Icarus in China

A bland photo of solar panels in China has hidden meanings.

Not another solar blog post … Trust me, this isn’t really about solar but about imagery and power.

The photo:
Panels ChinaScreenshot_1
At first sight, the only surprising thing about this image from China is the standard of the middle-class houses.

Here’s the accompanying story, from the English website of Xinhua, published on 9 April:

Photo taken on April 8, 2013 shows solar panels of a homemade photovoltaic power station made by a local resident named Mo Zhikai in Wumeng Village of Ningbo City, east China’s Zhejiang Province.

The 27-year-old Mo, an enthusiastic fan of photovoltaic power generation, installed over 70 solar panels with the capacity of 7.5 kilowatt on the roof of his own house and garage in 2009. Yet these panel were left unused as they were not allowed to be incorporated into the State Grid. Things changed as the State Grid Corporation of China released a document on Feb. 27, 2013, encouraging distributed generation to be incorporated into the State Grid. Staff members of Ningbo Power Bureau came to Mo’s village for a survey of Mo’s homemade photovoltaic power generation equipments on Monday. Mo will have the first homemade photovoltaic power station in Ningbo if everything goes smooth in 35 workdays.

Just a cute human-interest story to fill the pages? Possibly; I don’t think so though. (Alert: data-thin armchair speculation below the jump)

Consider. China is a post-Marxist state, but it’s still Leninist, and structurally closer to North Korea than we would like, though much saner. An unelected, cooptative oligarchy of engineers rules 1.3 billion Chinese from the leadership compound in Beijing. The media are one of the velvet gloves concealing the iron fist. They are even more important than in Soviet Russia. The huge population of China makes a Stasi or a Gosplan impracticable, so the Party has to use slogans, campaigns and day-to-day messaging as instruments of control even more than the Soviet or East German Communist parties did.

The media say what they are told to say. Wikipedia:

The editors-in-chief of China’s major media outlets must attend the [Propaganda] department’s central office weekly to receive instructions on which stories should be emphasized, downplayed, or not reported at all.

This applies especially to the press agency Xinhua, which is straightforwardly part of the government:

Xinhua is subordinate to the State Council and reports to the Communist Party of China’s Propaganda and Public Information Departments. …. The agency was described as the “eyes and tongue” of the Party, observing what is important for the masses and passing on the information. A former Xinhua director, Zheng Tao, noted that the agency was a bridge between the Party, the government and the people, communicating both the demands of the people and the policies of the Party.

So what’s the not-so-hidden message of the April story?

China’s government repeatedly raises national targets for solar energy. The latest is 35GW by 2015, matching Germany today. The starting point is 8 GW installed at end 2012, so the required installation rate over the next three years is higher than Germany’s peak of 7.5Gw in 2011. Why the disruptive haste? The obvious answer is killer smog from coal burning, worst in the booming cities where future threats to the régime may gestate. The Party needs to do something, and to be seen to be doing something, now.

Something interesting is happening within this target: a shift from utility to distributed. In October the sub-target for distributed solar for 2014 – next year – was raised to 8 Gw, over half the target of 14Gw, with 20Gw sketched in for 2015. Why? The distributed solar programme is being launched in the big cities, where it can have the biggest impact on air pollution. It’s also possible that Chinese difficulties in hooking up remote wind farms in places like Inner Mongolia to the grid are being replicated with solar farms.

Rooftop solar in cities faces its own obstacles: inexperienced installers and red tape. I read the Xinhua story as a message to the local officials who have blocked the connection of Mr. Mo’s DIY solar roof to the grid for three years: do it, now. It’s a hint with all the subtlety of a polite request to move your bike out of the road coming from the driver of a 60-ton main battle tank. The 35 days is just to save the officials’ face, and a hint to Mr. Mo not to crow too loudly.

Making this young man a hero is still extraordinary – and risky. Mo’s individualism would be out of place even in a German town, with its community wind farm promoted by the pastor and a Stammtisch in the best pub where the bosses of the Mittelstand companies gather on Fridays after work. In China, his type of nonconformity has been frowned on for 2,500 years. He’s behaving like the  idealised American hero of reality and fiction: Dirty Harry, Curtis Gulin, Steve Jobs, and a host of other success stories. Encouraging this sort of behaviour creates great risks. Is Mo the type to stay behind the Great Firewall? Will he keep his tweets apolitical?

It gets worse: mass deployment of rooftop solar will turn millions of more ordinary householders into producers. If Germany is any guide they will start thinking of the electricity company as their customer, and become much more informed about energy policy. They will take their cues from the Mr Mos. Empowered citizens are dangerous.

Rubens,_Icarus The rulers of China are educated and intelligent men, if rather short on experience of the outside world. I’m sure Xinhua’s ultimate boss Liu Qibao has thought this through. It’s a measure of the depth of China’s air pollution crisis that the leadership are prepared to play with the sun like Icarus.


The Fall of Icarus, by Rubens. The Breughel is a more interesting painting, but his Icarus is deliberately reduced to a tiny, ignored figure in the background, and is more in less invisible in a screen image. I wanted the literally OTT drama of the story.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “Icarus in China”

  1. I think you’re reading way too much into this. I also think you believe that Beijing rules everything with an iron fist. The Chinese bureaucracy has always been a fractious, difficult to control lot, for a lot longer than the Communist party’s been around.

    In China, turning millions of households into independent producers of electricity means…the state doesn’t have to provide electricity.

    1. “One less headache” is a very American view of government. Don’t Confucians welcome the headaches of mutual dependence? Their leaders worry that these bonds are too weak, not too strong. Sun Yat-Sen wrote a century ago:

      But the Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have a hundred million people gathering together in China, in reality they are just a pile of loose sand.

      1. So your claim is “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”?
        And with the electrification gone (at least from centralized control), the Communism goes?

        I think this is way too simplistic. The point of the quote (IMHO) is that gratitude for a better life is worth a lot. And if distributed solar brings a better life, that brings out more gratitude.
        The party will live or die on substantially more obvious matters (like how they handle the social safety net), not on people suddenly concluding that home electrical production is a reason to overturn society. I think they had enough of that in 1958 (and the memories are strong enough) to realize that putting small industry in your back yard is not some magic key to utopia.

        1. It’s of course very unlikely that distributed solar by itself could bring about the fall of the régime. I was writing about risks; and it seem to me that distributed solar adds to them in quite obvious ways that could synergise with other problems. It’s simply the lesser evil. The Chinese Communist Party has to master all its challenges: one really big failure and it’s out. At the moment the biggest failure looks to be air pollution.

      2. And that may have been true for Sun Yat Sen. There were things that happened in the Forbidden City, in costal or river towns, but there was no true unifying experience. The peasants plowed, the aristocrats ruled, the smart applied for the confucian exams. But what happened on the other side of China had no effect.
        Then there was the revolution itself, civil war, Japanese invasion, terrible depredations, and the finale of the civil war. The Korean war. The cultural revolution.
        These were shared. Shared firestorms that swept the country. And then the sudden explosion of industrialization and the rise of China. There are some thicker bonds now…

  2. Power is becoming more devolved, distributed and defused, whether it be energy, economic, institutional or political.

      1. We’ve heard this claim before. The Greening of America is, what, 40+ years old now…
        Forgive me if I’m skeptical, in a world where the NSA has carte blanche and the US can rain missiles down on any square meter of territory it likes, of this sort of statement.

        What’s devolved and devolving is precisely the obsolete dregs of power that no-one cares about.

        1. Moisés Naím does a good analysis of the changing aspect of power in the world in his book, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be. Libertarians find his take on the changes in power interesting and encouraging though he’s no libertarian himself. He applauds the general increase in freedom around the world, but frets that democracies are loosing the power to make the big decisions he thinks the world needs.

  3. Fascinating article, and I agree with Allen K., NO APOLOGIES for these, please.

    But if I might engage in rather obvious polemics, your take on the Chinese mainstream press hardly differentiates it from our own, and I rather doubt the Chinese brain is more malleable than the American, when bombarded with non-stop memes and tropes and half-truths and outright lies. Remember, Fox won the Supreme Court case saying that the nightly news could lie at will, and it surely does. I might even trust the engineers in Beijing more than I’d trust General Electric and NewsCorp and Viacom to propagandize with at least a bit of public good in mind.

  4. I briefly studied Chinese environmental law as part of my legal coursework years ago. The prof made a political argument – that environmental law, and the rule of law in general, was a a way for central Chinese authority to exert control over peripheral governments that otherwise might evade dictates from above, conceal what they’ve done, and connive with immediate superiors.

    I thought it was an interesting argument for why an authoritarian system might want a somewhat independent judicial system and even citizen lawsuits, although it’s still in doubt whether China’s getting to that point.

    1. The principal-agent problem in government is as old as Gilgamesh and Narmer. It’s particularly acute in a country as vast and populous as China. What you say about Chinese environmental law would have rung a bell with Henry II. Trial by jury wasn’t a democratic invention, but a way of extending the reach of royal power by offering a much better form of justice than baronial or other traditional courts could do.

Comments are closed.