Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Why Fantasize China...?

When I was posted in Beijing, I was always impressed at how much time western diplomats dedicate to analyzing the domestic politics of China. It was during one of our weekly lunch discussions that I learned about the corruption charges on Chen Liangyu, the former Shanghai Communist Party boss, thus deepening my understanding on party frictions within the CCP. And it was during another exchange over coffee that I learned about how a cook was fired for having revealed that a certain Chinese leader cannot have too much sugar in his diet.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am also a keen learner of Chinese politics and everything under the sun related to this giant nation. However, such keenness is mostly the result of my academic upbringing. My diplomatic job description does require me to understand China, but not necessarily an in-depth inquiry into Chinese political machinations. We’re simply requested to follow trends, particularly those possibly impacting China’s foreign policy, and thereafter, its repercussion on Indonesia’s interest at the international stage.

Hence, it is only natural to assume that regular, in-depth analyses of Chinese domestic politics are mostly carried out as a precursor to attempts at interacting with China beyond the “regular” notions of state-to-state diplomacy. I don’t think that it’s a secret that many countries would like to have more knowledge on how things are internally run in China. Neither do I think it’s a secret that there are agendas among certain countries in the world to advocate, if not instigate changes within the domestic structures and policies of the Chinese Government; changes that would better suit the interest of these countries, of course.

In “The China Fantasy”, James Mann argues that US foreign policy has over the years been based on the false assumption that engagement (or integration) would somehow induce changes to China’s domestic political conditions. It’s all a fantasy, according to Mann, because capitalism will never bring democracy to China. The Chinese leadership will continue to prolong the present political status quo, allowing semblances of reform only when they don’t in any way rock the boat. Therefore, Mann continues, Americans should stop dreaming about cultivating change in China – well, at least not using the ways and means they’ve pursued since the Nixon era.

An interesting argument. Nevertheless, the premise of the argument is something that I can't seem to understand fully (maybe because I'm not American). Why is US foreign policy towards China framed within the agenda of cultivating change in China's domestic politics? Why does it mean so much for the US to see greater forms of democracy settling in China? Why can't the Americans accept China for whatever it is, and not for what they wish China would become?

Mann gave four reasons popular among the American people. First, an undemocratic and militarily-stronger-by-the-day China is dangerous for democratic countries like those in the West. Dangerous because it doesn't fit the infallible-like notion that "democracies don't go to war with other democracies". Second, an undemocratic government in China will plunge the country into chaos as a result of the continuous abuse of the ruling elite towards the general population. Third, an undemocratic China will cause western countries difficulties by supporting "unsavoury" regimes across the world. Of course, unsavoury for the western palate, but not necessarily for the entire 7 billion people on earth.

And fourth (my favourite), the Americans would not be fulfilling on their own promise, because ever since the time of President Nixon, the US Government has always propagandized that US foreign policy is aimed at making China more open, more liberal, more western, maybe even more American. As in many speeches by US leaders, the American people has been led to believe that their foreign policy goes beyond interests (e.g. developing an ally to counter the Soviets during the Cold War, developing markets and productions centers for US products in the post-Cold War era). Americans are made to believe that their foreign policy works as a platform for disseminating American values to every corner of the earth, including – and probably, most importantly – in communist China.

What values? To me, all four reasons above smack of the US and its western allies' self-serving interests, including the second one. These days, any chaos in China would not bode well for the gargantuan sums of western investment already planted on the Mainland. If US foreign policy was truly running on values (democracy and human rights, I assume), then the Americans should pay less attention to Iran's nuclear program, and more to the Saudi Arabian Monarchy.

Regardless of the way Mann approaches his analysis, I still find the book an interesting read, well worth the time, especially if you’re a self-claimed sinophiliac like me. But more than learning about the Chinese, the book actually has taught me more about the Americans. Although describing the progress of democratization (or the lack thereof) in China, the book is more of a critique on the US Government's inability to encourage more substantive democracy in China. It is meant as a wake-up call for those who had believed that economic liberalization would nourish Chinese democracy.

Indeed, as I’ve learned from Michael Barr in “Who’s Afraid of China?”, an American’s study of China often reveals more about the US than about China. About American concerns towards China’s growing power, and more so, the formers’ inability to predict, let alone control, such development. How frustrating it must be, to not be in control of everything!

Mann argues that it's time for the Americans to end their “China fantasy”. But would this mean that the Americans are in the end selling themselves short on their relations with China? What about the need to expand American, or at least, western values? Then again, who’s to say that these values are something that many would want to buy into. Even American IR theorists preach that international relations are governed by interests, and not values. The problem is that in today’s international relations, interests have too many times been cloaked in the feel-good, morally high-grounded notion of values.

Mann’s probably right; the American “China fantasy” should end. But, in my view, it was wrong in the first place to fantasize about China. China is as real as can be, and dealing with it requires an acceptance of who the Chinese really are, and not who you wish they’d become. Maybe then you wouldn’t be too disappointed in the end.

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