Dan­ger of equat­ing China’s eco­nomic re­form with free­dom

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.”

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