The Focus of All Hopes

25 May

There’s a remarkably heated and, eventually, unsatisfying debate between . Mann’s new book, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression is the starting-point. I think Mann makes his point, but only because Lampton doesn’t reveal his major assumption.

Mann: My principal argument has been that political change in China is not inevitable—and that in fact China’s one-party state is likely to persist for a long time. The claim that trade leads to political change was a rationalization used to line up support for U.S. economic policies that have proved beneficial, above all, to U.S. and multinational corporations. Now, Lampton is telling us to stop looking for far-reaching change, and to expect only more humane governance from a one-party state that permits no organized opposition. That is truly sad.


Lampton: It’s Mann who is being naive. The truth is, U.S. policy toward the People’s Republic of China has never been predicated on a false belief that China would move toward democracy soon, if it all. Seven consecutive U.S. presidents, backed by Congress and the American public, have weighed their options and decided that security and economic considerations rank above promoting Chinese democracy in the priority list. Mann wants to upend the ranking. Democratization promotes those other valid objectives, he believes. But that argument has not won the policy day thus far.

Why not? First, even if democracy were to rank first among U.S. goals in dealing with Beijing, could the United States achieve or effectively promote it? Again, consider the dispiriting U.S. interventions in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Or if it’s verbal condemnations of human rights abuse Mann prefers, consider Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Libya—all states that have blithely ignored the opprobrium of human rights advocates and U.S. politicians for decades.

Second, even if we thought U.S. capabilities to promote democracy were extensive, how should we most effectively do so? Most of the China field, myself included, has been involved in efforts to bring legal studies to China, promote development of nongovernmental organizations there, and contribute in other ways to the development of social and institutional structures conducive to at least more humane governance, if not democratization, over the long haul.

Which brings me to my final argument. It takes time to build democratic political institutions such as competitive political parties and independent courts. For democracy to take root, societies need to pass through a sequence of stages: from building national identity, to constructing functioning state institutions, to assuring participation in those institutions, to distributing benefits more equitably. Moreover, it takes time for the democratic values and behaviors that support those institutions to develop; each society, including China, must be allowed to find its own path to more pluralistic, participatory, and humane governance. Move too quickly, and the likely result is disorder and backsliding on democracy and human rights, both of which we have seen in post-Communist Russia. Unfortunately, there is not a scintilla of recognition in Mann’s book or in his comments here that it is easier to talk about democracy than it is to produce it.

Lampton is not an impartial interlocutor in this debate, as Mann points out. Precedent created by the lack of trying to find alternatives, however supported by appeals to authority are also not convincing. Unilateral attempts at destroying regimes is also not a policy of democratization. Finally, I want Lampton to lay out what security and economic interests outweigh democratization. Lampton seems impatient for some sort of reward or quid pro quo only China can bestow. Might not the benefits Lampton desires be accruable in the long haul if attention to political rights accompany economic globalization?

The argument, that free trade brings aggregate economic benefits to consumers, is theoretical and offers little guidance for the political decisions that come in liberalization’s wake. In the same way, that democratization will flow from economic liberalization, offers no guidance for the harm change will bring. That guidance should come from example, from those states that have weathered the course previously. That implies a diplomatic component to liberalization and democratization both Mann and Lampton ignore. The winners must guide the strivers, and both must deal with the losers and spoilers.

That’s why it’s regrettable both authors seemingly dismiss the example of other East Asian states.

Lampton: There is a hope, and even some evidence—such as the recent Beijing policy decision to reduce the scope of the death penalty—that steady engagement, globalization, and the logic of change in China itself will gradually produce more humane governance domestically and more cooperative behavior internationally. This is not mere fantasy: Development theory strongly suggests that it takes time to build working political institutions and to develop the popular and elite habits of the heart that make functioning democracy even possible. And as the difficult experiences of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti dramatically illustrate, societies must pass through a sequence of stages in order to become functioning democracies. Yet Mann, waving aside South Korea and Taiwan’s instructive (but admittedly imperfect) examples of societies that successfully transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy, is ready to rush ahead. Calls for patience, in Mann’s derisive telling, are merely disingenuous attempts by self-interested scholars, government officials, and business people to encourage the U.S. public and Congress to look beyond Beijing’s abuses in order to keep the corporate profits rolling in.

It’s true that despite rapid economic and social reform, change toward electoral and multiparty governance has been slow to nonexistent in China. The Beijing elite has made it abundantly clear that it will use harsh means to preserve Chinese Communist Party authority. And so Mann fears, not unreasonably, that China may prove to be the rare case of a capitalist state in which the middle class grows but political rights lag far behind.

Mann seems somehow to have misunderstood that the notion that China would steadily open up politically was (and remains) an expectation to be realized over a long period of time, not a guarantee. The purpose of engagement is more to achieve U.S. interests, only one of which is democratization, and perhaps not even the most important interest. In fact, few China experts (beyond Bruce Gilley and Henry Rowen) have predicted that China would democratize quickly. Even so, there is moderate good news to report: Today’s China is much more cooperative on issues important to the United States than it was in the past; it is less of a proliferation danger; its people have much more freedom to realize their individual potential; and, significantly, the Chinese system has moved from totalitarian rule under Mao Zedong to an authoritarian system in which an entrenched but growing elite evinces greatly diminished ambitions for control of society.

Lampton’s riding the issue of pace of development is just bullying, but he skips over South Korea, Taiwan, and, I would add, Japan, too quickly. This is where China trades and possibly could war. The US is just the place Beijing holds its savings. Structural weakness distorts Sino-US policy, but its interests are not immediate and historical as China’s neighbors. If US interests are all that matters, the US can end its fixation with China in the long haul with fiscal and macroeconomic reform. But, if globalization is really what matters, then the US should look to East Asia.

Japan’s success as a globalized economic powerhouse is an excellent example to Beijing, but not when Tokyo pushes the US into confrontation with the mainland. is a reminder of how complicated American interests are in the region. .

One place to start is Taiwan, especially one ruled by . Here’s a "China" America can respect, and which Beijing would, too, if Americans, like Lampton, were not simple-minded rationalizers, but realists.

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