A note on Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu)
A simple, beautiful story about economics and class. I came across it after finishing the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy by Liu Cixin and noticing that Hao Jingfang had won the Hugo award for it the year after him.
What really drew my attention to the story was the fact that, according to Wikipedia at least, it was first published on a BBS! Yet another testament to how vital the smolweb still is.
It’s an amazing, piercing parable of class. In that sense, it reminds me of Parasite and classics like Bicycle Thieves. Works that are sincere and not afraid to be. They are beyond superficial political questions (left vs. right, etc.), and are instead about the concrete politics of everyday life.
The image of a folding city, one that segregates and hides away its workers, is both beautiful and terrifying. I hesitate to call it a ‘metaphor’, because it isn’t. The city really does fold (some reviewers on goodreads seemed to have problems with the believability of this central mechanism in the story!). It’s a real, concrete machine, one that sorts and orders. Modern urban planning and economic organisation are, of course, not as well-ordered and baroque as all that, but they still function much in the same was as a machine does. And, they are still mostly dictated by the chosen few at the top.
The story was written a few years ago now, but its central economic premise - a solution for ‘underemployment’ - seems even more relevant today in the quasi-post-covid climate. Who knows, perhaps our governments will find ways to ‘fold away’ those who are messing with unemployment figures and supposedly raising the risk of inflation. In fact, things like stimulus checks and Universal Basic Income are related to the solutions in Folding Beijing. That’s what’s interesting about the story, there is something humane and touching about the solution, even while it is horrifying and monstrous. The ‘alternative’ to the folding city model is presented by the official at the conference - get rid of millions of workers and replace them with automated/technological alternatives. So too is there something humane and noble about proposals for UBI, shorter work-weeks, etc. But just like the folding city, they don’t solve the real problem; the social segregation and inequality produced by a system where the means of production are controlled by a select few. Should we really rejoice if our current social system supplements us and allows us to work less hours? Does this matter if so many people find their jobs meaningless?
Anyway, it’s a great story, and short, so you should go check it out. Or, just wait for the movie, which will be coming out later in 2021 or 2022.