The Magazine

Unsoothing Scenario

Free markets are not leading to freedom in China.

May 28, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 35 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
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The China Fantasy

How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression

by James Mann

Viking, 144 pp., $19.95

Charm Offensive

How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World

by Joshua Kurlantzick

Yale, 320 pp., $26

Our China policy is based on a social science theory: Rising per capita GDP inevitably leads to democratic political change. As incomes rise, a growing middle class will demand more rights and fewer restrictions, and have more time to participate in voluntary civic associations that curb the power of government.

In the case of China, this theory has been articulated emphatically by the administrations of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush as the premise of our approach to that country: "Trade freely with China and time is on our side," said candidate Bush in making his case for the inevitability theory. Earlier, Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger had said something similar: "Just as NAFTA membership eroded . . . one-party rule in Mexico, WTO membership . . . can help do the same in China."

But as James Mann's new book argues, there is little evidence that the democratic inevitability theory is unfolding in China. China has grown richer, but it is still authoritarian and repressive. The China Fantasy is a brave book. Mann takes on what he sees as a self-serving business, expert, and policy-making elite that is perpetuating an unsuccessful policy.

Mann reminds us that as late as 2005, there was an increase in state repression. Political dissidents, lawyers, and activists have been detained or placed under house arrest. There has been a crackdown on what is allowed to be communicated via the Internet. China holds tens of thousands of political prisoners. Peasants and workers challenging the existing order were subjected to violence at the hands of hired thugs. In addition, the Chinese Communist party cracked down on NGO activity.

And yet, Mann says, we are told by policymakers, the elite press, Sinologists, and business leaders that we need only be patient: Political reform is coming to China. He calls this conventional wisdom, the "Soothing Scenario." But there are other scenarios that are less soothing: One is a scenario of instability, the other a China that grows richer through trade but is no less authoritarian. Mann believes the latter to be most likely.

This book is brave because Mann names names: Thomas Friedman peddles the Soothing Scenario, as has Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Cisco, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have cooperated with China's efforts at Internet censorship. Most China experts support and believe in the Soothing Scenario, and engage in a "lexicon of dismissal" of those who question whether an engagement policy will lead to a democratic China. Such dissenters are "provocative" or "ideological" for pointing out Beijing's manifold human rights abuses.

To complicate matters further, there are financial incentives for propagating the Soothing Scenario: Berger, Madeleine Albright, Carla Hills, and the prominent Sinologist Kenneth Lieberthal all consult on behalf of clients doing business in China. And the Communist party punishes those who criticize, making dissent bad for business.

Mann usefully explains why Sinology is prone to a particular kind of conventional wisdom. Today's China hands came of age at an exciting time, just as China was opening to the world and Sino-American relations were improving. At the same time, many American Sinologists still retained memories of the McCarthy era. This generational coming-of-age has led to the following dynamic: a belief that life in China has vastly improved since the Cultural Revolution (undoubtedly true) and that radicals in and around Congress could, at any time, engage in McCarthy-like demagoguery and freeze China relations once again.

Every discipline has its historical and political baggage that creates distortions, and China Studies is no different. Mann offers an important insight as to why the China field seems to be prone to impulses and attitudes that may not be serving China policy well, and convincingly explains why the inevitability theory is, indeed, a fantasy. Many observers look at the successful political transitions of Taiwan and South Korea and believe China will follow a similar pattern. But they ignore important differences. Though it is true that Taiwan had developed what Seymour Martin Lipset termed the social, economic, and cultural prerequisites for democracy, it also faced tremendous pressure to change from its American security guarantor.