James Mann And His Prescient Book “The China Fantasy”

In 2007 James Mann published The China Fantasy, a short book arguing that Western elites misrepresented the benefits of engagement with China and that prosperity and capitalism might not, as they claimed, eventually bring democracy to the PRC. Mann pissed off a lot of people, including me the first time I read it. In fact, he attacked the foreign policy and business elite (and specifically the Sinology elite) in such a way that many of them either ignored this book or did their best to discredit or downplay it.

I have come to believe that this is the most important and prescient American book on China of the 21st century. I urge you to read it.

Mann lays out three general scenarios for China. In the first, the “soothing scenario”, trade and engagement with China brings capitalism, political liberalization and eventually democracy (Western-style democracy, not the intra-party democracy China has introduced). In the second, the “upheaval scenario”, China is headed for chaos, disintegration and collapse (see Gordon Chang and his now two decades of foolishness on this topic).

His third scenario is the most controversial.  It also increasingly appears to be the most prescient. For the third scenario Mann asks:

What if China manages to continue on its current economic path, yet its political system does not change in any fundamental way? What if, twenty-five or thirty years from now, a wealthier, more powerful China continues to be run by a one-party regime that still represses organized political dissent much as it does today, while at the same time China is also open to the outside world and, indeed, is deeply intertwined with the rest of the world through trade, investment and other economic ties? Everyone assumes that the Chinese political system is going to open up—but what if it doesn’t? What if, in other words, China becomes fully integrated into the world’s economy, yet it remains also entirely undemocratic?

Remember, Mann wrote this before the 2008 crash and the near bankruptcy of most major developed economies. China’s relative rise has occurred much faster than even Mann expected.

James Mann deserve a lot more credit than he has gotten for this work, and given the current state of affairs I hope he and his publisher are working on a new edition. The world needs to understand and prepare for the political, security, and economic ramifications of the third scenario.