Distortions in the China Debate

Distortions in the China Debate

American discussions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been distorted by two inter-related developments: (1) attempts by some of the most vocal supporters and critics of Clinton’s approach to China, as well as the mainstream media covering their interchanges, to reduce complex choices to simple binary oppositions, and (2) moves by an odd alliance of former cold war hawks and people whose political affiliations are much harder to categorize (some tend toward the left on many issues) to convince us that the Beijing regime is as bad as any that has existed in modern times, and that anything short of an unqualified hard line toward it amounts to a willingness to “coddle” tyrants. Both of these should be a cause for concern to readers of Dissent. They hinder public understanding of a major foreign power. They make it harder than it already was (and it has never been easy) to think through how people who view themselves as part of the independent “left” (as defined by Mitchell Cohen in the Spring Dissent) should respond to a changing China. And, they make it more difficult than it should be to design government approaches to the PRC that are more effective than those of the Clinton administration.

It is foolish to imagine that the only way to come down on policy issues is either to embrace the soft line being pursued by the administration (and apparently supported as well by a few Republican luminaries, including Henry Kissinger and now Newt Gingrich) or to advocate the much harder line supported by the White House’s most virulent critics. After all, it is possible to view favorably some things Clinton has done (moving toward a resumption of high-level exchanges) while remaining critical of others (treating Jiang Zemin so cordially in Manila last fall, just after a new campaign of repression had been launched).

It is equally foolish to imagine that there are only two types of China experts: those who think economic development will magically turn the PRC into a liberal democracy and those who view China as an increasingly powerful but otherwise unchanging totalitarian state, shaped by the same dangerous mixture of indigenous despotic traditions, imported Marxist-Leninist ideas, and nationalistic dreams that fueled high Maoism. There are many academic China specialists (myself included) who are deeply skeptical of the business lobby’s claims about the natural link between free trade and democratization, yet still think that the PRC is currently weaker and its future more uncertain than those who warn of a mounting “China Threat” insist. Some of us are convinced that the PRC has changed and continues to change in fundamental ways, and that the quality of life of many ordinary Chinese was improved in the Maoist and Dengist eras—yet still find much to criticize about how the country was run in both periods, as well as how it is governed today.

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