China: The Engaging Question

Works Discussed in this Essay:

The Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reforms, edited by Merle Goldman and Roderick MacFarquhar. Harvard University Press, 424 pages, $49.50.

After the Propaganda State: Media, Politics and "Thought Work" in Reformed China, by Daniel C. Lynch. Stanford University Press, 424 pages, $49.50.

About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton, by James Mann. Alfred A. Knopf, 433 pages, $30.00.

A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China, an Investigative History, by Patrick Tyler. Perseus Books Group, 476 pages, $27.50.

Alternate Civilities: Democracy and Culture in China and Taiwan, by Robert P. Weller. Westview Press, 192 pages, $60.00.

Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China: Modernization, Identity, and International Relations, by Yongnian Zheng. Cambridge University Press, 272 pages, $64.95.

My friend Liu, a film instructor in his 40s at the Communist Party's elite People's University, appeared one crisp Beijing morning at 7:00 and asked if I wanted to watch a pornographic videotape. It wasn't only the early hour that startled me. The year was late 1987. After a decade of unprecedented economic reforms, China's Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television had just completed a four-month crackdown on "spiritually polluting" illegal videos.

Liu had gotten an early start because it would take us all day. Traipsing
surreptitiously across the city, we
borrowed a television from a friendly party cadre at a factory, a VCR from a state-run TV studio, a jeep to carry the equipment courtesy of an acquaintance at a state-owned store, and the smuggled videotape from an aficionado
of contraband. Hours of chummy
haggling and banqueting finally culminated when our co-conspirators congregated in Liu's tiny room late in the evening. The door padlocked, our giddy group treated itself to a B-grade Japanese porn film from the 1970s.

By defying the Chinese state, had we been subversive? Within the Communist apparatus, were Liu and his friends a cell for future democratic freedoms? The Chinese leadership would have thought so. Less than two years later, Liu and his friends were demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. Post-
massacre, China's chief of propaganda launched a renewed crackdown on
obscene videos, declaring that "sweeping away pornography is an integral component of the struggle against bourgeois liberalization."

After another decade of economic reforms, questions about liberaliza-tion are more pressing than ever: Is technology—not just TVs and VCRs, but now faxes, e-mail, and the Internet—enabling citizens to organize a democratic challenge to the Communist regime? Is a latent public sphere emerging independent of the state? Or is the new freedom of expression in China limited to crass consumerism and cheap thrills? Has the regime perhaps even tacitly
employed pornography—more readily available in China than ever before—as an opiate for
the masses?

Several new books examining Chinese society shed light on these questions. In addition, two major histories of America's relations with China have been published this year, against the backdrop of
a vociferous debate in Washington over China policy. The conundrum: engagement or containment? By engaging China in trade and diplomacy, is the United States promoting the emergence of civil society and evolution
toward a liberal polity? Or is containment, and even punishment, necessary to coerce an expansionist Chinese regime into backing off from oppression at home and aggression abroad?

James Mann, foreign affairs columnist for The Los Angeles Times and the paper's former Beijing
bureau chief, produced the first
of this year's two studies of U.S.-China diplomatic relations: About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton. Mann was followed by Patrick Tyler,
the former Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times, with A Great Wall:
Six Presidents and China, an Investigative History.

About Face and A Great Wall weave previously secret conversations and newly declassified documents, based on painstaking research, into a set of rich narratives. They expose the faults and foibles and, less often, the strengths of the personalities who have crafted our China policies. Where Mann tends to identify larger political impulses, Tyler zeroes in on character traits and oversized egos.

No major American statesman, Democrat or Republican, comes across as especially astute on China in either of these books. The heroes of About Face and A Great Wall are not the strategic visionaries of one
administration or another; they are the patient functionaries in every administration who actually knew something about China and tried to rein in the
excesses of their superiors. Likewise, the real historical lesson to be gleaned from these books is not that containing communism worked better than engaging dictators or vice versa; it is that every administration since Nixon, Democratic and Republican, has for strategic reasons engaged China. Actual American policies toward China have never really been about human rights.

After Tiananmen, a moralistic congressional crusade led by Democrats helped Bill Clinton defeat George Bush, but Clinton can hardly
be accused of betraying a human rights-based China policy that never
existed. And Clinton's secretaries of state have been less obsequious in Beijing than have China's "old friends"—Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Alexander Haig, and Bush, all of whom considered themselves hard-nosed strategists. Still, Clinton deserves the low marks he gets from both Mann and Tyler. "No president has done less," writes Tyler, "to prepare the American people for a new era in foreign policy." If the United States ought, indeed, to continue to engage China—even after the disillusionment
of Tiananmen and with Chinese chauvinism on the rise in the international arena—the Clinton administration has failed to show us why. For starters, Clinton's claim that trade promotes democracy turns out to be specious, as several other China books published this year reveal.

In 1980 the Chinese government decided to install cable television systems in all new apartment buildings "so that the state could be assured of easy access to the minds of the citizenry," writes Daniel Lynch, a professor of international relations. Lynch's After the Propaganda State: Media, Politics, and "Thought Work" in Reformed China assays whether mass-media technology has helped China propagate official ideology. Happily, Lynch finds indisputable evidence that it has not. Capitalism is doing what it is supposed to; economic reform means media producers must now cater to customer demand. The state's mandatory TV systems, for example, have "evolved into semi-autonomous, program-
originating cable networks" that "supply subscribers with [Rupert Murdoch's] STAR-TV, pornography, and other
politically unacceptable items."

Lest Clinton's engagement camp start celebrating, however, it should note that Lynch's research is cautionary. Chinese audiences are not demanding more political information—they want entertainment. To be sure, there will be inadvertently subversive content. Bemused, Lynch cites the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television's incongruous choice of the Harrison Ford thriller The Fugitive to kick off a new series of officially sanctioned "good" Western movies. Noting the message that Chinese viewers must have gleaned from the film, Lynch writes, "In the United States, the innocent man secures his freedom in the end, while in China the execution would have probably long since taken place." Such messages are likely to exert "a long-term impact," Lynch admits. But "nothing about it justifies asserting that a liberal, structured public sphere is in the process of emerging now." Lynch reaches similar conclusions about the Internet—throwing cold water on the idea that the communications revolution is inherently democratic.

And yet, cheated of Orwellian surveillance technology by capitalism, China's hard-liners have turned to
unorthodox means to reassert control. For example, the octogenarian revolutionary Peng Zhen complained to his fellow Communists in 1987: "Who
supervises rural cadres? Can we supervise them? No, not even if we had 48 hours a day." Peng's solution, in evidence in rural China today, was—of all things—elections. Village-level democracy holds local officials accountable—as detailed in another new book, the aptly titled Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reforms, edited by the distinguished Harvard-based team of Merle Goldman and Roderick MacFarquhar. The chapter on the elections that are Peng's brainchild is testament to how far China has come since Tiananmen. And yet the
authors make clear that "behind Peng's desire to boost the nation's democratic consciousness lay a concern that worsening relations between cadres and farmers might cripple the Party's ability to rule." Before congratulating China's new democrats, we must remember that candidates from any party besides the Communist Party are more likely to be arrested than elected.

The Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reforms contains a similarly surprising chapter on the rise of the National People's Congress (NPC). Long dismissed as a weak-kneed, rubber-stamp legislature, the NPC is evolving into a real check on the kind of personal power responsible for the worst excesses of
the Communists. Likewise, however, the NPC's increasing institutionalization does not mean that it will promote liberal policies, let alone that its members will be directly elected. The most forceful advocates for the NPC among its ranks, the author notes, are "several dozen Long March-veterans . . . seven ex-Politburo members, and dozens of former central department heads."
Even in the business world, exciting new organizations are forming, but they remain dependent on the Communist Party—and more concerned with making money than promoting group interests, according to one contributor to this volume. The scope of change in China
is clearly breathtaking; this book is an impressive achievement of far-reaching scholarship. Like Daniel Lynch, however, the book's editors remain sober. Summarizing the research of their 15 contributors, they write: "Although hundreds of supposedly nongovernmental associations have sprung up in the 1990s to deal with a wide range of social, environmental, and intellectual questions, they can survive only as long as they stay away from political issues. Chinese in the 1990s can change jobs, travel abroad, criticize the potholes in the street on talk radio, and vote their village leaders out of office, but they cannot express political criticism of the party-state or its leaders publicly. Those who do are put in prison."

If an emerging civil society is not yet in evidence, and if commercial trade with the West is unlikely to promote American-style democracy, what then? Are there alternatives besides containment? Robert Weller, a specialist on Chinese society in the Anthropology Department at Boston University, thinks so. "There are more ways to achieve a 'democratic civility' than simple reproduction of the Western history of civil society," Weller writes in his new book Alternate Civilities: Democracy and Culture in China and Taiwan. Make no mistake: Weller is neither a moral relativist nor an apologist for "Asian values"—the excuse employed by the likes of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew to justify authoritarianism. In Taiwan, Weller's sympathies lie with the populist environmental movement,
the women's movement, and the labor movement that he so vividly describes. Indeed, it is his intimate knowledge of these Chinese social phenomena that leads Weller to some bold claims about modern Chinese history: "China was not behind the West on an evolutionary path toward civil society; it was its own world, to be taken on its own terms."

The notion that China—not to
mention the increasingly democratic Taiwan—is not simply becoming "more like us" would be unwelcome news to most American statesmen, so deep
runs our missionary zeal. Yet Weller makes a strong case, founded on two decades of research in the field, that Taiwanese democracy has evolved from social ties that "were nearly always based in particular localities and corporate identities of various kinds—never the autonomous individuals of an
idealized West." Weller's implication
is clear: Even without civil society as Westerners know it, and even if tied to the state, the informal social networks that scholars observe in China are the crucial groundwork for a future native form of Chinese democracy.

Weller writes that despite periods
of egregious top-down control, the
authoritarian reach of the state has never managed to remain ubiquitous in either Taiwan or mainland China. Weller is more impressed by the creative strategies with which Chinese societies have combatted government intrusion on the local level—and with the similarities between Taiwan 20 or 30 years ago and China today. Weller notes that while the pre-democratic regime in Taiwan "maintained a smothering grip on politics, it allowed genuinely competitive village-level elections." And even the money-grubbing groupings of businessmen now coalescing in China, no matter how apolitical their aims, resemble for Weller the casual business clubs that emerged in Taiwan—groups that later advanced the island's political transition toward a vibrant civil society.

The most encouraging harbinger of democracy for Weller, however, is the
explosion in China of social trends that most observers identify as decidedly
uncivil: a renewed parochial reliance on blood ties and a resurgence of superstitious cults and religious rites. He
dedicates long sections of his book to the kinship ties and religious sects that in pre-democracy Taiwan provided a safe realm where "social capital" could incubate away from the state. When Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist regime
finally backed away from authoritarian rule in the late 1980s, a mature civil
society flourished in Taiwan almost
immediately. As Weller notes, the contrast with the chaos of sudden liberalization in Russia and eastern Europe is striking. Today, large Buddhist sects have become the most respected,
well-funded, and socially responsible civic associations in Taiwan. After reading Weller, one can see why Beijing fears the Falun Gong sect that only recently emerged into public view—and was quickly suppressed this fall.

Unfortunately, unauthorized religions are likely to inspire the ire of
the atheistic Communist state for
some time to come. But Weller suggests a similar source of "social capital" in Taiwan that Beijing will be less able to oppose on the mainland: environmental activism. In Taiwan, grass-roots
action against industrial pollution was a major precursor to democracy. With the extreme environmental degradation that is occurring in China, Beijing can ill afford to discourage popular concern for the environment.

As China's reforms have given
localities more control over economic and cultural decisions, the state and Communist Party have a harder time
dealing with large-scale ills like the
environment. This decentralization
of power is a major theme of another recent book, Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China: Modernization, Identity, and International Relations by Yongnian Zheng.

Just as strategists for America's containment school have argued, Zheng finds that Beijing is trying to reassert control with a dangerous new tool:
nationalism. The reasons that Chinese
nationalism is dangerous, however, turn out to be quite the opposite of what America's new Cold Warriors claim.

Zheng, a Princeton-trained scholar based at the National University
of Singapore, reveals himself as something of an apologist for the neo-
nationalist intellectuals now ascendant in China. For just that reason, though, Zheng provides invaluable insight into the current mind-set of the leadership. Chinese popular nationalism is a
menacing phenomenon, we learn, but far more so for Beijing than for Washington. Several recent incidents
of nationalist outburst in China—
the 1996 dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands is a good example—
required dicey maneuvering by the government to appease demonstrators without letting the movement get out of hand. The worry of Deng Xiaoping and his cohorts is two-fold: nationalist protest could easily mushroom into broader
revolt, and ill will toward a country like Japan could jeopardize foreign investment and trade. To be
sure, nationalism affords the Communist Party a frighteningly effective device for the manipulation of public opinion. But its very potency discredits the notion that Beijing will stoke nationalism at all turns. The
assumption that they will has fueled American fears over the supposed danger of Chinese expansionism.

Even the toughest advocates of nationalist realpolitik in China rarely indulge
in expansionist sentiment, Zheng contends. Keen to avoid interruptions in China's economic transformation, they are committed to achieving success for China within international norms—a claim born out by the concessions China made on the terms of
its World Trade Organization accession last spring, even as anti-Americanism reigned in Beijing over the Kosovo bombings. Zheng notes that the prominent hard-line Chinese strategist Yan Xuetong has "regarded 'avoiding conflicts with the United States' as one of the most important 'strategic interests' of China. According to Yan, a Sino-US confrontation would impose a major threat to China's strategic interests because
it would lead the United States, first,
to strengthen the US-Japan alliance to
constrain China; second, to support Taiwan's separatist forces to block China's national reunification; and third, to form various forms of military
alliances with China's neighbors to
contain it."

For many Chinese nationalists, of course, the United States appears to be on the brink of these actions anyway. And this leads to Zheng's most important point, for which he spends the rest of his book garnering evidence. The rise in the 1990s of what Zheng calls American "anti-China theories," and the attendant threat of Western militancy they carry, is the reason Chinese strategists have dug in behind nationalism in the first place.

A gaping blind spot mars Zheng's narrative here—
his failure to trace these American "anti-China theories" to the atrocities of Tiananmen. Still, James Mann's About Face and Patrick Tyler's Great Wall both demonstrate that our naïve infatuation during the 1980s with Deng Xiaoping's China was partly our own fault. With this caveat, Zheng's analysis is edifying. The glimpse Zheng provides into the Chinese point of view leaves little doubt that American advocates of containment are in the reckless business of hawking self-fulfilling prophecies.

"After centuries of humiliation," Zheng concludes, "the Chinese have
desperately longed for international
respect. . . . Nationalism arises when other great powers ignore China's
national dignity in their dealings with it. The impact of China's nationalism on its international behavior therefore depends, to a great degree, on the ways other major powers deal with China." Skeptics will dismiss this as a manipulative guilt trip manufactured by the Communists. The long history of strident popular nationalism in China
during the twentieth century proves otherwise. It is not China that must settle for American hegemony; it is America that must reconcile itself to China's natural maturation.

The foremost concern of Chinese nationalism is,
of course, Taiwan. And curiously it is tiny Taiwan around which the swirl of suggestions about
engagement or containment comes to rest in these six China books. For the crux of the matter is this: America wants China to have what Taiwan has, without having Taiwan.

Since a mature and widespread democratic opposition is not in evidence on the mainland, the only convincing
rationale for America to threaten the regime in Beijing is to protect democracy in this admirable island nation. And here the lessons of Zheng's Discovering Chinese Nationalism in China, Mann's About Face, and especially Tyler's Great Wall present themselves for the brave thinker to ponder: America bears more responsibility for the dangerous, crisis-ridden stalemate over Taiwan than does China. "The United States," writes Tyler, "has reneged on the solemn promises of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. . . . [These] American presidents agreed to shift the emphasis away from supplying arms to Taiwan in favor of promoting the necessary dialogue and negotiation that would help reconcile mainland China and Taiwan. . . . America has failed to live up to these commitments." The result inside China, writes Zheng, has only been to strengthen the grip of military hard-liners on Chinese foreign policy.

If trying to "contain" China is a bad idea, why is engagement any better?
As we have seen, the Clinton administration's "commercial diplomacy" has its limits. The answer: Look to Taiwan. Of these six books, Weller's Alternate Civilities provides the spark of hope that a strategy of engagement will, at least, buy mainland Chinese society
the time it needs to mature toward the unique democratic inclinations of
its favorite "renegade province." And indeed, the bold reader of After the Propaganda State and The Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reforms could conclude that "appeasement" of Beijing is not necessarily a bad word. It might well be in the interest of both the United States and future Chinese civil society to ensure that Beijing retains enough centralized power to complete its ambitious economic transformation. Without first establishing a social structure similar to that of Taiwan
before democracy, China has little hope of following Taiwan to democracy. At the very least, condemning engagement as ineffective is premature. The Paradox of China's Post-Mao Reforms and Alternate Civilities remind us that the Communist Party, its old-timers still dying off, is only now beginning to evolve from a revolutionary party to a ruling party.

But the greatest impediment to
engaging China today is not Communists abroad. It is Republicans
at home—along with a handful of Democrats. America's mostly right-wing sentiment against engaging Chinese
dictators makes for great fulmination—but it misses a most important point. In Taiwan, the Republican legacy is one of constructive engagement. When Ronald Reagan telephoned Nixon in 1971 to
berate him for selling out Taiwan, the governor was voicing the adamant support of his party for a grand strategy of engagement with no less than one of the twentieth century's most unscrupulous Chinese dictators.

Lest we forget about the regime of Chiang Kai-shek—great friend not only to Reagan but also to the likes of Barry Goldwater and Patrick Buchanan—Weller's Alternate Civilities refreshes our memory. Before the lifting of
martial law on Taiwan in 1987, "the Nationalist regime had been powerfully influenced by Leninist political and military organization ever since the United Front with the Communists,
although Chiang later also used Nazi military models. The regime is generally recognized as having been largely corrupt, brutal, and ineffective. Voices outside the central authorities were channeled through corporatist institutions at best, and crushed at worst." And yet, during decades of interaction with the West, this brutal Leninist regime gradually evolved toward a
native form of democracy.

"Taiwan now has a civil society in the usual senses of the term," writes Weller. "This is a statement that neither I nor nearly any other observer would have predicted two decades ago as we watched yet another wave of dissidents being sentenced to long prison terms." If anyone, it is Republicans who have proven illustriously that engaging Chinese dictators—nay, perhaps even coddling them—while their people
quietly take over might be the most subversive strategy that we have.