Monday, September 24, 2007

Recommended Light Reading

Mann, James. The China Fantasy. New York: Viking, 2007.

112 pages.

We recently heard about this book, written by Johns Hopkins China expert James Mann, in which the author argues against the common wisdom in American society that the eventual liberalization and democratization of China's political culture is inevitable.

It sounded like it was worth a trip to the local public library and, now that we are on page forty-nine and have already found the arguments within "China Fantasy" very valuable, we are comfortable with recommending this title to any reader interested in better understanding the upper hand China enjoys in almost every aspect of American politics.

Mann's initial argument is laid out by first sketching the two commonly held preconceptions of China's future that are pervasive in American society. He calls these somewhat antipodal hypotheses the "Soothing Scenario" and the "Upheaval Scenario." Without betraying too much of the book's argument (you really should read it), Mann rejects these two concepts: that China will either a) inevitably evolve into a democratic society through free trade with the United States and the West, the introduction of elections at the village level, etc., or b) that China is traveling down an unsustainable politic path that, like the Soviet Union, must inevitably end in political upheaval and the overthrow of the ruling Communist regime.

Instead Mann introduces a 'Third Scenario', which he sees, at the very least, as just as probable as the other two (and therefore rather disturbing). This Third Scenario is the possibility that, despite the arrival of the Internet and rapid globalization, the ruling government in Beijing will be able to maintain its economic and military rise coupled with domestic political hegemony and human rights violations indefinitely. Much of the book is dedicated to explaining how and why this is very, very possible, and what might be done to more effectively counter the arguments of adherents to the first two scenarios and more effectively coerce the government in Beijing to change.

One of our favorite sections of the book thus far is a chapter entitled "The Lexicon of Dismissal", in which Mann lists many of the terms and phrases used by academics, politicians, and promoted by the Beijing government itself, to assuage or detract those who fear that China is headed down the wrong road. Here is a Taiwan-related excerpt from the book (see Michael Turton's recent post for related analysis) about how China critics--there's also a breakdown of the term "China-basher"--are often painted as overly provocative:

"PROVOCATIVE": This epithet is most commonly applied to government actions that challenge or criticize the Chinese regime--although the actions of individuals are sometimes branded as "provocative," too.

The implication is that the actor has gone too far, is unwise, or is an extremist. Let's scrutinize the meaning a bit more closely. Literally, "provocative" means likely to anger the Chinese leadership. This is an inherently subjective standard; it is of course up to Chinese leaders to define what makes them angry. An action could conceivably be legal, just, wise, and well-founded yet still provocative. To describe some policy or action as "provocative" is either meaningless or, worse, based on the view that the Chinese government is personalized in nature and that what counts are its leaders' feelings.

Individuals who take "provocative" actions are usually branded with another derogatory label: They are "TROUBLEMAKERS." Taiwan's two most recent presidents, Chen Shui-bian and, before him, Lee Teng-hui, were both troublemakers." The Dalai Lama is a "troublemaker," too. Once again, taken literally, this is a meaningless epithet. The Chinese government itself makes "trouble" from time to time--and, like other international troublemakers (including the United States), it might even occasionally be right to do so. Calling someone a "troublemaker" reduces international diplomacy to the level of kindergarten recess.

Whenever troublemakers take some action that the government of the People's Republic of China won't like, the China hands in the United States can be expected to use a third metaphor-cliché: the troublemakers are said to be "PUSHING THE ENVELOPE." Taiwan officials in particular are regularly said to be "pushing the envelope." The implications of this cliché is that someone is trying to overcome existing restraints, to break through to something new.

Indeed, this shopworn cliché does sometimes accurately describe the actions of Taiwan leaders such as President Chen Shui-bian and his predecessor Lee Teng-hui, who have repeatedly attempted to broaden the limits imposed upon them by the reality that most of the world has not diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It's noteworthy that Chinese leaders, too, sometimes try to get the United States to impose new limits on Taiwan, ones that have never been set down before. Yet in Washington's clichéd discourse, the PRC's actions are almost never described as "pushing the envelope." When China seeks a new American statement or communiqué concerning Taiwan, or asks for an American denunciation of terrorism in Xinjiang province, for some reason America's China hands drop the envelope metaphor and instead resort to explaining why the United States should be careful not to "anger China."

OK, hopefully we have divulged enough of this title's insightful contents to whet your appetite. We feel it is an essential handbook to anyone who wants to learn, or take a refresher course in, how to effectively deconstruct and parry criticisms made in defense of the Chinese government despite the PRC's continuing abhorrent human rights record and disdain for political change.


昆蟲 said...

That has been my worry for a while. I sometimes feel like Taiwan is the "gate" to stop this evil empire --- too much a burden for Taiwanese to bear, unfortunately.

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