Carbon Technocracy: An Interview with Historian Victor Seow

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Cover image of Carbon Technocracy, by Victor Seow

Discussions of how to address climate change frequently note that one of the most important factors will be breaking China’s “addiction” to coal. Coal-fired power plants have provided electricity to the country’s manufacturing sector and growing cities for decades, while at the same time creating toxic air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Shifting from coal to wind or solar power for China’s energy production is a crucial step toward reducing greenhouse gases, but also poses significant challenges—both practical and political—for Chinese Communist Party leaders.

The centrality of coal in Chinese energy production was by no means inevitable. Rather, it came about through what historian Victor Seow (Harvard University) terms the “carbon technocracy” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Seow is author of a new book, aptly titled Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia (University of Chicago Press, 2022), that analyzes the development-fueled dreams of Chinese and Japanese states as they sought to extract ever-increasing amounts of coal from below the earth’s surface. Seow’s deftly written narrative moves back and forth from Northeast China to Japan, always returning to the open-pit mine at Fushun, Manchuria’s “Coal Capital,” east of Shenyang. Generations of laborers toiled at Fushun, overseen by the Japanese South Manchuria Railway Company (Mantetsu) until 1945 and then, in succession, by Soviet, Chinese Nationalist, and Chinese Communist officials. Regardless of the leaders in charge, Fushun’s miners carried out difficult and dangerous work, their efforts subject to the same “technologies of extraction” as the coal they brought above ground.

In Carbon Technocracy, Seow explores how political power and the fossil fuel economy became inextricably linked in the modern technocratic state. A conviction that the production and consumption of coal could serve to measure growth and modernity drove government bureaucrats to seek higher and higher output from mines like Fushun. Officials from the various states that oversaw Fushun across the decades would likely not have welcomed comparisons to their predecessors. They all, however, shared a belief in the importance of capitalizing on China’s coal resources to make their respective regimes stronger. And they all, in ways large and small, helped create the addiction to coal that China’s leaders now grapple with quitting.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham (MEC): I always like to start by learning how the idea for a project came about. What were the questions or circumstances that led you to the topic of coal mining in Fushun?

Victor Seow (VS): As with many other scholars and their first projects, I took a somewhat long and winding path to Fushun and coal mining.

The short version of this story is that I came to study it through an interest in Chinese labor migration to Manchuria. I had been intrigued by this movement of people for several reasons, most of all the extent to which it persisted even after Japan invaded the region and set up its client state of Manchukuo there. What had been an internal migration became ostensibly an international one, and I wanted to find out more about these migrants and how they navigated the shifting political and institutional landscape between the Chinese nation and the Japanese empire.

I began with some preliminary research in Shandong province, where many of these migrants came from. The archival record was, however, quite fragmentary, and I thought that it may be better to pick a point on the receiving end and work backwards from there. So I got on a boat in Yantai and sailed across the Bohai Gulf to Dalian. I proceeded to go around several archives and libraries in Northeast China looking for materials on the industries where the migrants labored, and the Fushun colliery came up again and again. After searching through the catalogs of libraries and archives in Japan and finding out about the wide range of sources on Fushun from the decades that its coal mining industry was under Japanese management, I made my choice and selected this site.

As I started digging further into Fushun’s history, though, I soon realized that there was a complex and fascinating story that one could tell about the coal itself. Influenced in part by the materialist turn and how an attention to the physicality of things might yield insights into social processes, I decided that I wanted to tell that story. One of the things I then did was to enroll in an economic geology course that was offered in the earth and planetary sciences department here. Through this course and its various components, which included a petroleum geochemistry lab and a field trip to a working colliery, I learned a ton about coal and other fossil fuels, which helped me to better make sense of the sources I was collecting and reading and to write slightly more textured narratives about these energy resources.

MEC: It’s now fairly common among China historians to “cross the 1949 divide” and point out continuities between the Chinese Nationalist and Chinese Communist states. What I’ve seen less frequently is also bringing the period of Japanese rule into the story and knitting the three together, as you do. How does the concept of “carbon technocracy” enable you to draw a throughline in the history of these three governing regimes?

VS: Perhaps a good place for me to start is by laying out what I mean by “carbon technocracy.” So I use this term to describe a modern regime of energy extraction that is defined by a statist commitment to industrial development based on access to cheap and abundant sources of carbon energy and a desire to marshal science and technology toward this end. It is both an ideal and a sociotechnical system that the ideal helps bring into being.

Although the three states I looked at differed from each other in various ways, from professed political ideology to capacity, they each take up carbon technocracy in one way or another. And at a basic level, the book seeks to underscore this common denominator.

At the same time, one major point that the book makes is that the technological and infrastructural legacies of the Japanese empire in Manchuria served as an important foundation for the post-1949 Chinese state’s pursuit of carbon technocracy and socialist industrialization. Here I join scholars who have advanced a similar argument such as Ramon Myers, Matsumoto Toshirō, Daqing Yang, Amy King, and Koji Hirata.

But I stress that this is not necessarily something to celebrate. For one, the industrial edifice that Japan raised in the region was built upon the backs of Chinese labor and almost certainly not for the benefit of ordinary Chinese. And the large-scale, coal-fired industrial expansion that this fraught inheritance enabled did not yield positive outcomes for much of the local population and absolutely not for the environment here and elsewhere. Hence, I argue that we can recognize that “contribution” without thinking of it as such.

MEC: One element of your book that I really appreciate is how you play with scale. A good portion of Carbon Technocracy examines big-picture politics and events, and you depict the mine at Fushun as a massive endeavor that inspires awe, embodying what you term the “technological sublime.” Yet you never lose sight of the individual, especially those laboring in the mines. What was the human factor within carbon technocracy, and how did miners themselves promote or resist the imperatives of the state’s endeavors?

VS: Thanks so much for that observation. Moving between those scales was something I really aspired to do as I wrote and revised this book, and so I am particularly grateful that you picked it up. Because of the size of the extractive operations at Fushun, it consistently featured in discussions and decisions about fuel and energy in the corridors of power, whether in Beijing, Nanjing, or Tokyo. But while I wanted to follow those developments, I also wanted to keep Fushun and those who labored there at the core of the story.

In regard to the human factor in carbon technocracy, this is, to me, one of the idealized fictions of this energy regime. Carbon technocracy promotes the use of fossil-fueled machines for productivist purposes and imagines a diminished reliance upon labor, which its adherents often deemed unreliable at best. The massive open-pit mine that came to represent the Fushun colliery was, in a sense, a materialization of these notions. Still, as the demand for output continued to grow and operations further expanded, so too did the dependence on workers and their human energy.

In terms of resistance, this was something I tried to bring up at points in the book to show how carbon technocracy was seldom the well-oiled machine that proponents imagined it to be. I highlight both episodes of collective action and instances of everyday resistance. As it often is the case with social history, this required some reading against the grain of sources. For instance, one source I enjoyed using was a set of bilingual Chinese-Japanese textbooks that the company put out to help Japanese managers and supervisors learn Mandarin so as to communicate with the Chinese who worked under them. They contain a series of dialogues across multiple work settings, and many of these involve a Japanese superior admonishing a Chinese worker or accusing him of some infraction, such as not properly maintaining a machine. On the one hand, this points to a form of scripted distrust that reinforced the many inequalities between Japanese and Chinese at this workplace. On the other hand, it also suggests that the devices in this increasingly mechanized site still needed Chinese workers for upkeep and were vulnerable to their inaction.

MEC: You carried out the research for this book in a variety of far-flung libraries and archives across China, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. Was there any part of the story that you hoped to tell but didn’t find documentation for? Anything you did find that you’d like to explore further (or see another historian pick up and continue in their work)?

VS: This connects back to my response to the question you raised right before this, but I do wish that there were more sources written by or from the standpoint of Fushun’s Chinese miners, especially before 1949. Much of what I say about these workers in that period is based on reports that Mantetsu produced about them in the aggregate, oral histories that were collected with individuals over the decades after the revolution, and certain documents that had to be read against the grain, as with the example I mentioned earlier. Again, this is a common challenge in social history, and we ultimately have to make the best use of the sources that we can get our hands on, but I do wish I could have said even more.

As for something that I would love to see someone explore further, in my chapter on Manchukuo, Japan, and World War II, I tried to place developments in Fushun and Manchuria within Japan’s “empire of energy” by providing a quick account of what was going on with the coal sectors in the home islands and in the other occupied territories of Taiwan, Korea, Karafuto, and North China and how these were all interconnected in what I term a “warscape of intensification” (an adaptation of energy historian Christopher Jones’s idea of “landscape of intensification”). I do think, though, that there is much more one could write on the subject and would be eager to read work on this front.

MEC: You bookend Carbon Technocracy with accounts of your visits to the mine at Fushun, where there’s now a museum that celebrates the history of coal extraction there. I’ve also been to a coal mine museum in Central Pennsylvania, where I would sum up the narrative presented as “Coal mining was a dirty, dangerous job and thank goodness we’ve now progressed beyond it.” But, of course, there’s still lots of coal mining going on in the world, and many people continue to work in dirty, dangerous conditions. What are some of your thoughts on coal mines as tourist sites, and how they deal with the past and present of the industry?

VS: For many coal mines across the world, tourism has become an established (and some may say the expected) direction to take after operations wind down. Here I am thinking of former sites of extraction from the Big Pit in Blaenavon, Wales, to Yubari in Hokkaido, Japan. From the ones I have been to, the narrative has tended to be a mix of celebration and nostalgia. For sure the difficulty and danger of mine work would be emphasized, but such is often offset by accounts of how coal mining built both the local community and national economy and by a sense that much has been lost with the decline or disappearance of the industry in the area (even if coal mining persists elsewhere).

In the case of Fushun, I think that those elements are there. But the establishment of the coal mining museum also fits neatly within the frame of local industrial museums that have been springing up across China in the past few decades. Such museums typically chart the evolution of a particular industry over time while claiming its continued importance for the locale in the present. Here, my sense is that the company built the museum as a monument to reassert how central coal mining has been to Fushun and to the country more generally, but this museum ended up becoming instead something more like a tombstone for the industry in the area, which had been flagging for some time. To me, the main feature of the museum is not the exhibits inside but the observation tower toward the back from which one can view the workings in the enormous open pit below. A few years after the museum went up, operations at that site came an end.

MEC: Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, historian, professor, or person living in the world?

VS: I care a lot about writing as a craft and love delving into the nuts and bolts behind how we get words onto a page. I am by no means the only one who feels this way, but I think that we as historians and as scholars in general could afford to spend more time discussing how we write and how we might do so better. In science studies, we often talk about the black box, in which we have a technoscientific artifact or system whose complex inner workings remain hidden from view and require unpacking by the intrepid scholar. As I see it, there are few things in our line of work that are as tightly blackboxed as writing.

That was a rather lengthy preface to my answer to your question. Something that has captured my attention recently is a new podcast by Kate Carpenter, a historian of science who is currently completing her Ph.D. at Princeton. It is called Drafting the Past, and it features historians who come and chat about various aspects of their writing process. To date, the guests on the show have all been highly skilled writers of history with varying styles and approaches. And Kate is a terrific host. She asks great questions, and something she does that I enjoy is to pick an excerpt of the guest’s writing, read it out, then have the guest walk us through the choices they made as they pieced together the selected prose. But yes, highly recommend.

And I have been giving additional thought to writing of late because of the work I am doing on my next book. This is a history of industrial psychology in China from the 1930s, when the first study in this subfield was carried out, to the present, in which it exists, as elsewhere, in its contemporary form as industrial-organizational psychology. By tracing this history, I seek to examine how work becomes and functions as an object of scientific inquiry and how the sciences of work intersect with larger social discourses about the nature and value of labor.

As to where writing comes into the picture, this has to do with just how different a book this will be from my first. While Carbon Technocracy is very much grounded in site and setting, this new book, provisionally titled The Human Factor, will be centered on a circle of characters, the psychologists who were engaged in this work of the workplace. To me, this shift in focus is going to involve a reworking of how I typically tell stories, which might be a bit of a challenge, but one I am excited about and readily embrace.

MEC: Thank you, Victor, and congratulations on the publication of Carbon Technocracy!

VS: Thank you so much, Maura! This has been a real pleasure!