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

Among the vignettes that bookend the six chapters of Victor Seow’s deft Carbon Technocracy is a recollection of the 1932 Pingdingshan massacre. On Sept 16 of that year, soldiers with Japan’s Kwantung Army—the garrison force that had policed Japanese railway concessions in Manchuria since 1906 and now formed the backbone of occupied Manchukuo—murdered some three thousand Chinese civilians ostensibly in retaliation for acts of resistance at the nearby Fushun colliery. Seow observes that the massacre was exceptional in its cruelty yet consistent with the “systematic violence of both the imperial project and the energy regime of carbon technocracy” (163). By World War II this energy regime reached its militarized apogee, relying on forced labor to mine the “treasure house” of Manchurian coal and fuel the expansion of Japan’s Asia-Pacific empire. Seow makes clear that, following Japan’s defeat in 1945, Chinese Nationalist and Communist inheritors of the Fushun mines readily continued technocratic practices of carbon extraction established by the Japanese. This legacy of Japanese imperialism, Seow suggests, remains apparent in present-day Chinese and Japanese approaches to fossil fuel extraction and therefore is a force to reckon with as we try to imagine a global transition from carbon-based energy.

In Carbon Technocracy, Seow weaves a stunning range of research conducted in China, Japan, Taiwan, and elsewhere into a narrative of the development of East Asia’s largest open-pit coal mine at Fushun, in China’s northeast. More broadly he makes a case for what he calls “carbon technocracy,” engaging with the work of Timothy Mitchell, in particular Mitchell’s 2011 Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.[1] Where Mitchell highlighted how “the flow and concentration of energy made it possible to connect the demands of miners [in northern Europe and the U.S.] to those of others, and to give their arguments a technical force that could not easily be ignored,” Seow seeks to show how such demands and connections were precluded in northeast Asia amid the development of scientistic approaches to coal extraction.[2] For Seow, carbon technocracy constitutes a non-democratic “technopolitical system grounded in the idealization of extensive fossil fuel exploitation through mechanical and managerial means” (8). It also “describe[s] a historical process that is concurrently an alternative account of state formation in modern East Asia and a transnational history of technology” (8). Although, as I elaborate below, Seow’s concept of “carbon technocracy” at times glosses over important political distinctions, his book as a whole provides the most comprehensive picture to date of the conditions by which Japanese and Chinese states became dependent on fossil fuels during the twentieth century. It foregrounds the inseparability of fossil fuel dependency from imperialist violence as well as the contingent relationship between carbon extraction and political forms. Scholars working on any aspect of twentieth-century East Asian history will have much to learn from Seow’s work, as will scholars and activists addressing fossil fuels in other parts of the globe. It joins a growing list of humanistic studies of East Asia’s fossil fuel history that help us understand how China and Japan are currently among the world’s top consumers of coal and oil (and China among the top producers of both), and to evaluate the prospects for a post-carbon future.[3]   

Chapters one through four move chronologically and thematically from late-nineteenth-century Meiji Japanese excursions into the Qing empire’s Manchurian territory through the end of the Second World War. The cleverly titled chapter 1, “Vertical Natures,” guides readers through legal rationales deployed by Japanese imperialists in the wake of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War to dispossess Chinese mine owners of their Russian-invested holdings. We learn how Japanese engineers affiliated with the South Manchuria Railway Company (“Mantetsu”) after 1907 began to develop the Fushun colliery with cutting-edge technology and access to a Chinese labor force made vulnerable by the dislocations of the Qing empire’s demise. Chapter two, “Technological Enterprise,” takes readers into mine mechanization during the 1910s and 20s and the aspirations of Mantetsu managers to render labor as redundant as possible through such mechanization. Seow details labor management techniques including wage increases, reduced working hours, and the construction of leisure facilities aimed at maximizing productivity that simultaneously forestalled the kinds of worker empowerment and democratic participation indicated by Mitchell (101). As in chapter one, Seow underscores the racialized hierarchy of Mantetsu’s Fushun enterprise: Chinese laborers were subjected to surveillance practices including fingerprinting, drug testing, and draconian policing. Japanese managers consistently paid Chinese workers less than their Japanese counterparts; the latter also performed more dangerous work and lived in segregated housing far inferior to Japanese neighborhoods (113). In his highlighting of the racialization of labor, Seow shows how Fushun emerged during the 1910s and 1920s as East Asia’s largest coal mine through concerted applications of technology and the calibrated exploitation of Chinese workers.  

Chapter three turns to metropolitan Japan during the interwar years, looking closely at the influential “Fuel Society” and the mounting anxieties among government-affiliated intellectuals that Japan lacked the fossil fuel resources (coal and increasingly petroleum) enjoyed by other imperialist powers, particularly the United States. This competitive impulse, which invariably implied expanded Japanese claims to overseas colonies and leaseholds, was matched, Seow indicates, by anxieties among domestic coal producers that gluts of Fushun coal were driving their own prices down. Chapter four addresses how fossil fuel anxieties propelled Japan’s wartime militarism and how Fushun coal functioned both within the managed economy of Manchukuo after 1932 and in the expanding Japanese empire writ large. Here, Seow productively coins the term “warscapes of intensification,” after historian Christopher Jones’ “landscapes of intensification,” capturing the way “aggressor states were…motivated to expand further for access to even more resources and to mine presently held deposits with greater ferocity” (187).[4] This intensification not only relied on the gross exploitation of colonized labor forces but rendered the empire’s energy supply routes vulnerable to counterattack (187-88). By war’s end, Fushun was “but a shadow of its former self, exhausted by the demands of wartime mobilization and the limits of carbon technocracy” (204).         

Chapters five and six document the transfer of the Fushun mines to Chinese control following Japan’s 1945 defeat, first to the Nationalist Party and then, by 1948, to the victorious Communist Party. Seow details how the Nationalist Party had been struggling, with limited financial resources and against multiple obstacles, since the 1920s to uncover and develop China’s coal and oil deposits. After full-scale war broke out against Japan in 1937, the powerful, technocrat-dominated National Resources Commission took charge of this endeavor and assumed control over Fushun once the Soviets retreated from Manchuria. Rendering the mines productive again after their wartime hyper-exploitation would have been difficult enough, but the Nationalists faced the added complication that the Soviets had plundered relevant machinery during their brief occupation. (As Seow explains, the CCP awkwardly navigated this plunder during the 1950s heyday of Sino-Soviet cooperation, 262). Despite the Nationalists’ inability to revitalize the mines, Seow concludes, “if we were to use the textbook definition of ‘technocracy’ as a ‘government of engineers,’ the [Nationalist] Chinese state actually appears to have come closer to that ideal than its Japanese counterpart” (254). Moreover, Seow argues in chapter six that the Communists took up this technocratic legacy with fervor in their management of Fushun. With a production-first ethos, the CCP employed Japanese engineers to help restore the mines to their prewar capacities, as had the Nationalists (pp. 263-269).[5] Following Lenin in regarding coal as the “grain of industry,” CCP leaders regarded ever-increasing extraction as key to socialist modernization, from the mechanization of food production to the development of urban transport and housing (270). According to Seow, Communist efforts to overturn inherited hierarchies of expertise made little headway at Fushun, where the idea was enshrined instead that “useful knowledge, be it from formally trained engineers or experienced workers, was that which helped further production for the advancement of the state.” (282). Among other things, the 1958 Great Leap Forward and ensuing catastrophic famine revealed the disastrous consequences of relentless coal-fired productivism. Carbon Technocracy’s thoughtful epilogue brings the story up to the present, highlighting Fushun’s “exhausted limits” as well as the deepened dependency of both China and Japan on fossil fuels during the past sixty years.

Ultimately, what does Seow’s concept of “carbon technocracy” help us to better understand? There are too many insights to adequately summarize here. Among them is how Japanese imperialists developed the coal mines in a manner that sharply limited Chinese workers’ organizing capacities both within and beyond the Fushun colliery. Their emphasis on technological refinement to maximize worker productivity (whether in terms of fingerprinting workers or improving pumping systems) inscribed racialized hierarchies and precluded civic actions on workers’ part. Seow carefully situates these developments amid rivalries between imperialist powers that commonly regarded “machines as the measure of men” and natural resource control as key to national survival.[6] Seow’s emphasis on the ways that inter-imperialist competition spurred technocratic impulses helpfully takes us away from culturalist explanations of technocracy’s appeal in East Asia (19). Further, Seow’s descriptions of mine operations show the entwinement of technological advances and fantasies of limitless carbon extraction. From this we see how groups as politically opposed as Mantetsu, the KMT, and the CCP all shared the desire to maximally extract fossil fuels and thereby created and perpetuated the logics of “carbon technocracy.” Among the tragedies of this commonality, as Seow underscores in the epilogue, is that the biosphere is indifferent to the political leanings of whoever is extracting and burning the fossil fuels. The impact of this extraction and burning also lands much more heavily on disenfranchised populations around the world. [7]

As might be expected, in identifying a thread that connects regimes that fought devastating wars against one another, important differences between these regimes recede from view. If “carbon technocracy” entails “marshalling science and technology toward the exploitation of fossil fuels for statist ends,” future historians will want to bring the differing politics of the states in question back into the picture (4). For instance, even if the biosphere is indifferent, as Seow indicates throughout it surely matters to other aspects of human wellbeing that Chinese Communists in the 1950s were mining coal to build up a socialist society rather than to racially dominate and plunder the Asia-Pacific region as per the wartime Japanese state. In this vein, when comparing the “technocracy” aspect of “carbon technocracy” across these varied regimes, we also need to consider how they differently conceptualized labor within the social hierarchy and what the application of scientific and technological expertise was supposed to do for it. Seow addresses questions of technology and labor most directly in the chapters on Japanese control of the Manchurian mines. If space had allowed, it might have been helpful to consider claims, based on postwar interviews conducted with female former mineworkers in metropolitan Japan, that the availability of an exploitable female labor force in the late 19th and early 20th centuries disincentivized colliery mechanization there.[8] Likewise, to include discussion in chapter five not just of Sun Yat-sen’s industrial development plans for China but of Sun’s (and his Nationalist followers’) thinking about the role of workers in these plans, which sharply contrasted with the roles Communists envisaged.[9] To be sure, Seow attends to how coal miners actually fared under Nationalist rule, and especially under the exhausting demands of CCP productivism in the 1950s. But efforts to change the social status of workers, to determine whether profits from extraction would be privately accumulated or publicly redistributed, to decide whether buildings would house nurseries for workers’ children or exist as segregated spaces for management (as Seow discusses on p. 283), doubtless also spelled differing types of expert rule with their own internal conflicts. Might any of these have pointed, at least potentially, to a world beyond relentless fossil fuel extraction? Could these pasts supply any alternative resources with which to help mend a planet beset by heatwaves, droughts, and catastrophic storms?

Seow’s book arrives as the climatic effects of fossil fuel consumption have become alarmingly apparent everywhere. Recent floods in Pakistan exacerbated by melting glaciers, drought and unrelenting heat in China, Europe, the U.S., and all around the globe bespeak the urgency of understanding the history that Seow traces. While Carbon Technocracy does not give much cause for optimism that a transition to renewable forms of energy in China will be any less technocratic than the exploitation of fossil fuels has been, it is an insightful and engaging book that should shape conversations about East Asia and energy for years to come.    


[1]Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (Verso 2011). Seow’s approach to technocracy also draws from Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Technopolitics, Modernity (University of California Press, 2002)

[2]Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, 21

[3]Among these are Li Hou, Building for Oil: Daqing and the Chinese Socialist State (Harvard University Asia Center, 2018); Judd C. Kinzley, Natural Resources and the New Frontier: Constructing Modern China’s Borderlands (University of Chicago Press, 2018); Grace Yen Shen, Unearthing the Nation: Modern Geology and Nationalism in Republican China (University of Chicago Press, 2014); Wu Lingjun, Meifu shiyou gongsi zai Zhongguo, 1870-1933 (Daoxiang chubanshe, 2001); Shellen Xiao Wu, Empires of Coal: Fueling China’s Entry into the Modern World Order, 1860-1920 (Stanford University Press, 2015)

[4]Christopher F. Jones, Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2016).

[5]This emphasis aligns with recent work including Koji Hirata, “Made in Manchuria: The Transnational Origins of Socialist Industrialization in Maoist China,” The American Historical Review, vol. 126 no. 3 (2021): 1072-1101; and Amy King, “Reconstructing China: Japanese Technicians and Industrialization in the Early Years of the People’s Republic of China,” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 50 no 1 (2016): 141-174

[6]Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Cornell University Press, 1989)  

[7] Thank you to Jia-Ching Chen for emphasizing this point in conversation about the book.

[8]W. Donald Burton, Coal Mining Women in Japan: Heavy Burdens (Routledge, 2014)

[9] Brian Tsui, China’s Conservative Revolution: The Quest for a New Order, 1927-1929 (Cambridge University Press, 2018).