How our leaders explain away Chinese repression
THE CHINA FANTASY:
Why capitalism will not bring democracy to China
by James Mann
Paperback: 160 pages
Rec. price: AUD$25.00
China-born New Zealand academic, Professor Dong Li, who was purged during Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, has compiled a nine-point schema that shows China to be a centralised authoritarian state.
Li, who was expelled from Shanghai to a village to look after pigs for two years, sets out how Mao’s Communist Party, which still holds power 32 years after his death, retains monopoly control of the armed forces, mass media, the education system, and all religions.
China’s government and “parliament” – the National People’s Congress – are also arms of the party, along with the judiciary and the economy’s “commanding heights” that are organised along crony-capitalistic lines.
Nearly all major businesses are owned by relatives and/or friends of top central or provincial party officials.
There’s also nationwide surveillance under which the internet and telephone conversations can be monitored. And that’s backed up with newly-installed facial-recognition software plus GPS monitoring.
The existence of this tight Orwellian grip over China’s populace – in the mould of the 20th century’s Fascist and Bolshevik states – is indisputable.
Yet, as American China expert James Mann reveals, so many with power and influence in the West – including especially the United States – cannot, or refuse, to see this. Instead, they prefer to believe that liberalisation will somehow inevitably blossom in China.
It is this ongoing and persistent myopia, intertwined with predictions expressed in various ways of an optimistic outcome, that prompted Mann to write The China Fantasy.
Mann first noticed this myopia while The Los Angeles Times‘ Beijing bureau chief between 1984 and 1987.
As a result, when he was transferred to be his newspaper’s Washington bureau chief, he asked to become not only its American but also its Asia correspondent in America’s capital.
“And so, with my newspaper’s grudging assent, I began to follow Asia once again, particularly China, but from a different perspective – this time not as a foreign correspondent living in Beijing, but as a Washington story, an American story,” Mann says.
Between 1987 and 2007, when he completed The China Fantasy, Mann attended countless briefings by Washington-based China experts, corporate chiefs, government officials and congressmen.
During those two decades there was the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, ongoing persecution of pro-democracy advocates, and the transformation of China’s economy via its crony-capitalist approach, especially across its coastal provinces.
This prompted Mann to observe: “Despite all these changes, the underlying attitudes of the [Western] political, financial, and intellectual elites have in many ways remained constant over the past two decades.
“For their own different reasons, the US government and American (or multinational) corporations have been eager to conduct as much business as possible with China.
“In order to do this, they have sought to minimise issues of repression of dissent and China’s one-party political system.”
Doesn’t the same apply in Australia with our academies welcoming, with open arms, Beijing-funded Confucian Institutes and so many Canberra politicians, including the now Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, when he was an opposition frontbencher, moonlighting for Chinese companies?
Mann has found that America’s powerful political, business and academic elites persistently contend that China is headed for a democratic future, something he dubs the Soothing Scenario.
“The view of this book is that’s its not so simple – that we should not assume China is headed for democracy or far-reaching political liberalisation,” Mann says.
“China will probably, instead, retain a repressive one-party political system for a long time.”
Mann strongly suspects that, in many cases, the Soothing Scenario’s proponents would prefer protracted repression.
“It may indeed be just the China they want,” he says.
“But they rarely acknowledge that they would be content with a permanently repressive and undemocratic China, in public or to large audiences, because doing so would undercut public support for their policies.
“Instead, they foster an elaborate set of illusions about China, centred on the belief that commerce will lead inevitably to political change and democracy.”
To Mann this is, at minimum, a major “failure of imagination”, a breakdown in clear thinking and level-headed reasoning.
He says Americans and others should correctly assess China and resist all temptation to envisage desirable outcomes that are unlikely to eventuate.
Mao’s party, since that tyrant’s death in 1976, has vigorously resisted demands for liberalisation.
All the repressive arms of China’s state apparatus are now more sophisticated in approach, better equipped and far-reaching. No signs of a reversal are evident.
“Yet, while China will certainly be a richer and more powerful country a quarter of a century from now, it could still be an autocracy of one form or another,” says Mann.
“Its leadership (the Communist Party or whatever it calls itself in the future) may not be willing to tolerate organised political opposition any more than it does today.
“That is a prospect with profound implications for America and the rest of the world. And it is a prospect that our current paradigm of an inevitably changing China cannot seem to envision.”
Nor does Mann place much weight on what he calls the Upheaval Scenario, one envisaging widespread unrest and an overthrow of the Communist/crony capitalistic order, even though he concedes that strikes and widespread unrest, especially over land seizures, exist.
First, the 70 million strong Communist Party controls the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – the party’s final backstop. But before the PLA’s ever called upon, as in Tiananmen Square in 1989, there’s the more recently created People’s Armed Police [PAP] that’s also ever ready to step in.
Haves and have-nots
China is split between a poorer inland village-based society, with a population of some 800 to 900 million people (of whom 100 million are “working or trying to find jobs as migrants on the margins of Chinese cities”) and a 65 million strong urban middle-class, primarily concentrated in the coastal provinces, which now has a vested interest in the new and booming crony-capitalistic order.
Mann repeatedly asks, “Why do we assume that, if the Communist Party someday falls from power in China, what follows would necessarily be political liberalisation or democracy?
“China’s urban middle-class might chose to align itself with the military [PLA] and the security apparatus [PAP] to support some other form of authoritarian regime, arguing that it is necessary to do so to keep the economy running.”
Is it likely that China’s new and easily outnumbered middle-class will opt for Western-style parliamentary elections, diverse political parties and pressure groups?
Or would it prefer a more authoritarian alternative to help maintain the lifestyle its members are becoming so accustomed to?
A thought-provoking question, indeed.
It’s foolish to expect much from the West, including especially the United States, whose various influential elites – political, bureaucratic, academic and corporate – have established a little-noticed series of links with the Communist Party’s new and wealthier self-interested backers.
On page 60, Mann even names names, including former US Secretary of State, Dr Henry Kissinger, now with his own consulting form, Kissinger Associates, that Mann says allows him, for a handsome fee, to escort “American bankers and other executives to Beijing”.
Others with similar Beijing-bound consultancies include the former Clinton Administration’s National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Defence Secretary William S. Cohen.
“Companies seeking China advice with a more Republican cast can turn to Hills & Co. (headed by former US trade representative Carla A. Hills), or, of course, Kissinger Associates,” says Mann.
“Washington’s leading law firms, meanwhile, also compete to recruit former cabinet members who have been involved in China policy and can claim, like Berger, to have the ‘two hats’ of government and private business.”
Similar networks exist within academia, says Mann.
“Leading scholars on China, too, have discovered that they can make money on the side as consultants for companies doing business in China,” he says.
“When the academics write op-ed pieces, testify in Congress, or take part in seminars, they are identified by their jobs in university, rarely are their additional financial stakes in China business or consulting disclosed.
“Many of America’s think-tanks get sizeable donations from business executives and companies that are doing business in China, and the donors seek to foster policies that will protect and augment their financial interests.
“The think-tanks, in turn, issue a flurry of studies and reports supporting trade with China and other policies that favour the American business community.”
And so on.
These networks of self-interested dollar-conscious individuals more often than not highlight Mann’s Soothing Scenario, with some at times even raising the prospect of the Upheaval Scenario.
“I have never written a book in which I hoped so fervently that I would be proved wrong,” Mann concludes.
“It would be heartening if China’s leaders proceed along the lines that America’s political leaders predict.
“It would be wonderful if China opened up, either gradually or suddenly, to a new political system in which the country’s 1.3 billion people are given a chance to choose their own leaders.
“While wishing for such an outcome, I will not hold my breath.”
Mann’s China-watching from near Congress and the White House tells us a great deal about China and Washington.