Thursday, September 9, 2010

The China Fantasy

The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression by James Mann is a short, quick-hitting book about, as Mann says in the first sentence of his book, the "China he has encountered outside of China." Mann is a China hand who's spent much of his life watching China from news rooms in the United States. The goal of his book is to make his readers re-think their conceptions about China's political system and the direction China is heading.

Mann says that the US political and media establishments are essentially divided into two camps when it comes to China and its political future - those who believe in the "soothing scenario" and those who believe in the "upheaval scenario."

Those in the "soothing scenario" camp believe that "eventually, increasing trade and prosperity will bring liberalization and democracy to China." Basically, the more China opens up economically, the closer China is getting to real political reform. Liberalization under the current regime is inevitable.

Those in the "upheaval scenario" camp believe that "things can't go on the way they are in China and that eventually the current system will be pushed to the breaking point." Basically, China's current Leninist system will not be able to keep control in the coming years and decades. There will be an earth-shaking upheaval. It's just a matter of when.

Mann doesn't believe either of these conventional wisdom schools of thought. He lays out a convincing argument that there might be a "third scenario:"
What if China manages to continue on its current economic path, yet its political system does not change in any fundamental way? ... What if China becomes fully integrated into the world's economy, yet it remains also entirely undemocratic?
This "third scenario" sounds like a very likely outcome to me. Mann does a good job laying out the reasons why he believes that there is a good chance China develops economically but not politically. In fact, in the weeks since I finished the book I've found his ideas to be an insightful prism through which to view China news.

First, I want to highlight a passage from page 98 and 99 of The China Fantasy:
In May 1998, then secretary of state Madeleine Albright landed in China to lay the groundwork for a visit by President Clinton. She had planned to give a speech in Beijing on the subject of the rule of law. Shortly after she arrived, the China Daily "coincidentally" published a story about what China was planning to do to improve the rule of law. When the time came for her speech, Albright proudly help up that day's newspaper to her audience as a sign the situation in China was already getting better. "Clearly, both your leaders and your citizens recognize the need to strengthen the rule of law," she said. She did not seem to grasp that the newspaper story was not some random, independent bit of journalism but had been timed specifically to influence her and her trip.

In that same spring of 1998, while Clinton was deciding whether to visit China, the Chinese leadership suggested on a number of occasions that change was in the air. There was a lot of talk of political reform, of a new "Beijing spring," of a loosening of controls on political debate. In the end, Clinton decided to make the trip. On the day he arrived in China, a handful of dissidents moved to establish an opposition party, the China Democratic Party. The event, too, was taken as a sign of change in China. That fall, when top representative of the Human Rights Commission was preparing her own trip to China, the authorities said they might consider letting the China Democratic Party operate in some provinces.

Clinton and the UN representative had smooth visits to China. Then, at the end of 1998, after all these prominent visitors had returned home, Chinese authorities made their move. They cracked down on the fledgling party, ended its operations, and sent all its leaders to jail. The talk of a a Beijing spring ended, as it often does, with the reality of Beijing winter.
Now I want to highlight an editorial from The Wall Street Journal from a few weeks ago about comments that Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, made about political reform:
As the Chinese nation grapples with a series of disasters — floods, landslides and now a plane crash — some in the Party are clearly trying to prevent what they see as another calamity: the further postponement of political reform.

And it is becoming clearer that Premier Wen Jiabao agrees with them.

Symbolism and celebration matter greatly in Chinese politics. When China’s then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping wanted to restart economic reform in 1992, he made a trip to the south of the country, blessing the Special Economic Zones as the fire of China’s future, singling out Shenzhen in particular.

Over the past weekend, Wen made his eighth visit to Shenzhen since becoming premier. The inspection trip was supposed to be celebratory, praising Deng as the architect of opening and reform, and emphasizing the importance of China not straying from the socialist path of the past 30 years. Wen paid obeisance to much of that sentiment, placing flowers at the foot of a statue to Deng at a Shenzhen exhibit.

Wen’s sojourn to Shenzhen was also intended as support for “talking about economics, not politics” — the central Party dictum under Deng wherein ideology took second place to the great rush toward a more robust economy.

But here Wen went well off-message. Instead of engaging in platitudes, Wen insisted that strengthening socialism depended on producing political reform to protect the gains that economic restructuring had already provided.

Wen did not stop there. People have the right to criticize and monitor the government, he intoned, and the bureaucracy needs to start paying greater attention to those made most vulnerable by economic success. Wen did not bother to use codewords such as “democracy with Chinese characteristics” or “accountability,” and he also lashed out at what he cast as the overcentralized and unrestrained system of power in China. For a trip that was supposed to be a simple celebration of success, Wen’s comments were pointed, and profound reminders of what was still lacking.

None of that made the conservative wing of the Communist Party happy. Cadres in that camp were quick to corral much of Wen’s rhetoric. While the local press felt free to feature the Premier’s remarks in close to full-form, the central Party media offered only truncated versions of Premier’s remarks, and reverted back to an economic focus as the new week began. The official discourse defaulted again to the main line of “no politics, if you please.”

Read On
This seems to be the same thing - CCP leaders giving lip service to political reform - that tricked Madeline Albright over a decade ago. I literally read this story about Wen Jiabao from August 25th minutes after reading that section above from The China Fantasy. It was pretty amazing, actually.

I'm not the only one who sees the emptiness of Wen's comments from late August. Below is an article from The China Media Project highlighting the usage of the words "political reform" from China's leaders:
The issue is now back in the spotlight. Why? Because Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) said on a recent visit to Shenzhen to commemorate the city’s 30th anniversary that: “We need not only to promote economic reform, but must also promote political system reforms. Without the guarantee provided by political system reforms, the results of economic reform will be lost, and the goal of modernization cannot be achieved.”

Was this a bold and forward-thinking statement from the Premier? Did Grandpa Wen go off script?

No, not really.

Any statement on political reform is significant. And at the very least, Wen’s statement offers an opportunity for Chinese media to push more searchingly on this issue. But let’s not forget, either, that Wen Jiabao said the exact same thing during this year’s National People’s Congress back in June, when he delivered his government work report.

Read the whole article
Go check out the full article at the CMP. It's a really interesting study.

Over the past few months, I've come to the firm conclusion that there is little to no chance of meaningful political reform in China in the coming years. I don't think I'll be buying into any of these "soothing scenario" arguments any time soon. Saying that, I'm not much of a proponent for the "upheaval scenario" either. The CCP's grip on power continues to impress me.

Weighing in at only a little more than one hundred pages, The China Fantasy reads more like a think-tank paper than a book. I was disappointed it is so short. Mann's writing style and tone are a bit off-putting as well. But I did find the book to be a very helpful tool in my quest for crystallizing what China is and the direction it is going.


Sino-Gist said...

I suppose it also depends ob how strong you think the CCP is at the moment. Personally, i see the Party as needing to constantly strive to demonstrate its legitimacy in a 'post-revolutionary' era, when none of its leaders have the same revolutionary credentials as the likes of Mao and Deng...

Mark said...

FWIW, this week's Sinica podcast is about the topics discussed in this post. You can listen here.

@Sino-gist - I'd say the CCP is strong right now. There are no huge cracks as far as I can tell. There's definitely no Mao or Deng leading the country right now, but that doesn't seem to be causing any sort of legitimacy concerns.