The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression James Mann New York: Viking Press, 2007
James Mann's new book, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression, is getting a lot of attention. This is no surprise. Mann is a former Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief and longtime follower of U.S.-Chinese relations. He has previously written two snappily titled high-profile books on the People's Republic of China, Beijing Jeep: The Short. Unhappy Romance of American Business in China (1990) and About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship to China, from Nixon to Clinton (2000). His last book, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet (2004), which tracked the influence of neo-conservatives on foreign policy, was a bestseller and showed that Mann had a wider range of expertise beyond China. American interest in China is running high once again, and his new book, likewise, should make a splash.
It is too bad, then, that Mann's arguments are so flawed; as is the title, apart from its initial appeal. The third word is incorrect. There have long been elements of the fantastic in American thinking about China. It is a country that we too often view through a lens distorted by our hopes of its potential transformation into a land much like our own (with its people converted to our ways) and our fears that it will turn into a threat to all we hold dear. Harold Isaacs, who covered China as a journalist before World War II, noted this phenomenon al most half-a-century ago in his classic Scratches on Our Alinds: American Images of China and India (1958). Basing his discussion on extended interviews with scores of influential Americans (including journalists and government officials), Isaacs argued that our visions of China were shaped by a set of deeply rooted positive and negative notions about that country. These led Americans to swing between embracing a vision of the Chinese as people who were essentially just like us and lived in a land destined to become one of our great allies, and feeling instead that China was completely unlike America and destined to oppose us. Compared to our views of many other distant countries including India, according to Isaacs, American ideas about China were particularly intense and unusually prone to swing between positive and negative extremes. The patterns he noted had such staying power that his book was reissued in the early 1970s and in 1980. (1)
The problem with that third word in Mann's title is that it is singular, when there are in fact multiple misleading American fantasies about China. One of these colors Mann's own vision: namely, the fantasy that China is a country strangely impervious to change, with leaders who have an amazing ability to persuade us that the place they rule has undergone a transformation, when it actually has not.
This fantasy of a changeless China has a long lineage going back to Karl Marx and Max Weber--and long before Mao and Deng were believed capable of hoodwinking gullible foreigners (something Mann claims both were good at), the same claim was made about other Chinese leaders (including Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kaishek). Moreover, Mann is not the only contemporary observer affected by this particular fantasy's lingering hold. But before saying more about this vision of China and why it distorts our understanding of the PRC today, a thumbnail sketch of The China Fantasy, which despite its flaws makes some important points, is in order.
The Soothing Scenario
Mann's main concern is to debunk what he calls the "Soothing Scenario" of China's future. The essence of this scenario is that, despite much evidence to the contrary, China is en route to becoming a Western-style liberal democracy, following the same trajectory of South Korea in the late 1980s. Mann insists that the Soothing Scenario is wildly popular in Washington, among Democrats and Republicans alike, and that it has been embraced by all recent occupants of the Oval Office, each of whom talked tough about China while on the campaign trail, only to go soft on Beijing once elected. He argues that the scenario retains its hold even though, for example, the experiments with local elections in the 1980s (villagers could choose their leaders from among a set of candidates--albeit a set that, while not made up exclusively of Communist Party members never included representatives of any competing political organization), in which some optimistic observers put such great hopes, have failed to produce significant results.
He is more troubled, though, by what he sees as the Soothing Scenario's central role in perpetuating a soft stance on...