Danger of equating China’s economic reform with freedom
James Mann reveals himself in his new book — his third on China — as that rarest of creatures: A truly principled China watcher. By this I mean he cares more about human rights, democracy and the varied sufferings of the Chinese people than he does about maintaining good relations with the Chinese regime and its American business partners.
Just how unusual is this stance? Listen to Mr. Mann himself, describing the behavior, at once self-interested and cowardly, of many of America’s leading China watchers:
“Whenever there is a top-level meeting between the leaders of America and China, one can count on America’s leading China scholars rushing to publish newspaper op-ed pieces explaining the extraordinary difficulties Chinese leaders face. In contrast, whenever the Chinese leadership carries out a new campaign of arresting dissidents or closing down newspapers, the China specialists seem to vanish from public view. They do not volunteer congressional testimony or op-ed pieces on such unpleasant subjects.”
Why are these experts, who supposedly know China better than anyone does, so eager to patronize China’s leaders, and so reluctant to condemn Chinese repression of dissent? In part, it must be said, because it pays so well. Following the path blazed by Henry Kissinger, Sandy Berger and other former senior administration officials, they have gone into the China trade.
Even lowly college professors can significantly boost their income by working, in Mr. Mann’s words, “on the side as consultants for companies doing business in China.” Those few who do dare to criticize China, like Mr. Mann himself (and this author), pay a price in terms of rescinded invitations and denied visas for years to come. These lessons are not lost on other China watchers, namely, that Beijing keeps score, rewards its friends, punishes its enemies and has a tenacious memory.
But the biggest disservice that these China watchers do to the Chinese people, not to mention to America’s long-term interests, is their ceaseless propagation of what Mr. Mann calls “the China Fantasy.” This is the idea that the successful spread of capitalism in China will gradually result in the development of democratic institutions, free elections, an independent judiciary and a respect for human rights.
We need do nothing to encourage China’s peaceful evolution into a free market democracy, the China watchers say, because the historical forces driving China in that direction are so powerful that the outcome is predetermined.
It is not just academic China watchers who have embraced this notion, although they have given it its cloak of intellectual respectability. Foreign policy analysts, including a number of Sovietologists and Sinologists, advocate it because they wish to continue playing the China card against Russia (or even against Japan), or because they fear a backlash from the Beijing regime.
American companies that do business in China worry that promoting human rights and democracy in that country will lead the Beijing regime to retaliate, and that their in-country operations will suffer losses as a result.
Diplomats prefer to avoid such contentious matters because they give rise to unpleasant encounters. Those who have heavily invested their treasure, time or hopes in China have become, in effect, hostages to Beijing, zealous advocates of a hands-off policy towards China’s internal affairs.
Were we wrong to celebrate China’s economic reform? I, for one, was pleased to see the Chinese peo- ple, for their own sake, begin to shake off the immiseration of communism. The end of the agricultural commune in 1980–81, for example, helped to lift tens of millions of Chinese peasants out of penury. The rise of a class of small businessmen, shopkeepers and traders in the years since has accomplished the same end in the cities.
In the early years it seemed at least possible that the rise of market forces in China, combined with burgeoning foreign trade, would encourage a broad movement for personal freedom, human rights and, eventually, democratic governance. Underlying our collective optimism was the core American belief that economic and political liberty are indivisible.
Now, 30 years down the road, that view seems dangerously naive if not downright disingenuous. The continued optimism of many China watchers about that country’s democratic prospects seems forced and artificial. And after nearly 30 years of economic reform in China, every major dissident is either in prison or in exile.
The one-child policy, which erupted onto the Chinese landscape while I was there, came right out of Mao’s playbook and remains an uncomfortable reminder of how far the regime is still willing to go in pursuit of its dystopian goals. China remains, by any measure, a oneparty dictatorship.
That political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom is demonstrable, but the opposite case — that economic freedom leads in- evitably to political liberty — is much harder to make, especially in Asia. The countries of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia remain three of the least democratic countries in the region despite having economies generally characterized as free-market.
The economies of many Asian countries are run by a political-economic elite that specializes in insider trading and sweetheart deals. Crony capitalism, as this is called, creates a political-industrial complex with a stranglehold on important sectors of the national economy. China does not just suffer from crony capitalism, however, but from a full-blown case of Communist kleptocracy.
A large part of China’s muchvaunted “private sector” remains, directly or indirectly, under the control of Party bosses. Many of China’s new class of capitalists are consanguineous to the old Party elite. This is why Jiang Zemin’s July 2001 proposal to induct entrepreneurs (read: capitalists) into the Party did not spark a revolt among senior cadres.
Not only do they all have family members who have gone into business, but most used their political connections to help them get started. In this sense, China’s economic reform has been hijacked by the current power holders, who are unremittingly hostile to letting the people have any say about their thievery.
If the China Fantasy were true, American ways would already be coming to dominate in China. Democratic sentiments would be growing apace with the swelling Chinese middle class. Chinese youth (dressed in Levi’s) would meet (at McDonald’s) to discuss human rights. Internet chat rooms would be devoted to setting up opposition political parties. E-mails and faxes would encourage people to turn out for political rallies. Before we knew it, China would be abiding by the rule of law, enacting a written constitution and holding free elections.
There would be talk of returning the Goddess of Democracy to her throne in Tiananmen Square. China would be following America’s lead in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) and cooperate with the American-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Beijing would dismantle its missiles pointed at Taiwan, recognize that democratic republic as a separate and equal state, and give up its smash-and-grab operations in the South China Sea. And as a result of all this, the United States would enjoy a true “strategic partnership” with a China that was evolving into a free market democracy.
But, as James Mann points out, this China exists only in the imagination of her apologists.
Having gotten so much right, it is disappointing that Mr. Mann dismisses the growing military threat from China out of hand. We simply cannot know, he maintains, what “ambitions Chinese leaders may harbor thirty years from now, once the country is richer and stronger?”
Perhaps not. But analysts at the Naval War College believe it will only take 13 years, not 30, for China to become a near-peer competitor of the United States in the Asian-Pacific. China’s current leaders, who will still be alive and in charge in 2020, are already engaged in feverishly preparing for future conflicts with the United States.
The next time you read some cheery account of how China is effortlessly becoming more and more like us, you might want to grab a copy of “The China Fantasy.” It will help you regain your perspective.
Steven W. Mosher is president of the Population Research Institute and the author of “Hegemon: China’s Plan to Dominate Asia.”