Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the objective of U.S. policy has been -- and often has been proclaimed to be -- the steady subversion of China's repressive regime. The cure for communism is supposed to be commerce with the capitalist world: Trade can turn China's potentially aggressive energies into constructive, pacific channels.Washington Post:April 26, 2007; Page A29 - Excerpt - But suppose this is not so. Suppose James Mann is right to dismiss all this as the Soothing Scenario.
In his new book, "The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression," Mann is of the Moynihan School: The late Pat Moynihan spoke acerbically of Western visitors who returned from China more impressed by the absence of flies than by the absence of freedom. Mann considers the Soothing Scenario's implication -- that American investment bankers doing business in China are necessarily freedom fighters -- a tad too convenient.
He also distrusts the Upheaval Scenario, which is that China's regime will not succumb to a peaceful, incremental glide from Leninism to democracy but rather will perish in a spasm of economic dysfunction and political discontent. His Third Scenario is that decades from now, modernization will have made China immeasurably wealthier, and hence more geopolitically imposing, but not significantly less authoritarian.
Big business and other advocates of the Soothing Scenario use what Mann calls "the lexicon of dismissal" to refute skeptics like him: Skeptics are being "provocative" when they engage in "China bashing" that reflects a "Cold War mentality." But although the theory is that "engagement" with China will change China, Mann wonders: Who is changing whom?
The Soothing Scenario says: Tyranny requires intellectual autarky and the conscription of the public's consciousness, which is impossible now that nations are porous to cellphones and the Internet. But Mann says companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo are cooperating with the government's censorship and security monitoring.
Mann warns against "McDonald's triumphalism," the belief that because the Chinese increasingly eat like us, they are becoming like us. That is related to "the Starbucks fallacy" -- the hope that as the Chinese become accustomed to many choices of coffee, they will demand more political choices.
His most disturbing thesis is that "the newly enriched, Starbucks-sipping, apartment-buying, car-driving denizens" of the large cities that American visitors to China see will be not the vanguard of democracy but the opposition to it. There may be 300 million such denizens, but there are 1 billion mostly rural and very poor Chinese. Will the minority prospering economically under a Leninist regime think majority rule is in their interest?
Mann is rightly disdainful of many meretricious and economically motivated arguments that American elites offer for the Soothing Scenario. In his polemical mood, however, he probably underestimates the autonomous and transformative power of today's commercial culture. Still, read his book as a guide for monitoring media coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the most portentous Games since those in 1936, in Berlin.