Wang Qiaoling, left, and Li Wenzu with photos of their husbands, human rights lawyers in China who have been detained since July 2015. CreditHow Hwee Young/European Pressphoto Agency
America’s Dangerous ‘China Fantasy’
  • Thu, 10/27/2016 - 16:46

By JAMES MANN
OCT. 27, 2016

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, American business executives and political leaders of both parties repeatedly put forward what I label the “China fantasy”: the view that trade, foreign investment and increasing prosperity would lead to political liberalization in the world’s most populous country.

“Trade freely with China, and time is on our side,” said President George W. Bush. He was merely echoing his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who called the opening of China’s political system “inevitable, just as inevitably the Berlin Wall fell.”

To say the least, things in China haven’t turned out that way.

Over the past few years, the Chinese regime has become ever less tolerant of political dissent — to such an extent that, these days, American leaders have become far more reluctant to make claims about China’s political future or the impact on it of trade and investment. The “China fantasy” got the dynamics precisely wrong: Economic development, trade and investment have yielded greater political repression and a more closed political system.

This amounts to a new China paradigm: an intensely internationalized yet also intensely repressive one-party state. China provides the model that other authoritarian regimes, from Russia to Turkey to Egypt, may seek to replicate. As a result, the United States will find itself struggling with this new China paradigm again and again in the coming years.

In using the word “repression,” I am talking about organized political activity, not private speech. Visitors to China are sometimes surprised to find that cabdrivers, tour guides or old friends may speak to them with candor, even about political subjects. However, what such people can’t do is to form an organization independent of the Chinese Communist Party or take independent action to try to change anything.

Indeed, over the past two years the Chinese government has been moving in new ways against people and institutions that might, even indirectly, provide support for independent political activity. It has tightened the rules for nongovernmental organizations. More recently, it has been arresting Chinese lawyers. It has also been staging televised confessions, a practice reminiscent of Stalin’s show trials.

Why is it that trade and investment have led to a Chinese regime that represses dissent more than it did five, 10 or 20 years ago? The answer, put simply, is that the regime thinks it needs to do so, can do so and has fewer outside constraints inhibiting it from doing so.

First, it needs to because as the economy develops and grows more complex, Chinese citizens are having new grievances of the sort that would otherwise lead to organized political activity. Environmental problems have multiplied. Consumers worry about product safety (tainted milk, for example) and accidents (like train wrecks). And at least to educated Chinese, internet censorship can be an annoyance, if not an insult.

Second, China’s security apparatus has a much greater capacity to repress dissent than it did in the past. Technology gives it greater capacity to control both physical space (the streets) and cyberspace (the internet).

Finally, the world’s increased commercial involvement with China over the past two decades has made foreign leaders more reluctant to do anything in response to Chinese crackdowns, lest the Chinese regime retaliate. This is in large part a problem of perception: In fact, the Chinese regime cares about its standing in the world and would seek to avoid international condemnation if world leaders took stronger stands and worked together.

Almost forgotten now is that in the 1990s, the United States, possessing far greater economic leverage in dealing with China than it has today, threatened trade restrictions if Beijing did not improve the human rights climate. After intense debate, the Clinton administration eventually backed away from threats to limit trade with China.

The aftermath of that debate was disastrous. American leaders overreacted by deciding to avoid any further strong actions in support of human rights in China. Instead, they offered the “China fantasy”: the idea that change would come inevitably.

At one point, giving voice to the optimism and the false assumptions about how trade would liberalize China, President Clinton told China’s president, Jiang Zemin, at a Washington news conference, “You’re on the wrong side of history.” History, however, is rendering its own judgment — that America’s confidence in the political impact of trade with China was woefully misplaced.

Looking forward, we are obliged to deal with a China capable of moving endlessly from one crackdown to another, no longer interrupted by the occasional easings or “Beijing Springs” of the past. It will be a different China, in which educated, middle-class people may be less loyal, but their views also less influential.

What we can do is to keep expressing as forcefully as possible the values of political freedom and the right to dissent. Democratic governments around the world need to collaborate more often in condemning Chinese repression — not just in private meetings but in public as well. We should also find new ways to single out and penalize individual Chinese officials involved in repression. Why should there be a one-way street in which Chinese leaders send their own children to America’s best schools, while locking up lawyers at home?

The Chinese regime is not going to open up because of our trade with it. The “China fantasy” amounted to both a conceptual failure and a strategic blunder. The next president will need to start out afresh.

James Mann, a resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and former Beijing bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of “The China Fantasy.”

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

Categories: