The China Fantasy

Published 2007-05-21

I’ve been struggling for a while to formulate a series of vague thoughts I’ve had about China. This is usually in response to a question I get from almost everyone who’s never been to China: “is China the next superpower?” Expats in China have similar conversations, but they tend to sound like this: “I can’t believe this system actually works.” My thoughts on the matter are complex and hard to disentangle, thus the struggle.

But more vexing to me than the actual question (“why is China currently ascendant, and what will happen to it next?”) is a kind of willful blindness on the part of Western (particularly American) observers. It’s not an ethical blindness, exactly, because everyone knows that doing business with a hard government like China’s will entail some ethical tradeoffs. Rather, the blindness has something to do with expecting that a) what Westerners do will have some impact on life inside China and b) China is playing by the same “rules” (of free trade and governance) as the rest of us. Because, if you live for even a few months in China, it becomes apparent that both of these expectations are pretty much not even on China’s radar. China doesn’t care how we intend to mold its development, because we can’t; we can’t because all the rules Westerners have established for trade and foreign relations have been rewritten in China.

Luckily, James Mann wrote an editorial entitled A Shining Model of Wealth Without Liberty in today’s Washington Post that kinda-sorta summarizes my thinking on the manner:

[Western] optimists assume that once a country becomes more affluent, its emerging middle class will press for democratic change. But in China, the middle class (itself still tiny as a proportion of the overall population) supports or at least goes along with the existing political order; after all, that order made it middle class in the first place. The ruling party allows urban elites the freedom to wear and buy what they want, to see the world, to have affairs, to invest and to profit mightily; in return, the elites don't challenge the Communist Party's hold on power. Moreover, China's new business community is hardly independent of the party; in effect, it is the party, linked to China's power structure through financial connections or family ties.
In economic terms, China doesn't fit into the standard model of a free-market system, either. American magazines and television programs have for years joyously proclaimed that China has "gone capitalist" -- a supposed sign (along with the proliferation of McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks) that the Chinese are becoming like us. In fact, the fast-growing economic system that China is developing is quite different from the American model -- a fact not lost on other countries. Yes, China has private firms and stock markets. But only a small portion of the stock of any given company is traded on the stock market; the majority is held by state-owned enterprises. Communist Party officials frequently retain a majority of the seats on boards of directors and keep veto power over personnel decisions.

Mann closes with:

So what can U.S. leaders do to turn things around? The most important change is a conceptual one. We need to get beyond the arid framework of seeing every policy dispute involving China as a choice between "engagement" and "isolation."
We also need to get beyond the notion that our trade, investment and interaction with China are going to transform its political system. Any serious policy must be based on China as it is, not on our mistaken assumption that prosperity and liberty inevitably go hand in hand. Trade and investment should be evaluated for their economic costs and benefits to the United States, not for their political impact on China. [..] [We] should approach China through the lens of our national interest. That includes not just security and prosperity but our interest in a world with open political systems and the freedom to dissent.
(Emphasis mine)

I’d love to read Mann’s book The China Fantasy but of course there’s no way in hell to buy a book like this in China. So it will have to wait a few months. [Actually, 6 weeks and 2 days —Ed.]

Anyway, Read the article.