The China Syndrome

Reviewed by Margaret MacMillan
Sunday, March 4, 2007


How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression

By James Mann

Viking. 127 pp. $19.95

James Mann is a distinguished journalist and historian who covered China for the Los Angeles Times; his 1999 book, About Face, was a first-rate account of the troubled path of U.S.-Chinese relations after President Richard M. Nixon's decision to open contacts with the communist government, and his 2004 bestseller, Rise of the Vulcans, explored President Bush's war cabinet. In The China Fantasy, he now adds polemicist to his resume.

As this angry, lively little book makes clear, Mann has had enough! His main target is all those American policymakers -- aided and abetted by big business, the media and Beltway think tanks -- who have sold a bill of goods to the American people. Since Nixon first made his historic trip to Beijing in 1972, Mann charges, American elites have dispensed soothing and dangerously misleading nostrums to the public. Yes, China under the control of the Communist Party is somewhat authoritarian -- even, if you want to be rude, a totalitarian state. But that state of affairs, Americans are reassured, can't last forever. At some point, perhaps quite soon, China's dramatic economic development will inevitably lead to democracy as its growing middle class demands more rights and freedoms. Meanwhile, and confusingly, comes a set of warnings that China is more fragile than it seems and that if we don't all handle it with kid gloves, it could collapse into chaos and civil war, as it has done so often before.

Consequently, Mann argues, foreign critics of China's human rights abuses are told not to be so outspoken. After all, there is no point in hurting Chinese feelings or making the Chinese authorities dig in their heels. Mann is particularly scathing about what he describes as the "Lexicon of Dismissal." 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.

In his anger over this muzzling trend, Mann comes close to seeing a conspiracy by well-meaning but self-serving American elites -- with, of course, the happy acquiescence of the Chinese communists -- to keep the United States investing in and trading with China.

The China Fantasy raises an awkward and important question: What if 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?

Mann thinks that scenario highly likely, even if he does not share the alarmist view now taking root in some Washington circles that China is going to challenge the United States militarily. His concern is both that an undemocratic China is bad for the Chinese themselves and that it will be bad for the world, giving comfort and even support to other unsavory regimes as it already does to that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. What seems to outrage him most, though, is that the American people are going to go on being deceived.

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. ยท

Margaret MacMillan is provost of Trinity College and professor of history at the University of Toronto. She is the author of "Paris 1919" and, most recently, "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World."

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