Chinese Mirrors | The Nation


Chinese Mirrors

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James Mann is now best known as the author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004), but he was also the Los Angeles Times's Beijing bureau chief from 1984 to 1987, and he is the author of Beijing Jeep: A Case Study of Western Business in China (1989), an account of an early attempt to establish a joint manufacturing deal in China, and About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship With China, From Nixon to Clinton (2000). He's a China watcher. More crucially, he's a China-watcher watcher. Watching the China watchers, we watch ourselves.

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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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It sure is a bracing feeling for the chair-bound intellectual to imagine himself the drivetrain in the engine of history.

America's image of China changes with whiplash speed. What never changes is the sort of people propounding the images: the Kristofs, the Clintons, the Sandy Bergers; before them, the Alsops, the Trumans, the Dulleses; and back behind them, men whose names are unfamiliar to us but whose sociological and psychological profiles are the same--mandarins of American power, unshakable in their confidence that the natural and transparent truth about China just happens to coincide with America's interests at any given time and to the well-being of the about-to-be-uplifted Chinese masses.

Billionaire-by-marriage Thomas Friedman, naturally, makes an early appearance in The China Fantasy. "China's going to have a free press," he wrote in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, arguing from dialectical inevitability: "Globalization will drive it." Half right: China now has an active financial press. Newspapers that publish freely on politics, however, are shut down--at which point, jabs Mann, the Friedmans of the world seem "to vanish from public view." Same thing, he says, with "initiatives for rule of law": They "have made some progress when it comes to business disputes." Regarding other disputes, however, it's commissars all the way down. "The result could well be a Chinese legal system that offers special protection for foreign investors but not ordinary Chinese individuals."

What a bastard this James Mann is. The Carter Center in Atlanta has praised China's system of village elections; he says it's been suckered. "You can run for office in a single village on your own without any organizational support by going door-to-door, because everybody knows everybody else. However, once you try to have an election that covers three villages, you need an organization"--a political party, which is illegal. "In fact, one might even say that allowing village elections helps to strengthen the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, by giving outsiders the appearance that democracy is spreading across China when in fact the party remains as much in political control as it was before."

What easy marks these American mandarins are. China knows it can count on them to swat down critics via a standard lexicon of abuse: They are "China bashers" possessed of a "cold war mentality." The China watchers are also absurdly deferential: "If we reflexively treat the Chinese as a threat, we will answer our own question: They will become a threat," says Newsweek contributing editor Robert Samuelson. "If you treat China as an enemy," says Harvard China hand Joseph Nye, "it will become an enemy."

Economists, those not busy lionizing America's favorite new source of dirt-cheap labor, might recognize this as a perverse set of incentives that hastens undesirable outcomes. "Pick a dictator anywhere on the globe," Mann writes, and you'll find Chinese backing. The Chinese gave Robert Mugabe an honorary degree--and "new surveillance equipment to crack down on Internet traffic and block dissident radio signals." The military regime in Burma has enjoyed consistent backing, as have Uzbek President Islam Karimov (the "body boiler"), the genocidal government of Sudan, even the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Don't raise a fuss: "Any tension between America and China is inherently bad," Mann paraphrases the China watchers, "and is the responsibility of the United States. However, if the confrontation involves intellectual property rights or other U.S. commercial interests, then it is China's fault and is a legitimate issue that must be addressed immediately."

Though it may be that they are not suckers at all: They enjoy a handsome quid pro quo. First Kissinger, then Brent Scowcroft, Madeleine Albright, William Cohen and Sandy Berger--all have set up lucrative China consultancies. So have "ordinary working-level civil servants." Mann singles out Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, a former Clinton NSC aide who pontificates wisely against China bashers ("Those who raise alarms focus too much on the problems of success and too little on the problems of failure" is a recent extrusion) without disclosing his employ at Sandy Berger's consulting firm.

Oceania has not always been at peace with East Asia. Back when we were at war, the inevitabilities were reversed. The Chinese, President Eisenhower wrote in his diary in 1955, were "completely reckless, arrogant...completely indifferent as to human losses." "We are going to have to fight the Chinese anyway in 2, 3, 5, or 10 years," advised Kennedy hand Chester Bowles six years later, "and it is just a question of where, when and how."

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