Wednesday, 22 April 2009

“The China Fantasy”, by James Mann (Viking)


“How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression”

This is just a quick review, as this book has been out for a couple of years already.

The China Fantasy is the third book about China written Mann, who is a former Los Angeles Times reporter and current author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H Nitze School of Advance International Studies. The book is not meant as a book about China itself, rather it is about outside impressions of China. In other words, it is about US governmental, academic and media views of the world’s most populous and fastest-growing nation. “It is about the China of the elites, about the views of China that prevail in Washington… and i corporate headquarters around the globe.”

The book came into a good deal of criticism when it was released, ironically from people who – in certain ways – proved Mann’s point about American impressions of China and the US-China relationship. That is one largely based around conciliation and “understanding” of what Chinese leaders have to deal with, and saying/writing/advocating nothing that could jeopardize American investment and business concerns in China.

The author explains that “The Soothing Scenario”, which is the mainstream view of China (shared by business, scholars and presidents of both parties), “holds that China’s economic development will lead inexorably to an opening of China’s political system”, even though there has been little evidence of this being the case so far since the 1980s, when the scenario was widely adopted. Mann proposes a different possibility, and that is of a China that in the future does not democratise in the future. If this is what happens, considering the Soothing Scenario’s utilization for every trade and economic policy change towards China, “the American public will have been deceived”, the author says. He takes particular issue with the perceived softening of the US’s stance on human rights abuses under this scenario.

The picture Mann draws is rather negative. China, the authoritarian giant across the Pacific, tugging America any which way that suits it, comfortable in the knowledge that no noteworthy American official, scholar or journalist will write a truly damning peace on Chinese repression, authoritarianism, or human rights. All in the name of protecting business interests.

Mann takes scholars, government officials and journalists to task over their wholehearted acceptance that engagement will ultimately lead to all of America’s China dreams coming true. He provides plenty of “evidence” to suggest they are wrong and to back-up his position. It’s difficult to disagree. His sweeping statements don’t help his case, as there are plenty of scholars who do criticize China (see “The Mandarins”, by Ken Silverstein, for some repercussions of this).

The author takes particular issue with Nicholas Kristoff’s famous quote: “No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot.” Mann refers to this as “The Starbucks Fallacy”, which suggests that because Chinese people now eat at McDonalds, drink Starbucks coffees, and buy clothes from The GAP, then they are becoming more like Americans, and therefore will want a political system more like America’s. It plays into the perception that the whole of China is as it appears in the coastal cities, those areas foreigners actually see, a perception Mann correctly points out is wrong, not to mention assuming the Chinese people have exactly the same desires as Americans (which, obviously, they don’t). This is not to say that the Chinese do not, en masse, want representative government, as Mann convincingly argues, but maybe the CCP is correct when they assert “Yes, but not just yet…”.

Not everyone will agree with Mann’s thesis. In fact, many have already rushed to publish opposition papers. But, regardless of whether or not you accept his argument whole, there are certainly plenty of truths within The China Fantasy. Mann thankfully didn’t give in to the hyper-anti-China rantings of some analysts, who subscribe to the “China Threat Theory”, and the book benefits immensely from this. Mann appears, to me at least, to want to open the Washington elites’ eyes to another possibility for China’s future, to dispel the wishful thinking and self-serving prophesies about China’s future, so the US can start dealing with China properly, with no preconceptions or unrealistic dreams. It is an admirable wish.

A very short book, it would have benefitted from a wider look at the relationship, as well as a little more context within which to locate his argument. Other than that, it is an enjoyable, thought-provoking, quick read. Recommended.

Also try: James Mann, Beijing Jeep (1997) & About Face (2000); David M Lampton, Same Bed, Different Dreams (2001); Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (2008); James Kynge, China Shakes The World (2005); Peter Navarro, The Coming China Wars (2008); Richard Bernstein & Ross H. Munro, The Coming Conflict With China (1998); Carla Hills & Dennis Blair (eds.), U.S.-China Relations: An Affirmative Agenda, A Responsible Course (2007)

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