The China Fantasy
The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression by James Mann (Penguin 2007).
A popular example of insanity is the repetition of the same action with the expectation of a different result. Although author James Mann is too polite to phrase it so archly in his book The China Fantasy, the United States’ policy toward China over the last 20 years is an example of this form of insanity.
When I was in college, I spent days watching the C-Span coverage of the hearings and debates regarding President George H.W. Bush’s decision to renew most favored nation trading status for China. (I was a rocking party guy back then.)
The national security establishment of the time – Bush, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and company – argued that the Chinese leaders were “defying the actuarial tables” and that continued “engagement” was necessary to prod the next generation of leadership down a democratic path.
Since those days in 1990, the senior Chinese leadership has changed twice. Deng Xiaoping and the Elders gave way to what is called the Third Generation, led by Jiang Zemin, which in turn handed the keys to Zhongnanhai to the Fourth Generation, led by current Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao.
Little has changed in the intervening 17 years. Yes, the economy of China is moving from a command-and-control system to one with prominent capitalistic features. But, as Mann stresses, the government of China is still a Marxist-Leninist relic, in which the organs of state are subordinate to the Party’s Central Committee, Politburo and, at the top of the pyramid, the Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-man oligarchy that runs the world’s most populous nation.
Yet U.S. policy is mired in the belief – magical thinking, really – that continued “integration” of the Chinese government with the “world community” will somehow – it’s never clear how – lead to democratic reforms in mainland China.
Nonsense, argues Mann, who served as Beijing bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times for several years during the 1980s. There’s no evidence of the emergence of this Soothing Scenario, as Mann dubs it, or of its evil twin, the Upheaval Scenario, in which China is ripped apart by internal tensions.
Rather, argues Mann, a Third Scenario is more likely. China becomes wealthier. The Communist Party becomes more entrenched. Small increases in democracy and free speech are put on conspicuous display when the eyes of the world are on China (e.g., during the 2008 Summer Olympics) and then quietly revoked when no one is looking. Mann’s prediction, which he hopes is inaccurate, is that China in 30 years will be a lot like China today, only more so.
The China Fantasy is not, strictly speaking, a book about China. It is about the arguments made by Western enablers who seek to maintain a pusillanimous U.S. policy toward China.
One of the most powerful tools in the debate is language. Proponents of human rights reform within China are accused of being “anti-Chinese” “China-bashers” with a “Cold War mentality,” “troublemakers” who are “pushing the envelope” with "provocative” proposals which will “anger China.” (I had to chuckle at the pejorative for Sinophiles, who are called “panda huggers.”)
Mann finds the “Cold War mentality” label especially amusing. The Chinese Communist government was coddled by Western powers during the Cold War, because China acted as a counter-weight to the Soviet Union and kept thousands of Red Army troops pinned down on the Sino-Soviet border and away from Western Europe. The Cold War was the high-water mark in the West’s willingness to look away from the Chinese government’s abuses.
The Chinese leadership understands that, at the end of the day, only one person has to look away, and that person is the President of the United States. If the president can be pressured or convinced to avoid the topic of how China treats its people, then the issue is effectively removed from the world’s agenda.
The greatest victory of this president-centered strategy – called the “P Factor” – was the gelding of Bill Clinton, the only president in modern times to specifically campaign on the issue of Chinese human rights abuses. Once in office, a proposed statute (sponsored by Representative Nancy Pelosi) linking China's "most favored nation" trade status with human rights improvements was watered down into an executive order that would revoke MFN status 12 months later unless the Chinese government improved its record.
As the June 1994 deadline approached, Clinton realized that the Chinese government had no intention of changing its policies. According to The New York Times, Clinton informed the Chinese government, via diplomatic channels, that token compliance would suffice. He renewed China's MFN status and, as an additional flourish, announced the "de-linking" of trade status and human rights. Game, set and match to Beijing.
(Mann makes a small legal error in writing that Clinton "revoked" his executive order (page 81). A formal process exists for the revocation of an executive order, and that process was not applied to Executive Order 12850, according to the National Archives' Disposition Tables. Instead, Clinton disingenously found that the Chinese government had satisfied the executive order's conditions.)
Mann’s ultimate argument is that the various iterations of America’s China policy are different excuses for doing nothing. “Dialogue” does not require the other person to do anything except talk. “Engagement” requires no results at all. “Integration” is worse; the Chinese government gets World Trade Organization membership and other goodies, corporate interests obtain their much-desired access to 1.2 billion potential customers, and human rights advocates get nothing.
If I had been Mann’s editor, I would have requested one additional chapter, about the reality facing corporations attempting to conduct business in mainland China. Just as China loudly touts its village elections (which are tightly supervised and do not allow rival political parties), China shines the spotlight on Volkswagen, KFC and a few other Western companies which have succeeded – “been allowed to succeed” would be more accurate – in China.
The reality of doing business in mainland China – a game with fluid and arbitrary rules rigged in favor of Party cadres and their companies -- may be the best argument against the China Lobby. Why should motion picture studios avoid storylines about Chinese repression when any tourist can see that the studios’ intellectual property rights are being infringed on a massive scale? Why do the world’s manufacturers come hat in hand to the mammoth government buildings of Beijing when China’s artificial valuation of its currency increases the prices of their products? Cultural sensitivity and saving of face seem to run in only one direction.
Three successive presidents have downplayed the Tiananmen Square massacre so as not to “upset China” and create difficulties for Western business interests. Mann does an excellent job of exposing the vacuity of the arguments used by the old friends of China. But, if business interests come to believe that the protected and corrupt Chinese market isn’t worth the hassle, the current “do nothing” policy might collapse.