe in the Western “mini-political tradition” (Wang Gengwu), and believe that the federal system of the United States has tremendous advantages over the unitary system of China.
Near the end of the Qing Dynasty, China had been beaten so badly that it was scared. Everything foreign was considered good, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that the intellectuals of that generation had such views. What is strange is that there are many people who still superstitiously believe in the Western “mini-political tradition” (Wang Gengwu), and believe that the federal system of the United States has tremendous advantages over the unitary system of China.
Their main argument is that the West is strong, and many modern developed countries practice federalism. This kind of specious argument is simply untenable, and ignores that many Western countries also use a unitary system. So is their argument that Western developed countries developed because of the federal system?
The strength of the Western powers and developed countries is mainly due to their early industrialization when other countries were still agricultural or in even more backward social forms. Industrial society was able to easily achieve dominance over agricultural societies and this has continued since the modern day. This is a victory for advanced productivity, not a credit to the federal system as a superstructure.
(Due to space limitations, this article will focus on the above two issues. The following issues are only briefly analyzed, and will be discussed in a separate article in the future.)
3. Prevarication—a key manifestation of corrupt politics
Speaking of corruption, what immediately comes to mind is “embezzlement.” Corruption and embezzlement is something that almost everyone regards as an enemy in China. Objectively speaking, the direct corruption that people generally recognize, is much less common in the United States. This is something China should learn from. But corruption is not only embezzlement, but also prevarication, as well as inaction despite possession of public power.
A few days before the arrival of the blizzard, the weather forecast provided an early warning, but all levels of Texas’ government did not take any preventative measures. As mentioned above, Houston Mayor Turner kicked the ball to Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott issued a statement condemning the Electric Reliability Council of Texas for being unreliable and demanding an investigation. At the same time, Republicans blamed Biden’s promotion of green energy as the culprit, while Democrats criticized Abbott for only caring about votes.
All parties savaged each other fiercely, but there was not much action in terms of relief work. This kind of corruption is sometimes more harmful than embezzling a little money. Embezzlement is the “occupation” of other people’s property, but prevarication is treating the lives of people as child’s play. Political power cannot be left empty in the hands of politicians, it must be used to serve the people.
4. “Special privileges” are just as severe in the U.S.
During the snowstorm, Ted Cruz, one of the two senators from Texas, was escorted by the police to the airport and took his family by plane to Cancun, Mexico for vacation.
Highland Park is a wealthy suburb of Dallas. Former U.S. President George W. Bush settled here after his retirement. While the snow disaster caused millions of people to be without electricity for long periods, there was no power outage here.
In downtown Houston, Dallas, Austin and other cities, empty office buildings were brightly lit, and the city government offices were also not short of electricity. These are the explicit privileges formed by power and capital.
In downtown Houston, Dallas, Austin and other cities, empty office buildings were brightly lit, and the city government offices were also not short of electricity. These are the explicit privileges formed by power and capital, but various implicit privileges are also everywhere in the United States, which will be discussed further in a future article.
5. The privatization of key services may not necessarily bring about higher efficiency and better services
The Texas Power Grid is operated by the private Electric Reliability Council of Texas. In order to save costs and increase profits, this company did not do any winterization protection on power grid equipment. After the snow disaster, the private company said that it would institute rolling blackouts, which would only last for hours. However, it would end up lasting for days. At the same time, Texas electricity prices soared by more than 200 times. In contrast, during the snow disaster in southern China in 2008, the electricity prices in the affected provinces did not rise by a single cent.
Some people in China once advocated that the power sector should learn from the United States’ example and privatize. It now appears that the relevant departments were very wise to ignore this pressure and maintain the public nature of the power sector.
In a city where I lived in China, under the wave of privatization, the water management of the whole city was handed over to private enterprises. As a result, not only has the water quality significantly declined, but the water tariff has also risen significantly after one or two years of price stability.
6. U.S. infrastructure is truly outdated
The Thursday before the blizzard, Texas started getting freezing rain and the roads became slippery. 133 cars collided in a major pileup on the highway to Dallas, 6 people were killed and 65 people were injured. The local authorities dispatched 80 police cars, 26 fire trucks and 13 ambulances to control the situation.
This incident updated many people’s understanding of the United States. I was in the United States for more than three years and I was still shocked to see such news. A friend once told me that Americans are very aware of traffic rules and that serious traffic accidents rarely occur in the United States. But this time, it was really “serious.”
We express regrets for the dead and wounded, and we have to talk about the obsolescence and disrepair of U.S. highways. I’ve never seen the road conditions in Texas, so I can’t comment specifically, but we walked by the highway in Michigan every day and I was very shocked to see the bumpy and potholed state of it when I first came. I couldn’t believe that this was a developed highway in the United States. The road conditions in our country’s villages are much better than this.
The backwardness of infrastructure in the United States is not just reflected in the highways. Once you arrive at the NYC airport, you will feel that you have taken the wrong plane and don’t know which underdeveloped country you’ve arrived at.
In the U.S., trains are very expensive, and the comfort level will remind people of China’s past green seat cars (an older, spartan model). I took the train from Detroit to Chicago two years ago, and it felt like going back 20 years ago in time.
The United States planned to build high-speed rail much earlier than China. It is said that the project was started in the 1980s, but none have been built to date.
7. The situation of the elderly in the U.S. tears at the heartstrings
In the heavy snow a few days ago, a 78-year-old Texas old man fell in his yard. There was no one to assist him, and he froze to death in the severe cold.
Was there no one else living with him? I guess there was no one. There are many cases of elderly people living alone in the United States. There are some elderly people in their 80s who live alone, go to the supermarket alone, cook by themselves, and wash clothes by themselves, which is very sad to see.
It is well known that in the U.S., children leave their parents to live alone as soon as they reach adulthood. They occasionally visit their parents after, just like we visit our relatives in China. It is rare that the elderly live with their children. So when Americans get old, they either go to nursing homes or the old couple live by themselves. If their significant other is gone, they can only live by themselves. In the event of a fall in the heavy snow, tragedy will strike.
Chinese people have talked about “raising children to protect against old age” since ancient times. This idea, which has been passed down for thousands of years, came under criticism from experts in recent years. There is nothing wrong with scholars and experts calling for the establishment of a complete modern social security system, but the warmth and happiness that comes from taking care of relatives should not be discounted or discredited. Social pensions should be a fallback, but it does not represent modern justice.
- This is a reference to a story of a man who thought people from Handan had a lovely gait, so he tried to imitate their walking style for years and ended up forgetting how to walk himself.
Re-published with permission from Qiao Collective.