Revisiting The China Fantasy

An Interview with James Mann

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James Mann interviews with VOA
Revisiting The China Fantasy : An Interview with James Mann - Josiah Tsui

Six years ago, you posited that China’s government could remain autocratic, even as the country experienced continued economic growth. Do you think the treatment of this idea—of China having its own system of economics and government—has become more accepted in the mainstream? It doesn’t seem so surprising now, but my impression is that the idea was marginalized at the time.

That’s very perceptive. Really, the book was directed at American political leaders and China scholars who liked to say that greater trade and investment would lead to democratization. I felt, and still feel, that that was a justification for people who wanted to trade or invest with China. It was also allied to intellectual trends that had nothing to do with trade or investment, such as the ideas of Fukuyama at the end of the Cold War. My thinking at the time I wrote the book—and it still holds—was that the comparison between China and other developing Asian states, notably South

Korea and Taiwan, didn’t hold. It was a comparison that was not only prevalent, but the reigning paradigm for how China would develop. And what I think, is that the Chinese state is so fundamentally different from its predecessors that the analogies aren’t valid.

The main impact of the book was that China Hands in the United States and political leaders became much more cautious about these airy predictions of democratization in China. I don’t mean to claim that this was solely because of the book, but I think that the intellectual climate changed over the last four or five years and you don’t find this anymore. In fact some of the people who were leading proponents of this idea have reigned themselves in—the Clinton advisers for example.

I still think that China’s political system is very durable and under no great threat, but I would have to add more caution now than I did when I wrote the book. And the caution has to do with developments in China. Over the last five years, the system has developed so many important, practical problems that affect middle-class people that it raises questions in my mind about the implicit bargain of middle- class people: accepting an authoritarian system in exchange for wealthier lives. The top three practical problems are air pollution, unsafe products, and internet censorship. Internet censorship seems less concrete, but as you and any educated person would know, it’s almost a daily or hour-by-hour insult that you can’t have this or that information. And so I have to admit, I’m less sure than I was that this system can go on for decades, because I’m less sure that the middle-classes will remain content with their prosperity.

For the last quarter-century, China was a place where young Americans and young Europeans could go to find interesting lives, start jobs and so on. There was a whole large expatriate community, and there still is. Just in the last five years, I’m hearing more people say, “I’ve got to get out of here. I’m leaving. I can’t breathe the air...” That, by itself, is utterly meaningless for China’s political future, but we’ve also started to see middle-class Chinese saying, “I don’t want to raise my children in this area.” We’re talking about very small numbers, I’m sure, but it’s something of political significance.

There’s a chapter in The China Fantasy titled “The Lexicon of Dismissal.” In it, you list certain terms such as “China bashing” or “cold war mentality” that are routinely used in Washington to dismiss critics of the Chinese government. On the one hand, you’re arguing for more openness in discussions on China. On the other, you’re arguing against historical determinism—this idea that all countries will tend toward democracy. Has your opinion changed at all after the Arab Spring? Does the argument that China is moving toward democracy seem stronger to you now, or is it still flawed?

It seems as flawed now as it did then. Outward signs of Westernization do not in any way lead to political change. I’m less certain, though, that this system can go on for many decades if it can’t deliver what citizens need. For example, the government now has to deliver non- financial benefits to the middle class. The Chinese leadership—dating back to the 1980s—has tried to come up with some magic formula for restraint on power within a non-democratic system. So they talk about the reformers; they talk about giving the legislature greater power, giving the press greater power, but it’s always with the caveat that nothing disturbs the rule of the Communist Party.

One of the new arguments for democracy’s inevitability in China is that the younger generation consumes American media, and that there are strong cultural and educational connections between China and the United States. Tens of thousands of Chinese students study in the United States every year, and some of them will no doubt be the businessmen and leaders of the next generation. Do you think there’s any significance in that?

I think it produces more Westernized ideas in intellectual and business terms, so that in subtle and indefinable ways, businessmen will think more in Western contexts. I think there will be more intellectual familiarity with Western- style thinking in the coming generations than in the current leadership, but I’m not sure I can get from there to democracy. Singapore, for example, has produced a series of authoritarian leaders and intellectuals—like Kishore Mahbubani— who have been educated in the West, but feel that the West is intellectually arrogant.

One of the major criticisms of China is that it’s a black box. We know the structure of the leadership but we don’t know how decisions are made and how leaders will act in the future. Do we know any more in 2013 than we did when you wrote The China Fantasy?

We don’t know more about the leadership decisions and processes. There is no transparency at that level, and so when you look at Chinese decision-making, the ultimate decisions are a black box. We may know a little bit more as time goes on about the factional disputes. When I was first in China, decades ago, there were factional disputes, but you only knew about them after the fact. As time goes on, we begin to see issues that don’t necessarily relate to the workings of a Leninist system, such as economic disputes between export industries and import industries. Those are the kinds of disputes that really do become more transparent, and then what becomes vastly more transparent are the sorts of issues where social media plays a role. That is a major change. Issues of corruption, for example, get handled in a far different way now than when my book came out six year ago.

Do you think there’s anything the US can do differently from a policy standpoint to engage China? Or in the way it conducts business with China?

I think that the changes of the last few years mean that the United States really should be in the position of encouraging the expression of middle-class concerns in China that are already being expressed by the Chinese people. It doesn’t have to be the United States from across the ocean or from across the protection of the two oceans, handing forth thunderbolt pronouncements about the abstract concept of democracy. I think that we should continue to espouse the cause of democracy, but it really shouldn’t be the thrust of what we do to promote democracy in China.

Let’s look at what the United States has done that’s really important in China. The most important example that comes to mind is this: the United States embassy has its own air pollution-monitoring devices and it publishes its analysis of the quality of the air in Beijing. For a while, the Chinese government asked the United States to not make its own independent reports public. And the U.S. government—the U.S. embassy in Beijing—did not back down. This is accurate, non-political information, and the U.S. argument was, “This is not a political issue. We are publishing our independent reading of the air quality.” That had a tremendous impact, and it’s the kind of thing that really supports, indirectly, the development of an independent civil society in China. That encourages middle-class people to recognize when the Chinese government is trying to restrain information.

I think the U.S. should strongly support efforts against pollution, efforts against internet censorship. That’s been another important development of the last five years, that after considerable delay, some companies like Google went public with their objections to efforts by China, to co-op them into censoring the internet. There’s a lot more creative thought that could be given to other things, such as food safety and product safety.

There are practical and intellectual links between corruption and lack of transparency and the link is simply that it is freedom of the press and legislative restraint on executive action that help to bring information to light, and to prevent corruption. And I think we can see the Chinese government is genuinely concerned about corruption. And the problem is that they have not been able to move towards a system that both provides restraints on corruption and does not require a change in the one-party system.

James Mann is the author-in-residence at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In his book The China Fantasy, published in 2007, he challenged the “[two views] of China that prevailed in Washington,”—the first, that China’s economic growth would necessarily lead to liberalization in politics, and the second, that China was unstable and on the precipice of revolution. Mr. Mann offered a third view—that China could expand its economy while maintaining an autocratic regime. Six years on, we spoke with him to see whether his assessment of China had changed.