The Magazine

Asian Blues

Why the problem of China will not go away.

Jul 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 42 • By ELLEN BORK
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Losing the New China

A Story of American Commerce, Desire and Betrayal

by Ethan Gutmann

Encounter, 253 pp., $25.95

China's Democratic Future

How It Will Happen and Where It Will Lead

by Bruce Gilley

Columbia Univ. Press, 297 pp., $29.50

Wild Grass

Three Stories of Change in Modern China

by Ian Johnson

Pantheon, 324 pp., $24

AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, President Bush overturned decades of policy toward the Middle East, regretting long-support for dictators and acknowledging the link between democratic governance, stable and humane rule of citizens, and international security. China policy, however, has been left untouched. In fact, the president, who came to office seeking to restore a balance in the relationship with Beijing, reportedly told his staff he did not want a China "inbox."

All this leaves unanswered an important question: What about the dictatorial and undemocratic government in China? The failure to make China's governance an issue in American policy is not new. For decades, the driving idea has been that economic engagement now will lead to inevitable political change later. When America was swept up in the dot-com boom, the power of the Internet was grafted onto this economics-drives-politics argument: Technology is the handmaiden of wealth, zapping information outside the regime's control to wired citizens. Bill Clinton ridiculed the idea of a regime controlling the Internet, painting a comical picture of hapless Chinese cadres trying to "nail Jell-O to the wall" as they attempted to stop the flow of free information.

But, in fact, economic growth has not brought democracy or improved human rights. Just this year, the State Department cited China's "backsliding" and "deterioration." Nor has the Internet put the dictatorship in a stranglehold. Special security forces help the regime shut down Internet cafés, block sites, trace traffic, and imprison Internet essayists. The Falun Gong's clever use of communications--beepers, mobile phones, email--has not enabled it to avoid a brutal campaign of repression. Hundreds have reportedly died in custody and thousands more are incarcerated in prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals.

Still, the notion that trade will bring about democracy remains irresistible. And it is not surprising that American businesses and their trade associations and lobbyists have taken on a leading role in shaping policy on China. That distorted role of America's business engagement with China is the heart of Ethan Gutmann's new book, Losing the New China, an account of his three years in the Far East.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, high-tech businesses were claiming that trade and investment would unleash rights and liberties. Gutmann reports how companies jockeyed for contracts to help Beijing police its citizens. Cisco Systems, for example, significantly discounted for the Chinese government the technology to censor the Internet. At a trade show aimed at selling products to China's security apparatus, Gutmann finds products for sale that violate the United States' ban on exporting to China "any crime control or detection instruments or equipment." As for any moral qualms, one systems engineer in Beijing said, as Guttmann reported in THE WEEKLY STANDARD two years ago, that how China used Cisco's products was "none of Cisco's business."

It's a short jump from turning a blind eye to believing your own press. When Gutmann proposes an idealistic plan to create a model factory, with health care and safety standards to an American in the garment business, so as to "add value" to the business's reputation, a businessman replies, "We are not a manufacturer in China; we are a retailer." Gutmann gets it right away: "What company wants to say openly that they are in China for the export platform--a very successful export platform consisting of well-controlled, incredibly hardworking labor that costs next to nothing?"

GUTMANN'S TOUR OF BEIJING includes another kind of depravity as well--the sexcapades of some expatriates, like "Rex," the business consultant, who, if he weren't living and working in Beijing, would be known as a sex tourist, and "Jack" who pimps for visiting clients. In Gutmann's telling, the lifestyles of some expatriate businessmen seem to provide their justification for maintaining the myth of profitability in the Chinese market.

But that's not all. American businessmen are often pressured to lobby not just for China's admission to the World Trade Organization, where it arguably has a legitimate interest, but also against American support for Taiwan and against export controls on dual-use items that enhance China's military capabilities.