When Only the Trade is Free

In this month's Taiwan Review Joseph Eaton, professor at Taiwan's National Chengchi University, examines a slender but welcome new book by James Mann.
Mann is an experienced China watcher, a former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and currently author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Mann's previous works include About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton (1998) and Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004).
Mann's new book is The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression. In it he challenges the notion that progress toward democracy has been under way in the PRC.

China watchers usually forecast either of two probable futures for the PRC--democratization or catastrophic implosion, both of which involve change. Mann contends that we should not assume that China will transform. He foresees a third scenario: the continuation of China's extraordinary economic growth under an undeviating authoritarian regime. China could very well become richer and much more powerful in 25 years and still have a repressive, undemocratic government.

. . . Americans are told that through commerce, China will evolve into a pluralistic nation enjoying increasing freedom of expression and a democratic form of government. This hopeful scenario of slow regime change has become almost a religion among US policymakers and most of the media. American integration with China for the last 35 years has been sold to the US public based on the promise of change.

For several years after the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, victims of Chinese political oppression were worthy of American attention, as Hungarians were in 1956, Czechs in 1968 and Poles in the early 1980s. Nowadays, the massacre is rarely mentioned in the West and China has become much richer and more firmly integrated into the world economy. Compared to the treatment of other authoritarian regimes, Washington has handled China with kid gloves.

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American pro-China policies were spawned by the Cold War strategy of forcing the Soviet Union to worry about NATO and China at the same time. However, the rationale for an anti-Soviet China policy disappeared in 1989 as the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. Earlier that year, the People's Liberation Army fired upon its own citizens at Tiananmen. The notion that engagement would change China was possibly the only way to sell the notion of trade and investment in China to Americans in the post-Tiananmen, post-Cold War era.

Mann does not blame Americans exclusively for the creation of a wishful China policy. European and Asian business and political elites are just as willing to invest in China's undemocratic present, while ostensibly encouraging a democratic future. Former British Prime Minister John Major's September 1991 visit to China contributed to a thawing of relations with the West after Tiananmen. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of "unstoppable momentum" toward democracy in China.

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Mann finds scarce evidence for China's democratization. Chinese political activists, religious adherents, ethnic minorities and intellectuals are still subject to harassment or arrest--and persecution accelerated after President Hu Jintao took office. . . . The rule of law has been applied selectively in China to protect the rights of businesses but does little to protect speech or political protest. Mann envisions further protection of commercial interests but not individual rights, and an environment where foreign investors are kept happy but Chinese nonconformists suffer.

In the 1990s, the Internet looked like a promising way of circumventing governmental controls on communication. Instead, China has created a vast "intranet," devoting copious resources to limiting the spread of information. Recent episodes have shown that technology in China can be channeled for reactionary purposes, as in rallying Chinese nationalists against a Starbucks located within Beijing's Forbidden City and in the never-ending recitation of Japanese war atrocities.

The terrible reality is that American corporations--including Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo--have helped the Chinese police state spy on and prevent information from reaching its subjects.

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Those who place little stock in the possibility that China will slowly evolve into a pluralistic state emphasize its inherent and longstanding historical weaknesses, the widening gap between haves and have-nots, corruption, environmental devastation, ethnic and regional divisions and the fragility of financial institutions. Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China (2004), wrote that such weaknesses are more likely to tear China apart than lead to a peaceful transition to democracy. But Mann believes that the centripetal forces within China remain strong. For most of its history, China has been able to maintain a remarkable stability and territorial integrity. Fatalistic views of China are just as wrong to assume collapse as is the idea that commerce will automatically lead to democracy.

. . . Even academics, who a few decades ago were limited to teaching Mandarin or lecturing on their esoteric specialties, are influenced by the powerful network of money and business opportunities related to China. A "lexicon of dismissal" has developed that shields China from criticism.... Mann also complains of pejorative labels borrowed by American media from the Chinese state media. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and the Dalai Lama, for example, have been branded "troublemakers."

Mann does not obsess over the modernization of China's military, but does find that the odds of a rise in China's belligerence are increased by the nation's inability to evolve politically.

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He proposes a new American emphasis under which economic, military and diplomatic interests should come first, not the abstract notion that purchasing Chinese-made clothing and toys would somehow convince a hardheaded authoritarian regime to pursue a different sort of relationship with its more than one billion subjects.

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Mann's warning not to equate economic change with democratization should be contemplated with extreme seriousness.

Professor Eaton's complete discussion may be read at the Taiwan Review.

James Mann.
The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression
New York: Viking Adult, 2007
144 pages
ISBN: 0-6700-3825-3

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