The Magazine

Unsoothing Scenario

Free markets are not leading to freedom in China.

May 28, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 35 • By DAN BLUMENTHAL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

But Washington never really had much leverage with China, and has even less as the People's Republic grows richer and stronger. Moreover, for the democratic inevitability theory to work, a country needs a substantial urban middle class. China's urban middle class is a tiny proportion of the country: There are some 800-900 million peasants in China. China's 10 biggest cities have a population of 62 million people, or 5 percent of the population. The small urban elite has done well under the Communist party and may, in fact, be afraid of democracy in China.

What if a Chinese government had to be responsive to the desires of the vast majority of the Chinese population? A coalition of the rich and the powerful may be working hard against the establishment of democracy in China.

So, Mann argues, the most likely scenario for China may not be soothing at all: an authoritarian, rich, and powerful country. And why does that matter for Washington? Because already China is working against American interests, supporting the world's dictators against Washington's pressure. And why, exactly, would China conform to democratic norms abroad--say, improving the human rights situation in Africa--if it does not do so at home?

Mann's thesis has important implications for Joshua Kurlantzick's Charm Offensive. Talking and writing about China's "soft power," or its kinder, gentler diplomacy, has become quite popular in Washington policy circles. Kurlantzick utilizes his finely honed investigative techniques to explore the worldwide impact of China's new global influence.

Harvard's Joseph Nye developed the term "soft power" in the early 1990s in his hypothesis that a broad shift will occur in how nations utilize their power resources in an interdependent world. Soft, cooptive power would be more important than the "hard" kind of power that commands weaker states to do what the stronger state demands. The basic concept is that countries can get what they want through the attraction of their ideas, values, and culture. Soft power stands in stark contrast to hard power, which involves either coercion or payoffs.

But if this is the definition of soft power, then how could James Mann's China--authoritarian, repressive, and corrupt--wield soft power to get what it wants? As Kurlantzick illustrates, China is attractive to those states that want to grow economically but remain politically repressive.

In fact, Kurlantzick has found that China actively promotes its form of illiberal development. This is an important finding: Those who believe that Sino-U.S. relations will be characterized by competition think that the rivalry will be nonideological in nature. But if Beijing is, in fact, deliberately promoting an "authoritarian" growth model, the world's democracies may have a more serious problem on their hands.

At times, Kurlantzick falls into a trap that has caught other observers of China's soft power: He terms the pomp and circumstance surrounding China's massive investment and buying delegations in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia "soft power" rather than good old-fashioned power or dollar diplomacy. But this is an intellectually honest book that shows the undersides of China's growing influence: There is a real risk that China will export its poor labor, safety, health, and environmental standards to countries that need the opposite.

For all its reporting strengths, Charm Offensive lacks analytical precision--the result, perhaps, of the amorphous concept of soft power itself. Is China's success in getting Uzbekistan to kick out the U.S. military a result of soft power? Or is it an example of traditional inducements to the Uzbek regime? Probably the latter. Kur lantzick is aware of this analytical problem and tries to resolve it by using China's, rather than Joseph Nye's, definition of soft power: any type of power other than military. But in accepting this definition Charm Offensive becomes more about China's political and economic influence--two realms of power that China is using as it grows its military--than about soft power as Nye defines it. For example, China provides aid packages to African nations that help them circumvent good governance requirements. That certainly buys China influence, and advances such goals as acquiring natural resources and curtailing diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. But it is not "non-coercive" soft power.

The book's greatest contribution is its systematic portrayal of China's growing global influence, and the ways in which that influence is hurting not only Washington but also international development institutions. And China is doing so at a time when America is not vigorously fighting the war of ideas as it did during the Cold War.