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Thinking about China

Before we can make wise decisions about how to relate to China, we must seriously wrestle with the current confusion of information and ideas about China and think through the basic nature of change underway there. In trying to understand the rather emotional debate in the United States over China policy, it is important to question the underlying assumptions and perspectives behind the arguments. There are several competing frameworks, each of them oversimplified to the point of becoming “myths” about China.

MYTH #1:

China undergoing democratic reform

The myth that dominated thinking about China after Mao’s death through the late Cold War period of the 70s and 80s, which was agreed to by most China specialists and people from both political parties, saw China and Eastern Europe as progressive countries trying to humanize socialism—the “good guys” trying to break away from the Soviet model and camp. This tended to be a top-down, elitist perspective held by U.S. government and academic specialists as well as by many social and church leaders in the west who went to China and interacted with their counterparts—the relatively moderate, progressive, better-educated people of China, who speak English and travel overseas; people with whom we thought we could work.

At the time, we tended to see China as a “glass of water half-full,” ignoring or minimizing signs of injustice and inequality. It was assumed that, gradually, China would be Westernized, if not Americanized, through the inevitable process of development. People expected a rather smooth, straight-line progression of change. Government policy focused on geopolitical cooperation against the Soviet Union, U.S. business sought to open the China market and academic and religious leaders tried to set up exchange programs. This framework suggested we should just be friends, or even allies, with the Chinese government and official organizations and be patient rather than critical. But the brutality of the 1989 crackdown (followed by political and religious repression and hostility toward Taiwan) compared with the sudden emergence of friendly democracies in Europe following the collapse of communism, undermined the legitimacy of this framework. It opened up debate, which continues today, regarding the best approach to China.

MYTH #2:

China as a Totalitarian Communist Power

During much of the 1990s, as consensus favoring U.S.-China cooperation fell apart, there was a reversion to a myth about China more appropriate to the Mao era. China was seen as the last remaining target of triumphant Western civilization, doomed to sudden collapse like European communism. The voices of U.S. human rights NGOs and labor and religious groups gained influence in the debate.

Based on greater information available about grass-roots abuses of power in China, they pointed to the plight of social groups that, suffering discrimination and repression by the bureaucracy, are marginalized in the economy and society. These critics have a populist perspective. They look from the bottom up seeing the glass half empty ignoring or minimizing signs of positive change and growing freedoms. There is an assumption that a stronger communist China would automatically become an enemy of the U.S. with few, if any, areas where we could cooperate.

This framework would suggest that we should not cooperate with officials, but work to overthrow this “evil empire,” assuming the people would then thrive in a succeeding democratic state. But over the past year, post-communist

Russia has gone from bad to worse while, in China, there has been continuing stability and openness to the outside. Therefore, these assumptions are also being called into question.

MYTH #3:

China as an Asian Authoritarian Nation

A third framework provides a more balanced perspective that is better able to take in the complexities of reality in China in the late 1990s. It is based on the Asian model of development that Chinese leaders and officials have been consciously pursuing as they have struggled to come to grips with the global forces of industrial modernization and post-industrial globalization. In the early 1980s, they had already given up the Soviet totalitarian model based on a massive defense industrial complex and social welfare state of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union; they simply couldn’t afford it. Deng Xiaoping first traded that in for the East European model of reform communism—trying to make state-run industry more efficient and shifting resources to light industry through trade and investment from the outside. Even before the collapse of European communism, the government began shifting to the Japanese-Korean economic model of government-business collaboration to direct an export-fueled market economy, but using the authoritarian political model of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Until quite recently, most Asian nations were run by highly authoritarian, unjust and corrupt bureaucracies—or were even police states to some degree—but there was a strong trend toward democratization in the region that gave hope for gradual change.

This framework is the basis for the current U.S. government policy of comprehensive engagement. The idea is to work pragmatically on problems and opportunities in all arenas with the goal of committing China to international norms—in trade, security, human rights, cultural and educational exchange and global issues. But now, suddenly, this framework too is being called into question. The “Asian miracle” seems to be dissipating into thin air as the financial crisis spreads to Russia and Latin America. Nervous Chinese leaders have cracked down on political and religious dissent out of fear growing unemployment may spur instability. “Crony” capitalism is coming into  disrepute both inside and outside China. Pragmatic Chinese are taking note that those countries coping best with the crisis are those that are most democratic, including Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Taiwan along with Japan and Korea. They see the strength of the U.S. and other Western consumer economies.

All of these frameworks are based to some extent on facts that need to be taken into account. But all are partly “myths” due to oversimplification. They focus on the “hard,” quantifiable, material factors of politics and economics and they neglect the “soft” intangible factors of social relations and cultural-spiritual values. China is not a static, unchanging monolithic regime, but neither is the change underway linear and progressive. Rather, it is more erratic in nature and unevenly distributed.

Actually, to some extent, each of these frameworks may be applicable to some place at some time in China! Geographic differences are striking. Some coastal cities and Hong Kong have been competing well in the post-industrial global economy using wealthy Asia-wide overseas Chinese networks. But in China’s rust-belts in the northeast and southwest, aging “smokestack” industrial cities are beginning to resemble post-communist scavenger nations of Europe with high unemployment and rising crime rates. Differences in education and outlook between pragmatic coastal leaders with technical educations who make use of scholars with Western educations as economic advisors, and feudalistic grass-roots tyrants in the interior who retain a Maoist mentality, make them seem a century apart. Generational differences are stark, with mutual incomprehension and disdain between the middle-aged Cultural Revolution generation, the “me generation” and the older Soviet-trained engineers who now run the show.

Is all this just a roundabout way to admit we don’t understand China? Certainly, it is very hard to say whether China over the next five to twenty years will go through a major crisis like Indonesia or Russia, or will have a relatively smooth transformation to a more democratic system as Taiwan did. In any case, we should be prepared for continuation of a distinctly Chinese society with certain characteristics that were evident before the communist takeover and which would persist even under a multi-party electoral system: economic scarcity that will foster corruption and abuse of power; state institutions that will dominate society; personal networks that will have more influence than legal mechanisms; and civic groups that will remain weak. We can also identify key dynamics that will continue to reshape China: marketization of the economy; de-regulation of society and social conflict; political transformation to rule of law; expansion of many different values and belief systems; and spiritual struggle.

Carol Hamrin

Carol Lee Hamrin, Ph.D., serves as a research professor at George Mason University and a senior associate with the Global China Center. She served under five U.S. administrations as the senior China research specialist in the U.S. Department of State and in 2003 received the Center for Public Justice Leadership... View Full Bio