The China Syndrome: La Plus Ca Change. . . .

Doing business with China

Lots of buzz out there regarding James Mann’s new, 127 page book, The China Fantasy.  I have not yet read the book so this post is based only on snippets from the book and on what I have read about the book.

According to Mann, we have no reason to believe China is democratizing or will democratize and any such belief is a fantasy. Economic growth does not necessarily translate into political growth.

I have come to agree that political liberalization need not necessarily follow economic liberalization, at least not at the same speed.  Nonetheless, I do see China very, very, slowly becoming more democratic.  For example, I see changes occurring in China’s legal system that likely will eventually increase judicial independence.  The new property rights law will have to have some democratizing impact.  I do not see the Party relinquishing much power within, let’s say, the next ten years, but I think it somewhat presumptuous even to make predictions much beyond that.

The Washington Post published a thoughtful review of Mann’s book, written by Margaret MacMillan, a professor of history at the University of Toronto and author of Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World. Ms. MacMillan sees Mann’s book as raising the “awkward and important question” of whether “there is a third alternative between the rise of democracy and the collapse of China’s political order”:

What if that alternative is the survival of the one-party state, with all its apparatus of control and repression? In an era when capitalists can join the party built by Mao, the Chinese communists have already shown how adept they are at changing their spots. What would it mean for the United States — and, indeed, the world — if 20 or 30 years from now a much richer and more powerful China proved to be every bit as authoritarian a state as it is today? What if that China were one in which the middle classes decided, much as they did in Hitler’s Germany, to opt for stability and prosperity over democracy?

Like all good polemics, this one raises more questions than it answers. Can the Chinese Communist Party, which now numbers some 70 million people, really be as monolithic or as cunning as he suggests? Is the American establishment really of one mind on China? Is there no possibility of the Chinese middle classes, or at least part of them, joining forces with the country’s long-suffering peasants to push for greater democracy? We will have to wait and see, but, in the meantime, Mann has done a fine job of making sure that we won’t do so complacently.

What do you think?

20 responses to “The China Syndrome: La Plus Ca Change. . . .”

  1. i think that some so called “capitalist” which is refered to the owner of private companies, their joining the communist party or become representative of congress, is not a sign that china is on its road to democracy. and it is not worthy of appreciation. i take this as a strategy of CCP to give some political benifit to those rich people, in exchange for their support. and in fact it give those rich guys to strengthen their ties with the governmental officers, and eventually lead to the corruption. because their interest are now linked together. i think the western observer should be explore more deeply about china ‘s real situation.

  2. “What if that China were one in which the middle classes decided, much as they did in Hitler’s Germany, to opt for stability and prosperity over democracy?”
    Besides being kinda Godwin’s Law-ish, I think the answer to this question is obviously “yes, for now”. As Kaiser pointed out from Fareed Zakaria, China’s 20th century included the war, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, famines, etc.
    “Can the Chinese Communist Party, which now numbers some 70 million people, really be as monolithic or as cunning as he suggests?”
    I want to read the book to know what this refers to. I don’t think the Party is monolithic, and the article doesn’t give any example of Mann making this assertion.
    “Criticism of China is dismissed as “bashing,” “provocative” or “anti-China” (a favorite of the Chinese themselves), and any such censure always runs the risk of turning China into an enemy.”
    It’s one thing if an American politician quiets such talk because of their desire for maintaining a strong trade relationship. But I feel there is quite a bit of talk that is merely bashing or at least ignorant demonizing. Such as raising comparisons to Weimar Germany and then failing to consider that the Chinese public is relieved to have left behind a recent history of horrors.
    But the bigger reason to be considerate in talking to China is simple: otherwise they won’t listen, and you can’t persuade them.
    “Is there no possibility of the Chinese middle classes, or at least part of them, joining forces with the country’s long-suffering peasants to push for greater democracy?”
    Join as what, under what, forming what? A party? An insurrection? An online petition? In what form are we to imagine rural farmers joining with Shanghai fashionistas or Beijing cubicle grunts? These fantasies annoy me because they don’t seem to have bothered to imagine how such a scenario would even take place. I’m not saying its impossible, but has anyone ever seen a plausible description of how such a thing would take place?

  3. xiao hui —
    I agree with you to the extent I believe the Communist Party will do nearly whatever it takes to hang onto power. But, sometimes governments do something for one reason, but other things result from it. I am big on looking at actions not motives.

  4. davesgonechina —
    Nice analysis. I agree with all of your points. I missed the implications of the comparision to Germany and her slipping that in there is a bit unfair.
    Yes, China’s rural farmers joining up with Shanghai fashionistas is impossible, but who would have thought Poland’s shipyard workers would join up with its intellegensia? Joining does not necessarily mean working in collaberation; it can mean having the same goals and engaging in means to achieve those goals at the same time.

  5. “China’s rural farmers joining up with Shanghai fashionistas is impossible, but who would have thought Poland’s shipyard workers would join up with its intellegensia?”
    Answer: a Catholic. That’s exactly what I’m saying – there has to be something that brings together disparate forces in Chinese society. The Catholic Church was fundamental to the success of Solidarity, and had deep roots in Polish society. I do not believe there is a comparable institution in China today.
    I’d also point out that Solidarity had a bit more moral clarity in being a movement for self-determination in the face of foreign (i.e. Soviet) domination, in the wake of the Nazis no less. A Chinese revolution would have no such comfort zone.

  6. CPC has seen very clearly the complexity of Chinese society and sufficiently utilized that, in that,I think, only in case of diplomatic insults, can the Chinese political impasse unlocked. Their bottomline is China is monolithic and no one dare to claim explicitly regional differences are actually as big as countries within Europe. Nationalism is used as the last front to fight regionalism, although calls for the latter is becoming stronger.So what rational men can do is to let people conscious of their identity or their real spiritual interest instead of only focusing on physical interst.

  7. Question is: Is Democracy the best political system available on earth now? What’s the use if there is democracy but no freedom? To a limited extent, many people in the mainland at the grassroot level is enjoying great extent of freedom right here in China – (can sense some serious opposition right away). By comparison, there are many so called Democratic nations, do not actually practice freedom, sounds ironic, familiar?
    There must be a reason why China is moving ahead or up or forward so fast, my guess is, many grassroot level normal folks recognise the fact that politics are a game for politicians, hence, if one has no such vision in the “game”, don’t get into that field at all, rather, concentrate in utilizing whatever resources / opportunities that are available in China, and capitalize on it. Not a bad move, after all !!!

  8. I haven’t read it either but am always intrigued by these questions.
    One area which I struggle with is the dichotomy that is always used – US style democracy good, one party, authoritarian rule bad. Black/White.
    They always seem to ignore Singapore until the present, Taiwan well into the 90’s, Japan also well into the 90’s, and Korea until the 80’s. All pretty much nations which had governments which were somewhere in between.
    Why isn’t the question asked (I’m sure it is I just never see it) about how the rise of Asian nations, and in particular China, may impact our pre-conceived notion that US style democracy is the ideal model for social development. What we may be seeing is the rise of Asian Democracy with US characteristics?
    And frankly, have dirrigiste, confucian “democractic” governments such as Japan and Singapore done that bad a job for their nations.
    I know “Power corrupts, Absolute power blah blah blah” and yes, constant harping on the benefits of democracy does keep the bastards honest (see if you can pick the Australian reference) but I sometimes wish commentators would at least examine their fundamental belief that US style democracy is the sine qua non of a successful society (damn I’m getting pretentious today).

  9. The constant references to “US style democracy” seems to betray an anti-US bias among some of these posters. Japan’s, Taiwan’s and SK’s democracies seem to follow more of the European model than the US one. And while those countries left monolithic forms of rule in the recent past, they also experienced a considerable economic and social boom afterwards.
    Then there are places like Indonesia, which has a democracy even in the face of openly radical Islam as well as tribal difficulties that China would handle the only way it knows how…steamroller-style force. But the Indos seem to have found a better road to pacify the various factions.
    “By comparison, there are many so called Democratic nations, do not actually practice freedom, sounds ironic, familiar?”
    Examples?
    “The Catholic Church was fundamental to the success of Solidarity, and had deep roots in Polish society. I do not believe there is a comparable institution in China today.”
    Ironically, Tibetan Buhddism and the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Many chinese tourists to the occupied territory undergo sort of a spiritual awakening they never felt before.
    And while chinese peasants and urbanites may unite for the common purpose of lawful rule, freedom of speech and an accountable gov’t, their differences will lead back to factionalization under a new system ie political parties.
    “Besides being kinda Godwin’s Law-ish, I think the answer to this question is obviously “yes, for now”. As Kaiser pointed out from Fareed Zakaria, China’s 20th century included the war, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, famines, etc.”
    Thanks to rampant corruption, mismanagement, GDP at all costs, greed, lack of law enforcement and lack of local gov’t accountability drought and famine are working their way back into China. China’s water is either gone or so dirty is unusable for crops or drinking and so China is a net importer of food, that means it is very sensitive to food prices as the cost of land, water and food go up in Europe, and the entire western hemisphere due to many factors including the new ethanol boom.
    Lastly, China’s slow reforms aren’t for the good of the country, today’s rulers intend on keeping their power and privilage until they retire or die in office, after they are dead, the new gov’t will have the tools for change but they won’t get to enjoy the absolute power that today’s CCP rulers enjoy.
    And using “the right tone of voice” with Chinese rulers? They expect weakness, but they don’t respect it. And engaging in quiet conversation just leads to an unbreakable loop of “consultation and consideration” in which everyone talks and nothing substantial gets done.

  10. Audi Alteram Partem —
    “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.”
    Winston Churchill

  11. Nicholas —
    We lawyers use latin words in our daily speech all the time, so worry not about that.
    Why are you focusing on US style democracy. I certainly did not. I would never advocate for US style democracy anywhere outside the US. So let’s just talk about democracy.
    Of course there is a spectrum and Singapore is on a different end of it than Syria, North Korea, or the Sudan.
    I also have never said democracy needs to happen instantly. Yet, I will say it should always be a goal and I do not buy into the idea that somehow Asia should be exempt from this.
    You cite to Korea and Japan and I note that both countries are far more democratic now than 30 years ago and both countries are continuing to democratize (this is certainly true of Korea, I know Japan much less well).
    I am happy to give China time, but I do not think it needs excuses.

  12. Maybe this is slightly off topic but is it been long enough to notice any trends that have come out of the reabsorption of Hong Kong? Or is the limited liberalization we are noticing because of the economic miracle separate from Hong Kong?

  13. Jmnlman —
    Thanks for checking in. Funny you should ask, because I am working on a post on Shanghai’s replacing HK as a corporate center. My view is that China is driving China and HK has little to know impact. I would love to hear from others on this as my view is based mostly on the fact that HK hardly ever comes up anymore.

  14. I know that most HK tv stations can be seen in southern Guangzhou and Fujian provinces. I was in HK during the 2003 pro-democracy protests and Beijing did not like that kind of image getting out. So long running radio shows like “tempest in a teacup” were suddenly cancelled without notice and the hosts were not eager to talk to the press.
    HK is being ruined ie turned into a mainland city.
    HK is still much freer, but the pessure is being felt to the point where the SCMP is no longer the rapier voice of truth it used to be.
    Expats, companies and world class athletes who have long been accustomed to HK’s western ways and clean air have been fleeing to Singapore and other locales because of the poison coming out of the PRD.

  15. nanheyangrouchuan —
    I guess you didn’t say free speech re Singapore, but you certainly hinted at it. I have to confess that I don’t read SCMP. I should, but there are only so many hours in a day. I am, however, quite familiar with HK’s massive pollution problems and executives not wanting to stay/go there because of it. Particularly those with kids.

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