Whither The China Fantasy?

"Sinocism is the Presidential Daily Brief for China hands"- Evan Osnos, New Yorker Correspondent and National Book Award Winner

It is time for James Mann to issue a new edition of his classic work “The China Fantasy”.

In 2007 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.

As I wrote in an April 2010 post:

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?

Fast forward to today. China has been excluded from the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” free trade zone. Tom Holland of the South China Morning Post explains why in “Beijing is riding rough-shod over its WTO pledges”:

On Thursday, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton demanded a level playing field, calling on China to “end unfair discrimination against US and other foreign companies”.

 “We want you to play by the rules,” added President Barack Obama on Saturday. “The bottom line is that the United States can’t be expected to stand by if there is not the kind of reciprocity in our trade relations and our economic relationship that we need.”

These comments reflect the growing frustration felt by China’s trade partners, who believe the country’s government has signally failed to live up to the pledges it made on joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001, and that 10 years on Beijing continues to ride rough-shod over both the letter and the spirit of its WTO accession agreement.

Back in 2001, the excitement among foreign business executives over China’s WTO membership was almost as great as in China itself. WTO membership, they believed, would be the lever that finally pried open China’s domestic markets to international corporations by promoting transparency and free and equal competition.

“The WTO provides China with a path to market economics, which will help break local and departmental monopolies that have proven so hard to crack from inside,” wrote the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in China at the time.

“Reforms will be pushed to a new level,” added incoming WTO director general Supachai Panitchpakdi.

Today those hopes have been dashed. Far from accelerating reform and market-opening, WTO membership handed Beijing an export windfall that allowed policy-makers to slow domestic liberalisation to a snail’s pace. Now the state wields even more economic power than a decade ago. Well-connected domestic corporations continue to benefit from a wide range of government subsidies, and foreign companies are openly discriminated against.

The expected political reforms have also not arrived. Ai Weiwei, in a recent interview with Newsweek’s Isaac Stone Fish, pointed the finger at the West for complicity with the Chinese government. Ai didn’t use the term “China Fantasy” but he might as well have:

Ai believes the world shares responsibility for what’s happening in China, and he wants to force the international community to pay attention. “Today, the West feels very shy about human rights and the political situation. They’re in need of money. But every penny they borrowed or made from China has really come as a result of how this nation sacrificed everybody’s rights,” he says. “With globalization and the Internet, we all know it. Don’t pretend you don’t know it. The Western politicians—shame on them if they say they’re not responsible for this. It’s getting worse, and it will keep getting worse.”

Do Western nations have any credible leverage that they are willing to use in this time of economic turmoil? No. So either people continue to fantasize or start to recognize reality.

Follow me on Twitter @niubi or Sina Weibo @billbishop.

5 thoughts on “Whither The China Fantasy?

  1. The west, western media and observers have always overestimated their ability to influence China’s policies, and have underestimated, or completely read wrong, the undercurrents in China which do in fact affect change. Many westerners have made a career of speaking about China, giving western audiences the false impression that they would force China to open up, or release dissidents, even when this has never happened before. The Chinese government and party make very sure that China does not appear to relent under western pressure, and give a voice to Chinese dissidents calling for reform.

    The simple fact is no one knows whether China is going to open up, or clamp down in the next decade, and anyone who claims that they know is most likely a liar. One thing we can be reasonably sure of though: it will be Chinese domestic conditions which drive change in China, not outside pressure and public opinion.

  2. nature evolves by simply passing by what previously existed … i suspect governments are the same

    regarding ai weiwei, i wonder, can the figures in the western press about the donations sent to him be trusted? 25,000 people, sending 1.4 MILLION dollars?  if true, that is amazing, and suggests china is perhaps more in flux, and more open, than is suspected. a lot of vpn’s sold, as well 🙂

  3. There are dissidents in China as there are in ever country.  What is remarkable is that there are fewer in China, per capita, than in almost any country on earth. Polls by Pew and UofM consistently show around 86% public support for, and trust in, China’s government–almost the precise inverse of support for our Western governments.

    Nor are Chinese dissidents particularly worse-off than our own.  Theirs are over-reported and under-analyzed, while ours are under-reported and, if mentioned at all, negatively analyzed.  Two examples might clarify this claim.

    The Chinese dissident, Liu Xiabao, was awarded the same Nobel Peace Prize as President Obama (who is currently waging war in 5 countries).  Were Mr. Liu to have acted in the USA as he did in China he would have received a much more severe sentence than he is currently serving.  He was acting as an unregistered, paid agent of a hostile foreign power.  He was paid handsomely for his pains–or so it must have appeared to him until he was imprisoned. 

    Let’s put aside the thousands of dissident Americans who have been placed on no-fly lists (an intolerable burden for many of them) without trial or right of appeal. 

    Let’s look at two prominent dissidents here: Bradley Manning and Noam Chomsky.  Manning has been held without trial for over a year and apparently tortured throughout that time without being charged with what appears to be the crime of embarrassing our government.  Chomsky, arguably our greatest intellectual, has been denied even reviews of his many books in our major media (though they sell millions) for almost 60 years.  He has not been granted access to our major media.  Not because he is wrong, but because he is politely critical.

  4. Mann doesn’t seem to provide a deep or valuable analysis. First, what do capitalism and Western style democracy mean? Are concepts and conceptions held similarly in China and the US? At what level might there be distinctions? It is hard to make a meaningful argument without defining your terms, and the absence of this leaves Mann toothless. Along this line, examining what politicians/activists say is more than likely only going to demonstrate (unintentionally) that many leaders don’t understand the terms they are using (ie democracy, human rights).

    Second, as has been noted already, the third scenario is itself a fantasy: the fantasy that China is a country impervious to change, with leaders who have an amazing ability to persuade us that the place they rule has undergone a transformation, when it actually has not. We cannot stop change.
    As you know Bill, China has been going through massive changes. This idea of China becoming fully integrated into the world’s economy, yet also entirely beyond its influences is pure fantasy. It is like reuniting with someone who has aged 40 years and saying they haven’t changed at all. It denies real changes taking place at many levels. It flies in the face of the changes taking place at breathtaking pace. Generational differences are immense; even within the past 5-10 years changes at many levels are incredible. The question of course is how deep is this change, how meaningful is it? Evaluating this requires a solid foundation.  

    More of Mann’s writing along these lines may make for popular media/political fodder, but without clear/defendable foundations I am extremely skeptical it will lead anywhere significant/helpful.

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