During the Cold War, it was routine for the United States (U.S.) foreign policy establishment to treat China as a strategic ally in the fight against the Soviet Union. Because China enjoyed this desirable status, U.S. policymakers often tended to overlook the less agreeable aspects of the way in which the Communist Party of China tended to deal with its own people in general and with political dissidents in particular. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the obvious rationale for treating China as an ally disappeared and hence, in principle, it made more sense to view China as an independent entity and not specifically as an ally in a struggle against what Ronald Reagan once described as the “evil empire.”
Even though the Soviet Union is now no more, as author James Mann correctly points out, a significant part of the foreign policy establishment in the U.S. continues to subscribe to what he colorfully calls the “soothing scenario.” This “soothing scenario” takes critics of China to task and asks them not to be shortsighted. This is because, as the adherents of this scenario like to point out, China is basically headed in the right direction. In particular, the Chinese economy is doing amazingly well, the Chinese people are getting wealthier, and this rapid economic growth combined with increasing wealth will, according to this argument, eventually bring liberalization and democracy to China.
Although the “soothing scenario” remains the dominant perspective on China in the U.S., there exists an alternate perspective on China labeled the “upheaval scenario” by the author. According to this scenario, some sort of disaster - possibly political, possibly environmental, or possibly a combination of the two - awaits the rapacious nation of China. To support their thinking, the adherents of this “upheaval scenario” point to the numerous instances of political unrest in contemporary China, the vast economic gulf between the urban “haves” and the rural “have-nots,” and the widespread environmental degradation caused by China’s seemingly impressive but environmentally unsustainable economic growth rate.
The author spends a significant part of this book explaining why it does not make any sense now to view China through the lens of either the “soothing scenario” or through the lens of the “upheaval scenario.” Taking issue with the “upheaval scenario,” the author points out that even though China has in the past been broken up temporarily, for instance, during the Japanese invasion and during the Chinese civil war, it is salient to comprehend that the Chinese mainland has always managed to re-emerge as a distinct and unified political entity. He reminds the reader that even though China may appear to be on the verge of disintegration to the outsider, the “Upheaval Scenario mistakes the appearances of chaos for the reality of China’s underlying cohesion.”
The “soothing scenario” has held sway for a relatively long period of time in the U.S. because its adherents have successfully perpetuated the fiction that it is perfectly fine to increase business and trade with China and to temporarily ignore all manner of human rights abuses by the Chinese regime because increased economic prosperity will, apparently of necessity, open up the Chinese political system. In the author’s words, why criticize China for its lamentable record on human rights “if you know that democracy’s coming anyway by the inexorable laws of history?”
Despite the convenient allure of the “soothing scenario,” the author contends that responsible foreign policymakers in the U.S. should now eschew this scenario because it is very likely that its basic prediction about the onset of democracy in China will not be realized in the near future. Instead, claims the author, what the U.S. foreign policy establishment ought to recognize is that a “third scenario” is very likely. The basic point in this “third scenario” is that China will continue to grow stronger and richer, but it will not change its basic political system in any fundamental way. Therefore, the U.S. needs to act now to prod the Chinese leadership toward democratic change and rethink its belief in the eventual salubrious impact of free trade on Chinese politics.
In sum, this is a thought-provoking book that sheds useful light on a subject of great contemporary significance. There are some quixotic sentences in this book such as: “A threat may not be an enemy, and an enemy may not be a threat.” In addition, occasionally the author lets his obvious zeal get the better of him and makes claims with insufficient supporting evidence. Finally, he could have been clearer on the point that a belief in what he calls the “soothing scenario” does not uniquely afflict the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Foreign policymakers in other Western nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom have also tended to view China similarly. These caveats notwithstanding, the author is surely right when he notes that we have to seriously consider the fact that America’s current China policy amounts to the following unstated bargain: “We have abandoned any serious attempt to challenge China’s one-party state, and we have gotten in exchange the right to unfettered commerce with China.”