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April 23, 2007

The China Fantasy

How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression
James Mann – 9780670038251

This interesting book, like so many others of this genre, is required reading for people who want to be informed, and search for well explored, tightly reasoned contrarian attitudes. Recognized facts and attitudes are interpreted at considerable variance from received wisdom.

His premise is that our China policy uses entirely the wrong paradigm. “He,” by the way, was a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times for years, living and working in China.

The exposition begins with Nixon/Kissinger “opening up” China, and reviews our policies thru the current administration . . . all of which have been exhibited cavalier and misinformed attitudes:

• That China will change with the introduction of world trade and responsibilities.
• That China wants to pursue a democratic pathway, eventually, at least
• That the West (and specifically the U.S.) must treat China cautiously so as not to offend
• That with a growing middle class there will be an increasing demand for freedom and equality

Mann chronicles the varying policies of serial administrations, demonstrating that while the names and descriptions were altered by the various authors, the policy has remained the same. A policy he refers to as “the Soothing Scenario.”

It all began with our need to cultivate China to offset the Soviet Union during the cold war. It evolved into a need to help them become modern by encouraging trade, albeit with carrots and sticks to ensure liberalization and improved treatment of their populace-- specifically to stop incarcerating, sometimes executing dissidents, which policy ended when Clinton separated trade from improved policies, promising that opening up the Chinese market would end our trade deficit with them. (In fact, our deficit at the time was 15 billion per year. It is now over 200 billion and climbing.) It has ended with Bush’s confidence that there can only be improvement within an unspecified time frame if we continue to buy their stuff and encourage a middle class which will demand democracy.

All the while we have refused to face the fact that China hasn’t changed a whit. Even as the Berlin wall came tumbling down the Chinese murdered (probably) thousands in Tiananmen Square. We complained a little, but over time debauched the process, ending with the captured plane incident early in the Bush II administration, since which time we continue to “avoid offending” the Chinese dictators . . . all in the interest improving trade and improving “investment opportunities, which has done little but make jobs disappear and permit trade deficits increase. Of course we are flooded with cheaper products.

This we do with the conviction that things will improve over time. Mann suggests that they will not, and may indeed get worse. Probably will. We confuse their embracing Big Macs and Starbucks, Levi’s and tank tops with “Westernization” and the adoption of Capitalism and Democracy. Integration is the current catchword, having replaced engagement. But the fundamental problem is our resistance to recognition of “who’s integrating whom?” Are the Chinese being integrated into a new international economic and democratic order, or is China integrating the U.S. into a new international political order where democracy is no longer favored and where a government’s continuing eradication of all organized political opposition is accepted or ignored?

China supports, invests in, encourages and trades with the worst dictatorships on the planet and will not only continue to do so, but increase these activities. Over time we may see, instead of a democratic China, a profusion of China supported dictators, juntas and other undemocratic governments throughout the world. Dictatorships from Burma to Zimbabwe are currently being supported, and China frequently flummoxes the West at the level of the Security Council of the U.N.

U.S. businesses, ostensibly encouraging openness, are subjected to restraints in order to operate in China (Think Google and Microsoft.) Whenever some major visitation takes place, suddenly there is a burst of positive press and the release of dissidents. When “the Summit” (or whatever) is over and the good guys have gone home there is a quiet Reconquista. The dissidents are imprisoned again and the press reverts to form. And we ignore it! After all, they’re making progress!

The Communist leaders don’t acknowledge their intention to maintain their monopoly, and the strategy is good for the elites in both China and the U.S. Further, and as importantly, it is equally good for the emergent middle class of cosmopolitan China. While the emerging middle class is larger than the population of any European country, insitu it represents only a tiny fraction of the 1.3 billion Chinese population; 80-90 million “comfortable” Chinese vs. 1,210 million peasants. Why would the fortunate support democracy when they have so much to lose (?) Mann asks.

America’s failure of imagination on China is comparable in some ways to its inability to come to grips with terrorism. In both instances, the main obstacle has been conceptual in nature. Rather than simply assume that “change is coming,” might we think about what it might mean for the U.S. and the world to have a repressive, one party state in China which supports and encourages similar, illiberal governments around the globe.

“It is a prospect that our paradigm of an inevitably changing China cannot seem to envision.” The belief that China will become like Taiwan or South Korea is a far remove from reality. It will not . . . and we can’t force it, as did we with these two; an “Asian Tiger,” to be sure, but do we really want to continue to encourage this beast?

Posted by respeto at April 23, 2007 12:02 PM