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Chinese Mirrors | The Nation

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Chinese Mirrors

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In 1967, when Time magazine managed to get an Australian reporter by the name of John Cantwell into mainland China, his dispatch read like what a report from North Korea--or from another planet--would look like today. "Red Guards march around in vigilante groups, stern-faced and forbidding.... I saw them surround and berate an old man who dared look at an anti-Mao poster.... Hostile crowds sometimes surrounded me, and people shouted: 'What are you doing here, white devil?'" A delicate beauty from the Chinese travel service informed him, "Chairman Mao has taught us that we must crush the American aggressors. We must kill, crush, destroy all imperialist monsters." "Practically no one smiles," Cantwell wrote. Good thing, readers might have concluded, we were fighting a war in Vietnam to contain these lunatics.

About the Author

Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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A scant forty-two months later, America was introduced to a China where everyone smiled. American Ping-Pong players, invited on a surprise visit in April 1971, received hospitality so overwhelming a team member started crying. One player, Tim Boggan, reporting back in an article for the New York Times, affectionately described a "large playground where perhaps 200 children of all ages were playing soccer, basketball, and other sports," the kind of camaraderie he said he'd like to see more of in the United States. Less than a year after that, on Richard Nixon's historic visit, the nation saw this busy, happy, industrious people for themselves on TV: families picnicking at the Ming Tombs; a chef at the Peking Hotel transforming a turnip into a chrysanthemum for the First Lady; Pat Nixon, fetching in a white lab coat, cheered by the adorable moppets at Peking Children's Hospital.

Study the tourist snaps on Flickr.com from the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall, all the stops on the Nixons' itinerary: America's China is now the place where everyone smiles. One typical stop for upper-middle-class tourists on tightly scripted itineraries even recalls Tim Boggan at the playground and Mrs. Nixon at the children's hospital: the Shanghai Children's Palace, a lovely old mansion where adorable children dance ballet, play accordions, learn computer programming, practice Chinese opera. An affluent American couple I talked with upon their return from China rhapsodized about it, gushing that every child in this nation of 1.3 billion--this they had been given to understand by their guide--is provided such opportunities free. It seemed, I responded, better than anything a typical American child can expect. "A lot better," the wife responded. I pressed; she allowed some skepticism to creep into her voice: "It's possible they made it look better than it was." No such skepticism, though, when the subject turned to their tour of the site of the Three Gorges Dam, which soon will cause the Yangtze River reservoir to rise to 175 meters over sea level. "It's going to solve a lot of their problems," the husband gushed, noting the high-rises being built to house the million exiles who will be displaced, who now live in "shacks like you wouldn't believe." "They're really on the cusp of an economic revolution."

This man, retired after many decades building a successful business in the Midwest, is a car nut who long ago became dismayed by, then resigned to, the slow decline of American industrial dominance. He didn't see any American cars on China's newly teeming roads; China, he pointed out, is "going to start exporting cars to the US in the next few years." He couldn't imagine America building a Three Gorges Dam. That was for the Chinas of the world--civilizations of destiny.

This capitalist sounded like the kind of pilgrim who used to visit Soviet steel mills, or cut sugar cane beside Cuban peasants, and returned singing panegyrics to a new, better world being born.

Mission accomplished, you could imagine China's commissars murmuring. China still has commissars, it's easy to forget; it is still run, James Mann reminds us in his striking little hand grenade of a book The China Fantasy, "by a Communist Party governed, in hierarchical ascending circles, by a Central Committee, a Politburo, and a Standing Committee of the Politburo." They still do what commissars do. That's the point of Mann's book.

My tourist retirees visited Tiananmen Square. Good American innocents abroad, they asked their guide about the event that made it familiar to them. "He wouldn't answer questions. He didn't want to talk about it." Few American visitors come back better informed than before they arrived about the hundreds (thousands? we will never know) massacred in the democracy demonstrations of 1989; or the tens of thousands of political prisoners in Chinese jails at any given time (some for the "crime," officially stricken from the books, of "counterrevolution"); or the dozens of criminals killed every day by the state (by one count there were 12,000 executions in China in 2005); or the hundreds of antigovernment protests in rural China. Or, say, about the retired military doctor Jiang Yanyong, who in 2003 became a national hero and international symbol of China's strides toward democracy for publicizing the SARS epidemic and who, a year later, was thrown in jail for criticizing the Tiananmen massacre.

Those who return no better informed about this record than when they arrived include, it would appear, tourists who should know better. Nicholas Kristof dishonored the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre in 2004, Mann points out, with a column titled "The Tiananmen Victory." The democracy activists had won: "After the Chinese could watch Eddie Murphy, wear tight pink dresses and struggle over what to order at Starbucks, the revolution was finished. No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot."

There haven't been any multiparty ballots for China's middle class to mark yet. And there won't be, Mann argues in an elegant formulation: The urban middle class is "a tiny proportion of the country's overall population," and in any election candidates representing their interests would be swamped by those of the peasantry; thus it is just as easy, or easier, to imagine them as "a driving force in opposition to democracy."

That's not what you used to hear from Bill Clinton. He claimed that with the rise of market economics, and the exploding middle class these reforms have wrought, the road to Chinese democracy was smooth: "Economic freedom creates habits of liberty," he said in 1997. "And habits of liberty create expectations of democracy.... Trade freely with China, and time is on our side."

No, wait. That was George W. Bush, in his November 1999 opening foreign policy address. This one is from William J. Clinton: Trade with China, he told President Jiang Zemin, will "increase the spirit of liberty over time.... I just think it's inevitable, just as inevitably the Berlin wall fell."

Clinton's NSC head, Sandy Berger, said in 2000 that "there is an unstoppable momentum" toward democracy in China.

No, wait. That was Tony Blair in 2005. Berger said, "Just as NAFTA membership eroded the economic base of one-party rule in Mexico, WTO membership...can help do the same in China."

China has become rather like Israel: No matter the party, no matter the leader, certain de rigueur formulas must be uttered. Mann strips the hustle bare: "Every single American president since Nixon has, in one way or another, either ignored or quietly given up on the issue of Chinese democracy." Since this abandonment has been hemmed around by strenuous presidential representations that democracy is precisely what American policy toward China is all about, this has required some fancy ideological footwork. Mann lays out the steps. He says that the apostle of human rights, President Carter, made the second breakthrough, after Nixon's: He came up with the rationalization that whatever the abuses evident in the 1970s, the situation was much better than it had been during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Ronald Reagan, President during Deng Xiaoping's first moves toward market liberalization, was able via that patented Reagan magic to explain away China's Leninist state with a verbal wave of the hand: He referred to the People's Republic as "so-called Communist China." "Mr. Deng, keep up this wall!"

The first President Bush was presented with an irritant: that inconvenient 1989 massacre, the same year citizens staged democracy demonstrations in East Germany, where, on the orders of a weak and intimidated Kremlin, the army stepped aside. Incredibly, this became the excuse to downplay Tiananmen: The cold war was over. What was the point of undue hostility? Bush 41 promptly announced a "comprehensive policy of engagement," making it the United States' priority to restore the $2 billion in interest-free loans the World Bank had withheld from China in punishment. It was Clinton who "managed to turn black into white and white into black--to persuade Americans that it was somehow politically progressive and intellectually sophisticated to accept Chinese repression and uncouth or unenlightened to attempt to combat it." He revoked his own executive order on trade sanctions, written to honor his campaign promise of "an America that will not coddle dictators, from Baghdad to Beijing." "Why bother to protest a crackdown or urge China to allow political opposition," Mann archly concludes, "if you know that democracy's coming anyway by the inexorable laws of history?"

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