According to Mr. Mann there are two popular scenarios about the development of the world’s largest state and the world’s second largest economy. Either will China collapse under the contradictions of Chinese society, or China will evolve towards democracy, free elections, an independent judiciary, and human rights. This is what Mr. Mann calls the “soothing scenario”.
Proponents of the soothing scenario point at the long term, and simply consider any proof of China’s repression as a temporary setback. Visitors to China often restrict themselves to the big coastal cities, where they mistake skyscrapers, conversations with taxi drivers, and Starbucks as signs that “they” are already just like “us” (i.e. Americans), allowing Mr. Mann to repeat a quote from Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska that “with God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up until it is just like Kansas city”. Those expecting an upheaval often point at the many protests and riots, ethnic strife, unequal distribution of the newly created wealth, ecological disasters, and corruption.
However, Mr. Mann advocates a third scenario: the continuation of the current regime. He gives various reasons for this. The riots and strikes are often isolated given China’s size, and the country has a long history of holding itself together. I think he could very well be right. Although the global trend seems definitely towards more democracy and transparency due to the rise of the middle class and the opportunities for information exchange offered by the internet (transparency being one of the most fashionable words of the decade among political and business talking heads), there seem to be few cracks visible in the system that could not be repaired. And most of all, the state is bringing home the cha siu: it is delivering an improvement in the standard of living of as many as the world has ever seen (albeit not uniformly among all Chinese, and certainly not in an efficient manner). Mr. Mann points to the fact that the Leninist structure is still in place completely. He does not believe China will evolve like South Korea or Taiwan. Its scale is vastly different, and China can resist pressure from the outside much easier, as it does not need America to support its national defence. He also points at China’s increasing sophistication to combine economic openness with political repression. In that way, you could somewhat compare China to Singapore in the days of Harry Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore has opened up since then, and the People’s Action Party is still in power. Unfortunately, Mr. Mann does not make this comparison.
Mr. Mann gives three arguments why we should care about political development. These are the right of the Chinese people to choose their own government, the instability of communist regimes in the long run, and the support China gives to all kinds of rogue regimes in the world.
The analysis only takes the first 29 pages of the book. The rest is devoted to how the “soothing scenario” was adopted by America’s governing and business elite. I doubt this surprises many people, as it offers profit-opportunities for the business elite and allows for inaction by the political leadership that also profits any increase in national wealth brought by trade. Mr. Mann discusses and dismisses the various arguments brought forward against trouble makers, and the continuity of China policy among the administrations since Nixon’s. He also gives some examples of how the Chinese government sometimes just tell Western delegations what they want to hear, while no follow up is given to such “initiatives”.
All in all, the subject would have merited more analysis than given in this book....Continua