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What’s Your China Fantasy?

Nearly two decades after the Tiananmen Square clampdown, China remains a tightly controlled state ruled by the Communist Party. But just how repressive is the Middle Kingdom today, and is it becoming any more free as it grows in economic clout? Veteran reporter James Mann has his doubts—and his controversial new book accuses U.S. leaders and prominent scholars like David M. Lampton of peddling unduly optimistic assumptions about China’s rise. In this often heated FP debate, Lampton and Mann go toe-to-toe on the uncertain political future of the world’s most populous country.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

The Wrong Question By David M. Lampton

The Wrong Question
By David M. Lampton It’s Their Party, They Can Do What They Want To
By James Mann Dangerous Impatience
Lampton responds More of the Same
Mann responds

Its like the foreign-policy equivalent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: For describing what they see, observers of China are somehow blamed for the events that follow. The charge dates back to the early 1950s in the United States, after Mao Zedongs stunning victory shattered widespread hopes for Chinese democracy. China handsscholars like Owen Lattimore and U.S. State Department officials like John Servicewho had questioned those admirable but unrealistic sentiments by pointing out Maos successes and Chiang Kai-sheks failures were subsequently accused, incredibly, of contributing to the outcome.

The latest chapter in this history of scapegoating is The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression, James Manns curious polemic about how an interlocking directorate of leaders, academics, and business people has allegedly foisted the fantasy (indeed, fraud) of a progressing China on a gullible U.S. public and Congress. More an expression of frustration than analysis, Manns slim volume contains little systematic evidence beyond anecdotes, unsupported assertions, and speculation about individuals and groups. Mann comes up with absolutely no policy suggestions, but seemingly favors unspecified pressure on China to democratize and respect human rights. In Manns view, it is China hands who, out of their own self-interest, are preventing the elevation of Chinese democracy to a matter of paramount U.S. national interest.

Ironically, Manns book comes at the end of a period when China hands have had relatively little influence. Over the last nearly 40 years, a few scholars of the Middle Kingdom have been involved at senior levels of Washingtons policy process. But that substantially changed when the George W. Bush administration first came into office. Expertise on Japan was promoted and the so-called China expert community was largely frozen out. To the degree that there was outside China expertise, it was more oriented toward Taiwan than the mainland. In the permanent government bureaucracy, there have been skilled experts on China all along, but China hawks like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz were listening to the advice they wanted to hear rather than those who counseled against confrontation.

Yet, like his predecessors, President Bush eventually concluded that the United States cannot solve all the worlds problems on its own and that it therefore needs cooperation from China. And indeed, there are economic, security, and intellectual gains to be made from working together; these require no apology. That is why seven U.S. presidents of vastly different worldviews each settled upon a strategy of engagement with Chinanot to make China democratic, as Mann would prefer, but rather to pursue more achievable U.S. interests. It is not, again as Mann would have it, because Rasputin-like China experts in league with revolving-door business people and officials have whispered in their ears to ignore Chinas repression. The overwhelming impression that remains after reading Manns tract is that he has not read much serious scholarship on China.

There is a hope, and even some evidencesuch as the recent Beijing policy decision to reduce the scope of the death penaltythat steady engagement, globalization, and the logic of change in China itself will gradually produce more humane governance domestically and more cooperative behavior internationally. This is not mere fantasy: Development theory strongly suggests that it takes time to build working political institutions and to develop the popular and elite habits of the heart that make functioning democracy even possible. And as the difficult experiences of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti dramatically illustrate, societies must pass through a sequence of stages in order to become functioning democracies. Yet Mann, waving aside South Korea and Taiwans instructive (but admittedly imperfect) examples of societies that successfully transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy, is ready to rush ahead. Calls for patience, in Manns derisive telling, are merely disingenuous attempts by self-interested scholars, government officials, and business people to encourage the U.S. public and Congress to look beyond Beijings abuses in order to keep the corporate profits rolling in.

Its true that despite rapid economic and social reform, change toward electoral and multiparty governance has been slow to nonexistent in China. The Beijing elite has made it abundantly clear that it will use harsh means to preserve Chinese Communist Party authority. And so Mann fears, not unreasonably, that China may prove to be the rare case of a capitalist state in which the middle class grows but political rights lag far behind.

Mann seems somehow to have misunderstood that the notion that China would steadily open up politically was (and remains) an expectation to be realized over a long period of time, not a guarantee. The purpose of engagement is more to achieve U.S. interests, only one of which is democratization, and perhaps not even the most important interest. In fact, few China experts (beyond Bruce Gilley and Henry Rowen) have predicted that China would democratize quickly. Even so, there is moderate good news to report: Todays China is much more cooperative on issues important to the United States than it was in the past; it is less of a proliferation danger; its people have much more freedom to realize their individual potential; and, significantly, the Chinese system has moved from totalitarian rule under Mao Zedong to an authoritarian system in which an entrenched but growing elite evinces greatly diminished ambitions for control of society.

In examining Chinas many remaining shortcomings, it is easy to become impatient with U.S. policy. But as Manns efforts prove, it is far harder to come up with a viable alternative strategy. Those calling for democracy first must consider whether U.S. capabilities match the scale of this ambition, whether other world powers would follow Washingtons lead, and whether the possible resulting chaos in China would ultimately be worse for U.S. interests and the human rights of the Chinese people than the current evolving situation. Manns book is most harmful, though, not because it calls into question the motives of a broad diversity of China scholars, government officials, and business people for whom the written record is an entirely adequate defense, but because he poses the wrong question. Rather than asking, How can we change China?, I would ask, How is China changing, and does change in China, particularly its mounting intellectual and economic strength, require change in the United States? Mann disagrees. We will see who is rightand it wont take decades to do so.

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