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The China Fantasy Fizzles By: Dan Blumenthal
AEI | Thursday, May 24, 2007

The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression
By James Mann

Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World
By Joshua Kurlantzick


Our China policy is based on a social science theory: Rising per capita GDP inevitably leads to democratic political change. As incomes rise, a growing middle class will demand more rights and fewer restrictions, and have more time to participate in voluntary civic associations that curb the power of government.


In the case of China, this theory has been articulated emphatically by the administrations of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush as the premise of our approach to that country: "Trade freely with China and time is on our side," said candidate Bush in making his case for the inevitability theory. Earlier, Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger had said something similar: "Just as NAFTA membership eroded . . . one-party rule in Mexico, WTO membership . . . can help do the same in China."


But as James Mann's new book argues, there is little evidence that the democratic inevitability theory is unfolding in China. China has grown richer, but it is still authoritarian and repressive. The China Fantasy is a brave book. Mann takes on what he sees as a self-serving business, expert, and policy-making elite that is perpetuating an unsuccessful policy.


Mann reminds us that as late as 2005, there was an increase in state repression. Political dissidents, lawyers, and activists have been detained or placed under house arrest. There has been a crackdown on what is allowed to be communicated via the Internet. China holds tens of thousands of political prisoners. Peasants and workers challenging the existing order were subjected to violence at the hands of hired thugs. In addition, the Chinese Communist party cracked down on NGO activity.


And yet, Mann says, we are told by policymakers, the elite press, Sinologists, and business leaders that we need only be patient: Political reform is coming to China. He calls this conventional wisdom, the "Soothing Scenario." But there are other scenarios that are less soothing: One is a scenario of instability, the other a China that grows richer through trade but is no less authoritarian. Mann believes the latter to be most likely.

This book is brave because Mann names names: Thomas Friedman peddles the Soothing Scenario, as has Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Cisco, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have cooperated with China's efforts at Internet censorship. Most China experts support and believe in the Soothing Scenario, and engage in a "lexicon of dismissal" of those who question whether an engagement policy will lead to a democratic China. Such dissenters are "provocative" or "ideological" for pointing out Beijing's manifold human rights abuses.


To complicate matters further, there are financial incentives for propagating the Soothing Scenario: Berger, Madeleine Albright, Carla Hills, and the prominent Sinologist Kenneth Lieberthal all consult on behalf of clients doing business in China. And the Communist party punishes those who criticize, making dissent bad for business.


Mann usefully explains why Sinology is prone to a particular kind of conventional wisdom. Today's China hands came of age at an exciting time, just as China was opening to the world and Sino-American relations were improving. At the same time, many American Sinologists still retained memories of the McCarthy era. This generational coming-of-age has led to the following dynamic: a belief that life in China has vastly improved since the Cultural Revolution (undoubtedly true) and that radicals in and around Congress could, at any time, engage in McCarthy-like demagoguery and freeze China relations once again.


Every discipline has its historical and political baggage that creates distortions, and China Studies is no different. Mann offers an important insight as to why the China field seems to be prone to impulses and attitudes that may not be serving China policy well, and convincingly explains why the inevitability theory is, indeed, a fantasy. Many observers look at the successful political transitions of Taiwan and South Korea and believe China will follow a similar pattern. But they ignore important differences. Though it is true that Taiwan had developed what Seymour Martin Lipset termed the social, economic, and cultural prerequisites for democracy, it also faced tremendous pressure to change from its American security guarantor.


But Washington never really had much leverage with China, and has even less as the People's Republic grows richer and stronger. Moreover, for the democratic inevitability theory to work, a country needs a substantial urban middle class. China's urban middle class is a tiny proportion of the country: There are some 800-900 million peasants in China. China's 10 biggest cities have a population of 62 million people, or 5 percent of the population. The small urban elite has done well under the Communist party and may, in fact, be afraid of democracy in China.


What if a Chinese government had to be responsive to the desires of the vast majority of the Chinese population? A coalition of the rich and the powerful may be working hard against the establishment of democracy in China.


So, Mann argues, the most likely scenario for China may not be soothing at all: an authoritarian, rich, and powerful country. And why does that matter for Washington? Because already China is working against American interests, supporting the world's dictators against Washington's pressure. And why, exactly, would China conform to democratic norms abroad--say, improving the human rights situation in Africa--if it does not do so at home?


Mann's thesis has important implications for Joshua Kurlantzick's Charm Offensive. Talking and writing about China's "soft power," or its kinder, gentler diplomacy, has become quite popular in Washington policy circles. Kurlantzick utilizes his finely honed investigative techniques to explore the worldwide impact of China's new global influence.


Harvard's Joseph Nye developed the term "soft power" in the early 1990s in his hypothesis that a broad shift will occur in how nations utilize their power resources in an interdependent world. Soft, cooptive power would be more important than the "hard" kind of power that commands weaker states to do what the stronger state demands. The basic concept is that countries can get what they want through the attraction of their ideas, values, and culture. Soft power stands in stark contrast to hard power, which involves either coercion or payoffs.


But if this is the definition of soft power, then how could James Mann's China--authoritarian, repressive, and corrupt--wield soft power to get what it wants? As Kurlantzick illustrates, China is attractive to those states that want to grow economically but remain politically repressive.


In fact, Kurlantzick has found that China actively promotes its form of illiberal development. This is an important finding: Those who believe that Sino-U.S. relations will be characterized by competition think that the rivalry will be nonideological in nature. But if Beijing is, in fact, deliberately promoting an "authoritarian" growth model, the world's democracies may have a more serious problem on their hands.


At times, Kurlantzick falls into a trap that has caught other observers of China's soft power: He terms the pomp and circumstance surrounding China's massive investment and buying delegations in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia "soft power" rather than good old-fashioned power or dollar diplomacy. But this is an intellectually honest book that shows the undersides of China's growing influence: There is a real risk that China will export its poor labor, safety, health, and environmental standards to countries that need the opposite.


For all its reporting strengths, Charm Offensive lacks analytical precision--the result, perhaps, of the amorphous concept of soft power itself. Is China's success in getting Uzbekistan to kick out the U.S. military a result of soft power? Or is it an example of traditional inducements to the Uzbek regime? Probably the latter. Kurlantzick is aware of this analytical problem and tries to resolve it by using China's, rather than Joseph Nye's, definition of soft power: any type of power other than military. But in accepting this definition Charm Offensive becomes more about China's political and economic influence--two realms of power that China is using as it grows its military--than about soft power as Nye defines it. For example, China provides aid packages to African nations that help them circumvent good governance requirements. That certainly buys China influence, and advances such goals as acquiring natural resources and curtailing diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. But it is not "non-coercive" soft power.


The book's greatest contribution is its systematic portrayal of China's growing global influence, and the ways in which that influence is hurting not only Washington but also international development institutions. And China is doing so at a time when America is not vigorously fighting the war of ideas as it did during the Cold War.


If Kurlantzick and Mann are right, we are in for a tougher challenge than we are currently prepared to meet. We face a China that is growing richer and stronger, that is still authoritarian and more globally influential, undermining some of our most important national interests. And we face impediments to rational debate about how to approach China because so many elites are invested in the Soothing Scenario.


Both Mann and Kurlantzick offer sound advice. According to Mann, we must break away from the inevitability theory: American visitors to China need to get out more--to the countryside, to the real China--and witness the impediments to democratization. And then we need a serious debate on the implications of the "authoritarian stability" scenario for our China policy. Kurlantzick makes some reasonable suggestions about rebuilding our own soft power, and recommends treating and tracking China as the global phenomenon that it is, breaking down the seams between military commands and regional bureaucratic fiefdoms.


We can compete with an authoritarian China if we realize what we are up against, and appeal to countries (especially in Southeast Asia) based on our values, which, Kurlantzick believes, still resonate with beleaguered democracies.


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Dan Blumenthal is resident fellow at the
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