“The China Fantasy”

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Five Questions for Jim Mann

Jim Mann, who was Beijing Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times from 1984 to 1987, is the author of Beijing Jeep, a classic tale of one of the early Sino-American joint ventures after China opened up its economy. More recently he wrote the Rise of the Vulcans, a superb early account of the George W. Bush foreign policy team that would prove so consequential. He is now writer in residence at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. His latest book, an extended essay really, at 114 pages from Viking Press, is called “The China Fantasy,” and it has created a ruckus among China hands in the United States. His central thesis is that the political consensus about China in the U.S.—that expanded trade and a growing economy will eventually lead to political liberalization—is simply wrong. The consensus view, moreover, has lead to a debate about China policy in Washington that is increasingly sterile, relegating those who believe human rights and political repression in China should be at the center of the US policy discussion to the fringes of the debate. In this he not wrong. Any debate about human rights and political in China is now pretty much on the margins in Washington.
What follows is the first of what will be a series of conversations with authors and others involved in the China debate globally. I’m calling it “Five Questions,” whittled down from the magazine’s weekly “Ten Questions” feature. (It’s only five here because we’re told these blog postings are supposed to be short. If readers would like longer invus please clamor for it.) Next up will be a conversation with Margaret Macmillan, who wrote the just out and widely praised book about Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, “Nixon and Mao.”
The conversation with Jim folos…

1) Your book was being denounced in on line China-hand chat rooms even before it was out, before people had even read it yet. Why the ruckus?
[The book] questions the fundamental assumptions a lot of people have had. There has been a tendency to fudge over the question of the future of China’s existing one party political system. There is a tendency not to want to answer the question: is the current system going to last, and that’s ok? Or is it going to evolve, slowly evolve, to the point that it won’t last? Many (politicians and policymakers) have wanted to fudge over the issue and just grab onto the consensus view.

2) You argue that the Taiwan and South Korea precedents, which are always trotted out by those who argue that political liberalization will inevitably follow economic prosperity, are simply not applicable to China. Can you explain why you think that?

Two reasons. First, democratization in both cases was closely linked to the relationship with the united states. In the case of South Korea you had a dictator, Chun Doo Hwan, being pushed to democracy. He was encouraged by the US.

In Taiwan it was pressure over a decade; both countries were and are dependent on the U.S. for their security. China isn’t. That’s a big difference. It’s evolution will be different because you don’t have the encouragement– the push from top level to top level. China is very different in that sense.
The second reason is, if there is such a thing as political culture in east Asia, which some have argued over the years, then China may be part of it in the coastal areas like Shanghai and Guangdong, but it’s geography is different, it’s got a huge inland population, and it’s political culture is very different. If China were just the coastal areas I might buy the east Asian political culture idea, but because of it’s size and geography it’s very different.

3) You argue in the book that politically in the US the idea of increasing trade with China was ALWAYS linked to the idea that eventually more trade would lead to more political liberalization. Why didn’t people, from George H.W. Bush on, just make the economic argument—that increased trade would benefit both nations economically, and stay out of the political forecasting business?
Yeah, you never got the economics for economics –sake argument, that’s true, there wasn’t a single president who did that. I think the answer is, it would have been tough politically to make that argument, to sell it. It would have been tough getting legislation through congress, like most favored nation trading status (back when Congress used to have to vote on that annually). The end result was that the economic losers in the United States –people laid off because their factories were closed because of Chinese competition or were moved to China—never really got a chance to get their interests heard. I think we needed a policy which actually considered political repression in China as an undeniable fact, rather than pretending things were going to get better.

4) Do you think trade with China will gain any traction as an issue in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, which, god help us, is already being covered 24/7 by the cable news networks and on the internet ?

Well, as you know the currency (that is, the value of the RMB versus the U.S. dollar) is now the cutting edge economic issue, and Ihave a hard time imagining currency rates will play a large role in a presidential election, particularly this one given everything else that’s going on. Trade with China will come up indirectly though, in terms of wage levels and job losses. [John] Edwards, has already started to do that.

5) Clearly the underlying premise of your book is that the U.S. SHOULD promote democracy abroad through its foreign policy, through its diplomacy; how much damage has the war in Iraq done to that idea?

The way the Bush administration has gone about promoting democracy, in particular by citing it as a cause after the fact in the invasion of Iraq, and even worse by linking it to the use of military force, has profoundly damaged the cause of democracy, of the U.S. seeking democracy around the world. That doesn’t mean that we as individuals shouldn’t press for it, though.